Fawn Pattison

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:  www.uprose.org

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.