About This EpisodeWith 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…
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?
Vanessa Wakeman: Welcome to The Social Change Diaries, the show that looks behind the curtain at everything you want to know about the social justice and nonprofit landscape. I’m your host, Vanessa Wakeman, and we are still focusing this season on the topic of leadership. Today, I will be speaking with Elizabeth Yeampierre. She’s an internationally-recognized Puerto Rican attorney of African and indigenous ancestry, an 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 Our Power PR NYC. Her award-winning vision for an intergenerational multicultural and community-led organization is a driving force behind UPROSE. She’s 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 front lines fighting against climate change. In 2014, she was part of the leadership of the People’s Climate March Mobilization, a march of over 400,000 people across New York City. She was recently featured by the New York Times as a visionary paving the path to climate justice.
Good afternoon, folks. I am here today with Elizabeth Yeampierre, and we are talking about leadership. So, as everyone who’s been chimed in this season knows that leadership is our topic, and we’ve been speaking with different leaders from the nonprofit sector, just trying to get different perspectives on the topic and an understanding of what leadership looks like today. So, Elizabeth, welcome and thank you so much for joining me.
Elizabeth Yeampierre: Thank you for having me.
Vanessa Wakeman: I feel like there are so many different ways we can take this conversation. I feel like your leadership is incredibly impressive. I think that what you’re doing to the communities to create leaders and really just redefining and disrupting some of the older sort of mindsets around leadership is really important today, and so one of the things that came to mind as I was preparing to speak with you, I was just thinking about this idea of allowing the people who are impacted by the problems to be part of the solution and letting them lead how we address issues, but oftentimes, we don’t see that. We see other people coming into communities or coming into situations with the assumption that they have all of the answers. So, why do you think it is that we are never looking at the people most affected to guide us towards how do we transition out of it, improve conditions, and create new opportunities?
Elizabeth Yeampierre: Well, I think that’s a great question because it’s one of the questions that, as part of the Climate Justice Movement, we’re grappling with, so we know that climate change is really challenging all the conventional norms and that we need to start working with each other differently. I think that, well, there’s a lot of reasons why people don’t respect the grassroots. I think one is you’ve got good-intention people who come into this work that have either ambition or goals, and they want to use the community to realize those dreams.
There are other folks who come in really 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 leaderful 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 that have this sort of 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.
I think I learned that from my grandma because my grandmother never finished … I think she went far as fourth grade, and she was brilliant. She never had access to a formal education, but she understood economics. She understood social justice. She taught me about my ancestry. She was brilliant. Then, you meet all these folks who have a lot of degrees who aren’t the sharpest crayon in the box. So, 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 maybe never did get 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.
Vanessa Wakeman: Right, right, and listening to you respond to that, it also led me to think about this idea of storytelling around nonprofits and the idea of leadership, and so I can think of countless examples where we ask people who are affected by an issue: poverty, education, housing, et cetera. “Tell me your saddest story.” Right? We want to know what the pain points are. We want to create that emotional story that people can connect to, but we cut them off at the problem part, right?
We’re not asking them to … “Hey, we also want to hear your voice around what do you think it takes?” And so, thinking about your organization, UPROSE, it seems like you folks have definitely connected to that idea of you want to hear the problems and you want to people to be a part of the solution. What positive impact have you found that to have not only on the community as a whole like the governance, and the safety, and the progress with community, but on the individuals?
Have you noticed any different mindsets of people or them thinking that other things were possible for them and just reframing an entire environment in a way that says like, “Hey, we do have some power here. There are some opportunities for us.” Can you talk a little bit about like what you’ve observed in these models when people are being asked to use their voices and they are able to participate in these important conversations?
Elizabeth Yeampierre: Well, thank you for that. I think that there’s a lot of attention put on the problems and never on how people stand up even despite all of the stretch, right? The fact that as women of color, we exist is really a tribute to the fact that we come from power, that we come from people who believe in a different kind of future who despite the change, despite all of the abuses that they went through, they made it possible for us to be here right now.
So, 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. When you’re talking about climate change, for example, and you’re working with a community that’s largely immigrant, well, we’re people who’ve always lived within our carbon footprint. We repurposed, reused, and recycled before that became a thing. That’s part of our history as people of color that’s coming from a place of need.
So, if you’re coming from the Global South, you have some skills that maybe folks here don’t have. You know how to build things. You know how to grow things. You know how to repurpose things. Those are things that are strengths, and so I don’t think that … Sometimes, when people come to this country or we’re born here, we become addicted to consumption culture, to throwing things away because we think that that’s what makes us successful.
The truth is that the more we know about our ancestry and the power of the people who came before us and what they did to make it possible for us to even be here becomes the platform for celebration of who we are and understanding our power, and so I think that that has helped a lot of folks, and I see it. I see it particularly in the young people.
We’ve had young people at UPROSE that come with like … I had a 50 average, 60 average, and we see that not just graduating from high school, but getting into college, going into graduate school. The thinking is always that our people are at risk and we think that our people have potential, so I think that it has to be the cultural anchor of any institution that is working with people who come from struggle to let them know that they’ve always been strong and these other things or blocks that have been created add fear because they know that they’re … because people know that they’re strong.
Vanessa Wakeman: Right.
Elizabeth Yeampierre: That is fear of difference. Yeah.
Vanessa Wakeman: Right, right. I would agree with that. I have two questions as I think about that. The first one is about young leaders. So, when I think about my own experiences in leadership development as a young person, while it was very helpful from a textbook sort of process standpoint of, “Okay. These are the characteristics. This is how you lead. This is how you coach people, develop them.” These are all these things that you need to have, but none of those conversations or courses prepared me for the nuances of being a leader of color in various workplaces and situations.
When I think about the work, again, that your organization is doing with young people and just with communities, I think that it is really valuable to not only provide the general understanding that the MBA, classic MBA structure, if you will, like what is needed to lead, but also, to help people understand like the strengths and weaknesses like you just spoke about of the ancestral strength that is there, but also, to prepare them for what to expect from others. How do you think that UPROSE plays a role in developing young people to lead with an understanding of, “These are the things that you may be up against These may be some of the experiences you encounter, and this is how you can navigate those successfully to continue your leadership journey?”
Elizabeth Yeampierre: I think that working in an intergenerational setting makes organizations, and makes our campaigns, and makes everything we do more relevant and stronger. In this country, generations are pitted against each other. Literally, older people pushed out by younger people who don’t honor the history of work, the younger people who are competitive and are just elbowing them out, older people hold on to power and they don’t share it, and so there’s this fight between generations in this country. I think that in our cultures though, our cultures tend to be intergenerational. When you’re talking about people with African and indigenous ancestry, if you go to a party, you see an elder dancing with a 10-year-old.
Vanessa Wakeman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Elizabeth Yeampierre: It literally is … That’s how our cultures have always been. We’re intergenerational, and we feel that learning happens across the table across generations. I can learn from someone like … I like Twitter and Instagram, and I know how to create infographs, and memes, and things like that, but I didn’t grow up with computers. I learned that stuff from young people. I also learned from young people what the popular culture is that makes me a better organizer. I learn about a new kind of organizing that was not what … not the way it was done when I was in my 20’s.
They learn from me how to read the room politically, and it’s important that we are intergenerational because if we don’t share the experiences that we’ve had and the things that we’ve learned with another generation, it means it’s going to take them 20 years to learn what we know, and our communities will move slower. I think we move faster, more nimbly when we are humble and understand that we have a lot to learn from each other and that learning doesn’t just happen in one direction. In other words, they learn from us. The other thing is that I feel like we essentialize young people like we’re like, “Oh, let’s listen to the youth,” or have a youth program. We essentialize them, and then expect great things from them.
Vanessa Wakeman: Right.
Elizabeth Yeampierre: I feel like we need to start providing them with youth training. Leadership comes with accountability with collective decision-making. All of the things that we have to learn, we have to … Demystifying. We need to start providing them with that training early. In my organization, there is no youth program. They basically are integrated into leadership and to the organization so like one of my board members started at UPROSE when he was 14. He’s now getting a double masters from Cornell. Our climate justice organizer started with us when she was 12. They grow into the organization. They don’t age out because community itself is intergenerational.
Vanessa Wakeman: Yes.
Elizabeth Yeampierre: There are times at a meeting in the office or even in a community meeting where I come in, and I think, “I have this great idea. I thought about it all night. I think it’s brilliant, and I’m ready, and I’m ready.” Right? Then, a 17-year-old will say, “Hey, how about this? Did you think about this?” I’ll be like, “No,” and she’ll go on, and I’m like, “Okay. That’s what we’ll do.” She’s like, “Really?” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s a better idea, so let’s do that.”
Vanessa Wakeman: Right.
Elizabeth Yeampierre: It’s not like me being patronizing. It’s just that her idea is better, and so she has to see that her idea can be this thing that we follow because we’re not … I’m not always right, and she’s not always right.
Vanessa Wakeman: Right.
Elizabeth Yeampierre: One of the patronizing things that people do is like, “Okay. Let’s follow the lead of the young people.” No. No, no. They may not be right just like we might not be right, and I think the answers are in how we work with each other and support each other in a way that’s honorable and respectful, so I didn’t have anybody guiding me even, and I often felt like the youngest person in the room for a long time.
Vanessa Wakeman: Yes.
Elizabeth Yeampierre: I thought, “Wow,” I remember when I was 40, I was like, “I’m 40, and I’m the youngest person in the room so there’s a real problem here. I think we got a problem.”
Vanessa Wakeman: Then, a point comes and you’re no longer the youngest person in the room.
Elizabeth Yeampierre: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, and you got to always be mindful of that. Also, like one of the things I do is when I’m in these big national meetings or in these spaces where I’m only at because of my age and where I’ve gotten to professionally, I come back, and I share everything from the power mapping to how decisions were made to what was on the agenda. I share all of that information because I really … A lot of times, I’ve gone into these spaces without knowing, without ever have and gotten guidance trying to navigate my way through and asking the answers just to guide me so that I do right for our community.
I don’t want them to struggle like that. I want them to know, “Listen. When I was the chair of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, nobody schooled me. I asked for support. I asked for guidance, but nobody schooled me. I made mistakes because …” If someone had spent the time and say, “Hey, these are the things you should be looking at.” So, if you go and you’re part of something like that, these are the things you need …
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Elizabeth Yeampierre: So if you go and you’re a part of something like that, these are the things you need to know. So I take that really seriously because 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.
Anyway, it’s really important. It’s a cultural part of the organization that’s made my life so much better. I feel like I’m sharper.
Vanessa Wakeman: I get that, I get that.
Elizabeth Yeampierre: Yeah. And I don’t understand how people still have sort of a conventional way of thinking about young people. I just don’t get it. I just don’t know how they could look at Black Lives Matter, how they could look at all of the movements that are being led by young people and not think, wow, these are a bunch of bad asses, they’re smart, they’re strategic, we need to follow them. So I don’t get it.
Vanessa Wakeman: But there are a number of organizations that, as you mentioned, are sort of not doing that. There is sort of like power concentrated at the top. With the older generations leading and people are being told it’s not your time or wait your turn. And so what’s happening is, in many cases … I’ve had a couple of conversations about this where people are transitioning out of the sector because they don’t see opportunities for them to play a leadership role. Or in the non profit sector, 70% of the workforce is women, but men are leading most of the larger organizations, so there definitely are a number of supporting points and data that shows that we do need to shake things up but that’s not happening. What would you say to an organization that is very hierarchal and young people aren’t given opportunities. Are there three steps or two things that they can at least start to do to create the groundwork or the foundation to make these adjustments in the organization?
