Brilliant Youth Leadership: Interview with Elizabeth Yeampierre of UPROSE, part 2

Part two of two – Check out the first part of my interview with Elizabeth Yeampierre here.

UPROSE is a community organization in Brooklyn, New York working for climate justice. I’m lucky to be part of a youth-led organization in North Carolina (NC FIELD), so when Elizabeth started talking about how UPROSE supports youth (and elder!) leadership, I got excited. Here’s her take on how organizations can be nurturing inter-generational leadership:

EY: Leadership has to be inter-generational – we must stop dividing people up by age.  We define community by having everyone at the table. Our culture is not to send elders off to the nursing home – we love, respect and listen to them, and we love, respect and listen to young people too.  As people of African and Indigenous ancestry, being inter-generational is part of our cultural grounding, it is what makes us leaderful.

Elders get excited to see 14 and 15 year-olds facilitate a meeting. And young people get excited to hear their elders’ stories of struggle and resistance. Leaderful means there is enough room for all of us. Seeing everyone roll in together is much more powerful than having one or two people speak for everyone. Being inter-generationally leaderful also generates the best ideas and solutions.

FP: Many organizations would like to build more youth leadership, but don’t know how to get them involved or support their leadership. How do youth take leadership in UPROSE?

EY: Young people are on staff and on our board and are an integral part of decision-making. It’s really important to not minoritize youth by putting them into “youth programs.” They have to be integrated into leadership. Too often folks talk about young people in a way that infantilizes them, or patronize them by acting surprised when a young person has something brilliant to say. It’s just like the dynamic when white people say that a person of color is “so articulate” as if it’s something unusual. Like people of color, young people do have a unique lens and perspective that is necessary in any community setting. Inter-generational community building yields better local solutions.

Unfortunately , we often see that when there is a diverse group of young people together, that white youth committed to justice sometimes fail to check their privilege. Young people of color can and must speak for themselves and white youth committed to anti-racism really need to figure out whether they can be comfortable with stepping back. Climate change is urgent, and young people of color from frontline communities can no longer be used as poster children for a mainstream agenda. Climate change presents us with the opportunity to engage in transformation and build just relationships.

Sometimes people say they are leaders, but they don’t really know what that means. Leadership is about accountability. We are responsible for each other and to each other. We’re not leaders just because we say we are.  Community organizing is about accountability and lifting the collective, not self – it requires humility and often stepping back. Our relationships are going to be key to our survival as we take on the biggest crises in history.

FP: What advice do you have for youth who want to make a difference in their communities?

EY: Understand who went before you – our ancestors literally died so that you could walk through those doors. They died in the Trans-Atlantic Passage, in the Civil Rights era, and sacrificed everything so that we could use our skills and education to build and strengthen our communities. Honor your ancestors every day. Understanding who you came from helps you know that you are powerful. 

Whenever young people feel powerless, just look at the Black Lives Matter or the civil rights movement or divestment from South Africa – all have been led by young people. Every choice you make shows your power. That includes choices about how you live your life, consumer choices, everything. Young people have tremendous economic power- they set trends, and rarely use that power to change how corporations operate or what they consume.

This country pits generations against each other- from a young age we learn to compete instead of collaborate. Younger people want to push older people out and older people want to hold on to power. We must build and learn across generations. If we accepted the fact that each generation has much to learn and teach each other , we would be able to move faster to build a just society.

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

Find out more about UPROSE and its leaderful work for climate justice: