Interivew: Elizabeth Yeampierre and UPROSE’s struggle for climate justice

Recently I had the incredible good fortune to be able to interview Elizabeth Yeampierre, who is the Executive Director of UPROSE, a 50 year-old community organization in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York that has been working for climate justice since 2007. We met at a Climate Justice summit where she spoke about organizing in affected communities, and totally blew my mind. 

This is the first in a two-part interview; next week I’ll publish her thoughts and strategies for multi-generational organizing. 

FP: How did you first get involved with UPROSE? 

EY: I came on in 1996 when the organization was out of money and about to close its doors. I couldn’t let that happen – this was the only Puerto Rican-led organization in the community and it was something that was badly needed. We grew from no money or staff in 1996 to an organization that is a nationally known community-led environmental justice group.

FP: What led you to advocacy and justice work as a career?

EY:I experienced racism and discrimination first-hand growing up. I saw how my mom struggled. I wanted to use my education to keep those things from happening to others who were like me. I was lucky, my mom always told me that I would go to college, from the time I was a little girl. My family really celebrated its Afro-Caribbean heritage, and I grew up understanding that we came from a spiritual place of struggle. I took that feeling with me to law school. I didn’t really like law school, but as a woman of color I have been able to use my law degree to fight for justice. Growing up I had no idea of what opportunities might be available to me. We had such concrete ideas of what jobs we could have – teacher, lawyer, doctor, nurse – so I pursued a degree that I thought would let me have a career like that. Today I don’t think of what I do as a career – I think of it as a life.

FP: Why did UPROSE get involved in Climate Justice work?

EY: Superstorm Sandy was a real wakeup call for our community that climate change is here. UPROSE’s latest climate justice work came out of a community meeting after Superstorm Sandy – folks in the neighborhood wanted a block-by-block response to climate change – so that’s what we did. 

Our community was suffering from asthma and all sorts of chronic diseases as a result of living near power plants and other toxic pollution sources. We started fighting because of the health disparities. We live in a “Significant Maritime Industrial Area” – that means that there are hazardous toxic chemicals that have been put there since before there was an EPA. We realized that an extreme weather event could mobilize all this toxic material and put our community at risk. Climate change is here now. Waterfront communities like ours are extremely vulnerable. We have a lot of businesses on the waterfront and we want them here because people need places to work, but we want safe places to work. We don’t chase out businesses – we want to retain businesses and help them prepare for and adapt to climate change.

FP: People are so busy just trying to survive. How do folks in your community make time for meetings? How do you get them involved?

EY: This is a largely immigrant community – folks from Latin America, the Caribbean, from China. They all work long hours, some work 2 or 3 jobs. When they come home they have kids to care for, they have to cook. Getting community engagement here is much more challenging than in a privileged community. The nannies live here who take care of the kids from white neighborhoodsso that their parents can go out and be civic-minded. Folks sometimes criticize poor people or people of color and say they don’t want to be involved in climate change. Absolutely they want to be involved! Our challenge is, how do you engage them in ways that work? 

You have to have creativity, flexibility – meetings in the evenings and on weekends when people can make it. We provide translators. We go to them – we hold meetings in people’s basements and living rooms, in their churches. Children can’t be left out – we engage the children. It’s so cool for small children to see their parents involved in community leadership. 

Mostly it’s about listening to what the community wants, and asking lots of questions. We don’t ever come in and say “We’re going to solve your problem.” We are here as a facilitator. We pay attention to what is going on while folks are busy at work and school, so that they can use their power. We make a lot of phone calls, we provide a lot of training. We are not the ones who make change happen, we facilitate the process so that folks can make change for themselves.

FP: Making positive change takes such a long time. How do you keep people engaged and energized over the long haul?

EY: There is nothing more addictive than success. Civic leadership does translate into success – they have to see that their engagement does result in positive change in their lifetime. People get exhausted and check out when there aren’t both short-term and long-term goals. Time and sacrifice have to result in something positive. So often people get involved in something and they work and work for years and say, ‘what was the point? Nothing happened!’ So you have to have short-term goals that show positive outcomes for the effort.

FP: Justice work can be very draining, especially over the long term. What are your strategies for caring for yourself and staying excited about your work?

EY: One year – I almost died three times in one year. People say I exaggerate but unfortunately this is not an exaggeration. I got very sick. You know, I live and breathe EJ work every day. I live in an EJ community, and when I travel I’m often traveling to EJ communities. I lost my father to asthma, so it’s personal. It’s very stressful – and in this work I’m always stressed about money, stressed about the next campaign. You don’t eat right, you don’t get enough rest, you just don’t take care of yourself. EJ work is very personal, because it’s about the survival of your own family and your own community. 

After that health scare I got on a path to wellness. I promised my son that I would start taking care of myself. It’s hard. So I joined a community of other women who are committed to wellness, and that has been very powerful. My mom sends me a message every day reminding me to love myself, and I depend on that. 

We need each other. Climate change is real and it’s here. We need to do this together, and we can do it lovingly.