I’ve heard people say they were concerned about shifting the power dynamics because of existing relationships and not wanting to put at risk any funding sources. Or young people, some of them, while they had brilliant ideas or they could see them leading in five or ten years, they just weren’t ready just yet. They needed a little more polishing. What would you say to an organization who definitely needs to shift their thinking around that?
Elizabeth Yeampierre: That’s a hard question, because it depends on the kind of organization. Whether it’s white led, people of color led, the dynamic is really different. So for example when a funder says to me, “Maybe it’s time for you to move on.” I see that as agist, I see that as sexist, I see that as racist, I don’t know if a white woman would be told the same thing as I would be told. And I think that when I was saying what I was saying earlier about generations pitted against each other, that’s part of the problem. You’ve got some time, so I don’t romanticize anybody, right? I don’t fetishize anybody, so I’m not going to romanticize young people and not say that some young people are aggressive, that they are ambitious and that they wanna move to the top. And I’m not gonna say that older people, and older is a lot of different generations, ’cause a lot of times people talk about youth and they talk about elders like there’s nobody in the middle, right?
And lately I’ve been hearing that 30 to 40 year olds consider themselves youth, and that just makes me laugh. I’m like, “Let it go, it’s over, you’re not youth, you’re an adult now. You’re an adult, handle it.” I think that there’s room for everybody. I think there has to be shared leadership and that … 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. So for example, I get invited to do a lot of public speaking and I get invited to do all kinds of things, but my organization often, I will make sure that it’s somebody else that’s talking on television, or somebody else that’s speaking at the IPCC or before this administration, if there was an invitation for me to go speak at the White House, I would send someone else so that they would have that big opportunity.
What it does is it makes me really proud that there are people in my organization who can step up into that space, do you know what I mean? It’s not like, “Oh, this is a great opportunity, I should take advantage of it.” No, I’ve done a lot of cool things, I’m happy. I’m good with it. But for me it’s really exciting when a 20 year old or a 24 year old or a 30 year old or someone who’s younger steps into that space and shines. I feel like … You have no idea how much joy that gives me. And I don’t think that that happens in these organizations that there isn’t shared leadership, that they don’t share the press. That they don’t share opportunities for ownership.
And if you’re working with someone and you have a great idea and the executive director gets to talk about it because they’re in a place where they’re talking, they have to say, “You know what, so and so has this great idea, and we’re doing this because she did this and this and this. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without her.” That’s important. Ownership is important, shared leadership is important. Sharing the press and the shine is important. Integrating into the organization real development opportunities where people are learning, “Hey, this is how you handle this situation, this is how you handle the other.” That’s gotta be part of the culture of institutions, but non profits are really competitive and top down. They kind of mirror this capitalist system that we have, while pretending to serve the greater good. Their structure is made to basically mirror this extractive culture that put us here in the first place. You know, in this situation in the first place.
So it also means being able to evolve and change. If you are thinking a certain way because that’s how you grew up thinking, well, if you’re not open to evolving and to changing and to the growth that happens when you’re in an intergenerational space, I kinda feel like you stopped living. Like you just stopped living, there’s just no fun in it anymore. I don’t know … those people, you know them. You saw them in class, you’ve seen them in meetings, you know, the smartest guy, the smartest woman in the room, are so freaking’ annoying. If you’re dealing with any social justice issue in the community you have to approach it with a lot of respect and a lot of humility and with the assumption that the answers are in the collective and the collective is intergenerational. So I don’t know more what to say for those organizations except that they need to engage in self transformation.
Because you can bring in somebody to facilitate a retreat and they can come up with all these ideas, but unless individuals are engaged in the process of self transformation, of sort of checking themselves and asking themselves, “Am I sharing power? How do I come into a space? How do I work with other people? Am I open to criticism? Am I perpetuating the problems that …” If you can’t do that, and once acknowledging that those problems exist, engage in transformation, then maybe you’re time is up in non profits. ‘Cause it really … these times that we’re living require a different kind of leadership.
