An Interview With Sunrise Movement Co-Founder Michael Dorsey

One of 50 Stories from 50 Years of Action

For the Ecology Center's 50th anniversary, Dr. Michael Dorsey sat down to talk with us about his work, our work, and how his early career influenced his thinking in the decades to follow. Dorsey is an internationally prominent climate justice leader, a serial entrepreneur, an activist, and a scholar with a deep commitment to justice and broad expertise spanning a range of environmental science and policy issues, including sustainable development and clean energy financing. As a college student, he was an Ecology Center intern.

Co-authored by Elizabeth Harlow & Tracey Easthope

When Michael Dorsey was teaching an environmental justice class at Wesleyan University in 2013, he tasked his students with digging into the Obama administration’s climate plans. He wanted them, as he put it, to get beyond the “noise” of political sales pitches and commentary from both sides by ”looking at the numbers and looking under the hood.” The undergraduates weren’t policy experts, but many were active with campus and national environmental activism, and all had shown up in Dr. Dorsey’s elective course with an investment in what he had to teach them. By mid-term, they knew enough to evaluate what they saw and, most strikingly, what they didn’t see in the documents they read. 

His students’ reaction, Dorsey said, was collective “shock, distress, and dismay, and disappointment as well.” They questioned the lack of scale of the policy prescriptions on the table, which appeared wildly inadequate to address the climate crisis and to restrain its perpetrators. (Dorsey doesn’t mince words in naming where blame lies. “I don’t like to say problems with the climate...really it’s problems with transnational corporate criminal recidivists,” he said.) 

Dorsey asked his students a simple but daunting question in response to their dismay at the serious problem of political lip service to climate action and environmental justice: “Well, what do you want to do about it? What is our plan to respond to this nonsense?” 

In response to his prompting, some of Dorsey’s students stepped up with deep commitment to making a plan, and he helped them craft and implement it. With colleagues, he secured a $30,000 grant and office space provided by the Sierra Club and the Wesleyan University Green Fund to support students in drafting an ambitious plan for climate action. That plan was the basis for the incorporation of the US Climate Plan nonprofit in 2014, by Dorsey and two students: Evan Weber and Matt Lictash.  In 2017 the three officially retired US Climate Plan with the US IRS and refiled it under a new, official name: Sunrise Movement Education Fund, what we now call the Sunrise Movement, a 501(c) 3. Later the same year Sunrise launched its political action organization, or 501(c) 4, to support candidates during the 2018 midterm elections that sought to support renewable energy as well as oust those who would not refuse to take funding from fossil fuel companies.

Sunrise Movement has been a leading voice and capacity-builder for U.S. youth climate activism in the main—and an inspiration for citizens of all ages. The youth movement at large has been critical in generating the necessary momentum to see a progressive climate agenda implemented. And Sunrise, specifically, has been credited with both lighting the spark for the Green New Deal, and with having the organizational chops to build the political power to make it a central policy strategy. When half of Sunrise’s candidates won the 2018 midterms, the group expanded to focus on winning a consensus within the Democratic Party to support the Green New Deal. The extent of that consensus has shaped the Biden administration climate agenda into one that is more expansive and progressive than many imagined possible for a famously moderate politician. It's a remarkable legacy already for an organization that’s young in more ways than one.  

It’s far from the end of the fight, however. “Some would be mistaken to think that we’re joyful that all these candidates have taken up the Green New Deal. No. Our biggest concern [at Sunrise],” Dorsey said, “is that they've taken it up and they won’t deliver at scale, and they won’t deliver in a manner that is robust enough and sufficient enough.”

Dorsey says that what he contributed to Sunrise Movement’s effective approach is informed by his early career experience. As a University of Michigan undergraduate, he cut his teeth on environmental justice work while interning with the Ecology Center in 1990. That experience became part of the foundation of his career-long commitment to blending rigorous-fact based scrutiny with grassroots activism to make change. “Sunrise is modeled after the Ecology Center,” he said, “and I don’t mean that apocryphally at all.”

