Youth Justice

Young People of Color Are Leading America’s Climate Justice Movement

Youths from diverse backgrounds gathered at New York's Climate Justice Youth Summit to focus on enacting local policies that combat climate change and protect communities of color threatened by its effects.

More than 500 youth of color gathered in Manhattan on Thursday, August 3 for the annual Climate Justice Youth Summit. When the Summit began six years ago, many of those in attendance might have never heard of the phrase "climate justice," which refers to the climate crisis and racial justice. Now, it's one of the nation's largest gathering working at that intersection.

These youth of color are organizing to address climate change

On Thursday morning, hundreds of young people of color received an urgent message: they couldn’t afford not to be leaders in the fight against climate change.

“We are descendants of colonization and slavery. You are the children of extraction. Extraction is now taking over the planet,” Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, said. “I want to see those fists up!’”

At the Climate Justice Youth Summit on Aug. 3 in New York City, speakers focused on the impact of climate change on people of color and called on youth of color to lead the fight against climate crises in their communities. The daylong event was the sixth of its kind hosted by UPROSE, a Brooklyn-based organization that promotes sustainability and cultural expression.

At a Climate Justice Fashion Show, the Kids Prove They're Gonna Be All Right

There’s not a ton of room for environmental optimism these days—optimism in general seems to have taken a leave of absence in the Trump age—but that wasn’t the case at the 6th annual Climate Justice Youth Summit (CJYS), hosted by UPROSE, a Latino community-based organization based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The summit billed itself as “the largest gathering of young people of color discussing the future of climate change in the country,” and around midday, hundreds of attendees aged six to 18 cheerfully packed tight into a light-filled chapel in Morningside Heights’ Union Theological Seminary for one of the day’s highlights: a fashion show.

Samuel Blackwood & Makayla Comas of UPROSE - The Importance of Environmental Activism

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Jóvenes se preparan en Nueva York para enfrentar los retos del cambio Climático Loading

La capital del mundo recibirá a más de 700 estudiantes con motivo de la Cumbre de la Juventud de la Justicia Nacional Climática, un encuentro que busca preparar a los sectores más vulnerables frente a los efectos del cambio climático. Elizabeth Yeampierre, directora ejecutiva de Uprose, indicó que este fenómeno “está afectando a nuestras comunidades y va a tener un impacto desastroso en esta generación”, razón que motivó el encuentro.

    Senator Montgomery honors UPROSE's Youth Justice members

    On Thursday, August 11th, Senator Montgomery joined Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of UPROSE to honor their Youth Justice members for their service and commitment to social and environmental justice issues.

    UPROSE is Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community based organization entering their 50th year of service. Today, UPROSE is an intergenerational,multi-racial, nationally-recognized community organization that promotes the sustainability and resiliency of the Sunset Park community in Brooklyn through community organizing, education, leadership development and cultural/artistic expression.

    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:

    The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: Jonathan Ferrer

    “When I was a kid, I didn’t think I’d be doing any of what I’m doing right now,” Jonathan Ferrer says.

    Today, Ferrer is an accomplished environmental activist and one of New York City’s preeminent youth leaders. He helps organize the city’s annual Climate Justice Youth Summit, which educates and inspires hundreds of young people about local environmental and social issues. Ferrer also facilitates community meetings that address the environmental burdens of Sunset Park, his neighborhood in Brooklyn. He has helped his community establish a waterfront park, install an expanded median on a main thoroughfare, and recover from Hurricane Sandy.

    But just six years ago, Ferrer was a “self-absorbed 14-year-old who had the attention span of a squirrel when it came to climate change and was crazy-obsessed with sneakers,” he says. His life changed when he became involved with the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park, which promotes social and environmental justice. Ferrer joined UPROSE because it offered a summer apprenticeship, and because the salary — via the New York City Summer Youth Employment Program — paid more than McDonald’s. (Ferrer was saving up for a new pair of Jordans.)

    Before the apprenticeship, Ferrer simply thought of the Sunset Park neighborhood as home. “It was the farthest I ever traveled when I went somewhere special with my mom,” he says. At the time, Ferrer considered the nearby power plants to be “just these old, weird things.” Political consciousness, it turns out, was right around the corner.

    It was the executive director of UPROSE, Elizabeth Yeampierre, who inspired Ferrer to think more critically about his neighborhood. One day, Yeampierre asked a room of 30 interns, “How many of you have asthma, or have a family member with asthma?” Sixteen people raised their hands, including Ferrer, who had been hospitalized twice for asthma attacks. Yeampierre explained the cause of the neighborhood’s abnormally high asthma rate by pointing to the many industrial sites in and around Sunset Park: the sludge-transfer facility, the highway that carries 200,000 vehicles per day, and the three large power plants that serve other, richer neighborhoods that don’t allow industry in their backyards.

    We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30throughout the month of March. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day at Pacific Standard.

    “When I found out that the little bit of smoke that I saw coming out of the power plant near my house has such an enormous effect on the health of my neighborhood, I was shocked,” Ferrer says. “I don’t want to say that it was like finding out that Santa Claus wasn’t real all over again, because that’s cliché, but that is how it felt.”

    Later that year, Yeampierre challenged Ferrer to present a speech to city officials at a community forum. The speech proposed a policy that ensured that underserved communities like Sunset Park wouldn’t get stuck with yet another power plant or waste facility.

    Ferrer wasn’t wild about the idea of giving a speech. “I’d never done public speaking before. I never even raised my hand in school,” he says. But Ferrer respected Yeampierre too much to refuse. For 30 torturous seconds, Ferrer “choked and stuttered” through the speech, he says.

    And then something amazing happened: The audience stood and clapped.

    “Here was this young Puerto Rican kid from Sunset Park with such a typical background for a person of color — daddy wasn’t around, mma was working her butt off all the time — and a bunch of important people were clapping for him,” Ferrer reflects. Ferrer was used to officials looking sleepy at community forums. But after his speech, everyone appeared wide-eyed and smiley, as if they were suddenly ready for change.

    That was the moment Ferrer’s life’s trajectory changed, he says. Now Ferrer is one of UPROSE’s most dedicated volunteers, and a winner of the Brower Youth Award and the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. For Ferrer, it’s Yeampierre who changed everything, and he thanks her “very, very, very much.”

    At this year’s big climate rally, most of the people won’t be pale, male, and stale

    More than 500 organizations are planning a historic event for Sept. 21 in New York City, what they say will be the largest rally for climate action ever. Organizers and ralliers will be calling on world leaders to craft a new international climate treaty, two days before those leaders will convene at a Climate Summit at the United Nations headquarters. Jamie Henn, spokesperson for, the main convener of the event, declined to offer a precise target for turnout, but the current holder of the largest-climate-rally title, a February 2012 march on the White House, drew around 50,000 people, so organizers are expecting more than that — possibly significantly more.