Vanessa Wakeman: I agree with that. Now tell me, looking at funders for a moment, how have funders responded to UpRose’s approach of putting in the power in the hands of the people. Have they been excited about the model and supportive of it? Have they sort of pushed back and felt it was risky to not have the traditional structure of power in leadership? Tell me a little about how funders are responding.
Elizabeth Yeampierre: So the funders that support UpRose are funders that support frontline leadership. They’re the ones that are investing in women of color in leadership. More conventional funders, the way that we access funding like that is sometimes it’s through partnerships. You know the funding world is a lot like society at large. They either have these conventional models that they’ve been using for years and years, they put most of their money in white leadership to serve our communities, and very little of it goes to people of color that are addressing systemic issues in our community. That’s pretty much been documented. But we’re seeing a shift in philanthropy where we’ve got some radical philanthropists that are really trying to change the culture of philanthropy as it’s been. And we also have people, now we’ve gotten more progressive and more radical people in the philanthropy world that are trying to change the culture of those institutions from within.
And some foundations are really open to that change. I think they see that the world is changing and that they have a giving culture that is dated, and they care. They care deeply about what happens in our communities. So I’d rather get funded by people like that. By those that see that campaigns take years, that trust putting the funds in the hands of people of color. Folks that don’t want to see our people be poster children for somebody else’s agenda. Philanthropy that really believes that front line blood is the solution. So in that respect, yeah, our funders have been really positive. And also are playing the role of really changing the culture of philanthropy themselves. So that’s been really cool.
Vanessa Wakeman: That’s fantastic and I’m happy to hear that. I would be remiss if I did not ask at least one resiliency question of you. You have been very vocal about the need for resiliency planning and you mentioned earlier in our interview Puerto Rico and the huge storm there. We saw with Hurricane Katrina and Maria, both of these significantly impacted people of color as Maria last year in Puerto Rico. But it seems like we are always being reactive. So I guess when we’re thinking about communities and who is impacted by these natural distastes, often times it is the people of color in underserved communities who are often caught without the support to be prepared for these things. And then after the event happens, there’s no infrastructure and support to make sure that people are able to have recovery and return to whatever semblance of a normal life can look like.
So how can communities be more involved in resiliency planning? I know that … what is it, Rockefeller Foundation, they have this big initiative around resilient cities. And just thinking about urban environments and what’s happening. How do we as communities prepare for these things or at least create more awareness and education so that people know what to expect or how they can better take care of themselves and their families if something happens?
Elizabeth Yeampierre: That’s not something I can answer really quickly. I will say that one of the things that helps people survive when extreme weather events happen is social cohesion. And social cohesion is being disrupted by displacement, by gentrification, and by these extreme weather events. So one of the things that the people in Katrina, the people in Puerto Rico, have in common, in addition to being people of African ad indigenous ancestry, is that we’re talking about really poor people who have been struggling for a really long time. And these disasters, by the way, I don’t refer to them as natural. They’re unnatural, they’re man made, they’re a result of a legacy of extraction, both of our land and of our people. So now what’s happening is that you’re seeing the impact of this legacy of extraction. And so what is happening is that we’re seeing the biggest impact on the people least responsible for creating climate change.
And so when we were watching the people in New Orleans on television, I remember standing in front of the TV crying like I did when it happened in Puerto Rico, because whether our people landed in Puerto Rico, were brought through the mid Atlantic trade and landed in Puerto Rico or New Orleans, we’re talking about the same people. And so when we think about how they prepare, part of it is dealing with climate adaptation. Reclaiming our traditions, learning how to take care of storm water. You know a lot of different interventions that’ll make it possible for them to survive the changes that are coming, because there are going to be more extreme weather events. But one of the things that’s happened to our communities is that where the funding was not available to do that even though government and policy [inaudible 00:32:40], all of them knew that the gulf south was at risk and so was Puerto Rico.
