How Climate Warrior Elizabeth Yeampierre Has Re-Written the Rules of Power

About This Episode

With the urgency and focus of a woman on a mission to save the planet, Elizabeth Yeampierre leads UPROSE with a fierce commitment to a “leaderful” leadership model, that distributes power to all. With an emphasis on intergenerational and intersectional leadership, Elizabeth has rewritten the rules of power and placed it in the hands of the most marginalized groups. In this interview, Elizabeth talks about her experiences as a leader and how her organization is shaping conversations and actions in the climate justice fight.


Elizabeth Yeampierre is an internationally recognized Puerto Rican attorney of African and Indigenous ancestry and environmental/climate justice leader who is the executive director of UPROSE, Brooklyn’s oldest Puerto Rican community-based organization. She is also the Co-Chair of a national alliance called Climate Justice Alliance and the co-founder of #OurPowerPRnyc. Her award-winning vision for an inter-generational, multi-cultural and community-led organization is the driving force behind UPROSE. She is a long-time advocate and trailblazer for community organizing around just, sustainable development, environmental justice, and community-led climate adaptation and community resiliency in Sunset Park. In addition to that, she was recognized in 2015 by Vogue as a Climate Warrior and one of the 13 women on the frontline fighting against Climate Change. Ms. Yeampierre has been a featured speaker at local, national and international forums including Sage Paris 2015, 2016 GRI Amsterdam, White House Forum on Environmental Justice, Yale, Harvard, Cooper Union, Columbia, and universities, colleges and conferences all over the country and spoke at the opening climate rally for Pope Francis at the National Mall, The Battle for Paradise at Cooper Union with Naomi Klein. Her work is featured in several books, in addition, being featured in Latina Magazine, VOGUE, Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Grist, American Prospect, Al Jazeera, Huffington Post, Democracy Now, The Intercept, and a variety of media outlets throughout the United States, Latin America, and Europe. In 2014, Ms. Yeampierre was part of the leadership of the People’s Climate March Mobilization – a march of over 400,000 people across New York City. She played a major role in ensuring the front line was made up of young people of color, and successfully proposed the adoption of the Jemez principles for democratic organizing, which have since become the roadmap to building just relationships in the climate justice movement. Elizabeth was recently featured by in NY Times as a visionary paving the path to Climate Justice.

In her words… 

I think that when we don’t work in a way that’s intergenerational we do our community a big disservice. And now that we’re living under so many attacks on our existence and also having to deal with climate change, it’s really important for young people to be nimble and to be ready to take leadership. And the other thing about leadership that I’ll say is that we often tell young people, “These are the leaders of the future.” No, they can exercise leadership right now. Leadership doesn’t have to be postponed. They have to be accountable, that means that they have to be accountable to a base, they have to check in and they have to honor that process just like we do, but they can exercise it right now. They shouldn’t have to wait, and to be honest, if they wait it’ll be too late, considering how things are in our community. 
There are folks who come in as contemporary missionaries, and they feel good by solving our problems, and then there are folks who have never been introduced to another way of thinking who have learned that this is the way you help. You help by coming in, providing solutions, and hoping that people benefit from your big and great ideas, but what we know to be true is that the solutions are local and that you have to approach the complexity of the work in our community with a lot of humility. If you have the blessing or the privilege of having had an education, you can use that education to help facilitate real meaningful engagement where you are led by what the community is telling you is a priority.
The other thing I think that gets in the way is that people feel that being part of a leadership community threatens their leadership when in fact, it doesn’t do that at all. It only enhances it, and it only makes it stronger. So, there’s a lot of different reasons, but I know that in the work that I do, one of the big challenges is working with nonprofits and with institutions is that they have this top-down hierarchical, often patriarchal practice that makes our work more challenging for us when honestly, it’s been my experience— working with people on the ground— that there is a huge difference between an education and intelligence.
There’s this sort of thing where people think that people with a formal education know more.Really, if anything, a lot of folks in our community who never got the opportunity to do that, they really know what the issues are. They know where the problems exist now, some know what the solutions are. So, I think that those people who don’t listen and who don’t provide the space to make sure that they step into leadership are missing a big opportunity, and also, their lives are not as rich. I think that my life … Just personally, my life is better because I am in community.
I think it’s important for people to understand their history and also, to understand that what is diminished in this country is often a source of power, so just a few examples. We talked about Puerto Rico, for example. In Puerto Rico, you’ve got a nation of people who have had to endure a legacy of neglect, of colonialism, of austerity that we’re hit by this huge hurricane, and then in the midst of that, a federal government that decided that because it was a bunch of people of color, they were going to neglect them. What they found was that they were able to support each other, share food, start growing food, start rebuilding together, that regardless of what has happened to them, that they were going to find a way to survive and to come out stronger, and that’s a story of our people.
I think of leadership as a continuum, and that you exercise leadership at different points of your life at different levels. And I do think that as people get older it is their responsibility to share not only leadership and bring people with them, but to provide the guidance and the support and the training that’s necessary.

Questions Answered on this Episode

  • There is something sacred, and just plain old good sense, in looking for solutions from the people most affected by a problem. Yet overwhelmingly, many organizations do the exact opposite. Why do you think that is?
  • I can point to countless examples of marginalized people being asked to share their stories, but rarely do they have an opportunity to get a seat at the table, especially in a leadership role to develop solutions that are beneficial to their communities. What positive impact do you see when they do have an opportunity to participate in the process? Are there any leadership themes, or best practices, that you can share?
  • UPROSE’s focus is also on developing young leaders. When I think about my leadership development as a young person, I can’t honestly say that it did not prepare me for the realities of the role as a woman of color. From a development perspective, how do we prepare them to be successful leaders of color in spaces that may not be inclusive and intersectional?
  • How have funders responded to UPROSE’s approach of putting the power in the hands of the people? Do they see it as a risk or has it been a benefit, because it’s been so successful?
  • You have been very vocal about the need for resiliency planning. When we think about Hurricane Katrina and Maria, both of these significantly impacted the lives of people of color and displaced them. When these disasters happen, relief efforts happen- but we always seem to be in reactive mode and seemingly caught off guard. What is the role that communities can play in making resiliency a priority? How do we take control?
  • How would you describe your leadership style?
  • I remember reading your profile in Vogue a few years ago, when they did the feature on women in the climate change fight. As a woman in the climate change and environmental justice space, he would you describe your experience.
  • How do you lead in a system when you aren’t the leader?
  • Talk to me about self-care and how you take care of yourself while doing this demanding work?