(23:39 - 26:01) Michael Dorsey describes the Sunrise Movement’s local-to-global strategy and its rigorous science and fact focus, which drew inspiration from the Ecology Center.

As an intern, Dorsey helped to conduct an analysis of racial and economic disparities in exposures to environmental pollution in Washtenaw County. The project was inspired by the seminal 1987 United Church of Christ report, "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States", and a subsequent conference hosted by U-M Professor and long time Ecology Center friend Dr. Bunyan Bryant (who later also served as Dorsey’s doctoral dissertation advisor when he earned his PhD in Natural Resources and Environmental Policy). The Conference on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards was part of an emerging field of rigorous scholarship showing a differential impact from environmental exposures based on race and income, like the disproportionate presence of toxic waste near communities of color. The Ecology Center’s study found disparity in environmental impacts in Washtenaw County that mirrored those found elsewhere in the country. 

(7:14 - 9:22) Michael Dorsey discusses how the  Ecology Center’s deep-rooted relationships with social movements, combined with its commitment to science and fact-based policy, helped the organization to take justice issues seriously earlier than many.

Today, still, Dorsey said, “milquetoast environmentalism needs an injection of justice, inspired by the work of places like here at the Ecology Center.” The environmental movement as a whole has been slow to think seriously about justice and to prioritize addressing social and environmental issues as intertwined. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the existence of environmental racism was questioned even by many on the political left. In the early 2020s, environmental justice work remains comparatively underfunded and too much of the climate movement is still, as Dorsey puts it, “not sufficiently mindful of environmental racism and environmental justice.” 

Michael Dorsey has arguably been a prophet and prodigy on environmental justice and climate from the start.  As the youngest delegate to the official US State Department delegation at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992-- not long after he interned with the Ecology Center -- he has always been at the center of the most important ideas animating the environmental justice and climate movements. 

In 1996, Dorsey and Michael Green, a close friend and another University of Michigan graduate, co-founded an important Ecology Center sister organization, the Center for Environmental Health in Berkeley, California. CEH has been a key partner with the Ecology Center throughout its history, working on toxic chemicals in consumer products through consumer product testing similar to and inspired by the work of the Ecology Center’s HealthyStuff project. CEH has also leveraged a California law requiring disclosure of toxic chemicals, allowing CEH to fund a legal staff to win broader disclosure. We’ve also collaborated with CEH on our market-based work in the furniture and flooring sectors, where CEH has extended our work in health care to drive municipal and carceral purchasing toward greener alternatives.

Dorsey has also been a serial entrepreneurial business development innovator, helping to build recycling and renewable energy businesses in the US and internationally. His family-owned toner cartridge recycling business in Michigan has meant significant cost savings and enormous waste and toxic chemical avoidance for hundreds of businesses in the state. He’s also helped direct private equity investments, strategically leveraging funding for solar energy development in the US and internationally.  

On the Boards of the Sierra Club, the Michigan Environmental Council, the Center for Environmental Health, and the Sunrise Movement, Dr. Dorsey has been in demand for his organizing, strategic and business acumen. He served on Senator Barack Obama’s energy & environment Presidential campaign team. In 2010 the US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator appointed Dr. Dorsey to the EPA’s National Advisory Committee. He was re-appointed in 2012 & 2014.

In reflecting on his unusually diverse career, working across sectors and at scales small and large, Dorsey said, “I’ve always been drawn to and appreciative of a local to global approach to tackling environmental problems, and really all problems. That’s something that I especially appreciated about the Ecology Center’s work, that it was always obviously and seriously committed to its own backyard but it fully understood the need to work at levels and tiers beyond its backyard to make sure that those backyard achievements stood firm, and held firm, but also carried over into other domains.”

“Michael Dorsey is at the leading edge of some of the best parts of the environmental movement,” says Ecology Center Director Mike Garfield, “and he’s tackled environmental racism from a remarkable array of vantage points--through grassroots youth and environmental justice activism, through academia, through environmental organizations, through business, through government. It’s rare for any one person to be so influential in all of these settings or to do so much to bring them together. We’re proud to call him an Ecology Center alum.”

Published on April 28, 2021