They find the funding after they push our communities out of those communities. So people, historical black communities that have been there since slavery and that lived in New Orleans that were part of the heart of the culture of that part of our country have not been brought back. And in Puerto Rico, the expectation is that by next year, FEMA will have pushed out about 500,000 people without rebuilding. But what we’re finding is that disaster capitalists are just literally helicoptering in at a pace that would make your neck break by looking. So the same thing happens in New Orleans, where communities that didn’t have infrastructure, that didn’t have transportation systems, all of a sudden have all of these amenities because white folks have moved in, so those communities are being … The infrastructure is being invested in, the housing stock is being reinforced, and they’re doing everything necessary to make those places resilient for the folks that have moved in since the black people were moved out.
Same thing in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico, look, over three thousand people died. And in this country they acted like that was nothing. And more will continue to die because of exposure to all of the contaminants that are in the environment and because there’s still an ongoing disaster in Puerto Rico. So with people in that kind of crisis it’s really hard to become resilient. In fact in New Orleans one of the things that I learned is that they rejected the word resilient. They said the word resilient means bouncing back. And bouncing back means bouncing back to racism, bouncing back to police misconduct, bouncing back to education systems that weren’t serving them. So when they talk about moving forward, they talk about resistance. And in New Orleans, what happened, they started privatizing all of the schools. Same thing in Puerto Rico, they’re privatizing infrastructure, all of the schools, communication systems. So in the midst of all this, for a family with a limited income and who’s lost their home, it’s hard to build.
So for people here in the United States that have not been impacted in that way, I think it’s really important for them to become part of the climate justice movement. To become part of the climate justice alliance. To learn about how we create local livable communities that move us away from extraction and to regenerative energy. How do we create those economic systems that will help us thrive instead of surviving? How does that happen? We are happy to share information about that. And here’s the other thing. When we have that information the people often least likely to take advantage of it are the folks that need it the most. Because they’ve got two or three jobs, they’ve gotta run home to take care of their children and they don’t have a nanny taking care of their children so they can participate in the meetings. So it’s really important that, I think, that climate justice organizations make it possible to meet on weekends, in the evenings, that they provide childcare, that they provide food, that they have translators for folks.
Because right now, California is burning, and we know that in just one year’s time, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, and a lot of folks, a lot of people from front line communities –
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Elizabeth Yeampierre: And you know, a lot of folks, a lot of people from frontline communities, black and Latino, were desperately impacted. Irma hit Florida and Maria hit Puerto Rico, and so this is, we’re living in the age of climate change. And so now we need to focus on reducing carbon and reducing co-pollutants and learning how to become climate adaptable. And really, I think embracing those traditions that made it possible for us to live within our carbon footprint. I’m so sorry I went on long. It’s just that this is something that I think about every single day, and everyday I wake up asking myself, am I doing enough? You know, when I think about my son, and I think about the future, and I don’t see any future there, it makes me panic and it makes me wonder if I’m doing enough. So something that just breaks my heart that we are in this situation because of greed.
Vanessa Wakeman: Yes, that’s exactly right. I remember reading your profile in Vogue a couple of years ago when they did their Women and Climate Change issue. And for me, when I think about the climate change movement in it’s, what is shown in the media and the people who were paraded out, I, prior to reading that, to be honest, I always thought of it as a space primarily dominated by white men. And so I was really excited to see women and women of color as part of that. What has your experience been as a woman of color in that space? As someone who, I want to also say a woman of color who is powerful and certainly has very strong opinions and ideas and is representing the community unapologetically. What has that experience been navigating those white circles?
Elizabeth Yeampierre: It has been hell. It has been hard. I’m not gonna lie. I often say that the biggest obstacle to addressing climate change is privilege. It’s been really, really hard. There has been progress, but it’s moved as slow as, you know how during the civil rights movement there were always compromises. And they were like, everything moves slow to make people who have privilege comfortable. They to stay in their comfort zone. And there’s nothing more that’s going to be more uncomfortable than climate change. Just imagine waking up in the morning and not being able to have running water or to be able to brush your teeth or take a shower or do the things that give you comfort that you never even thought about. That’s climate change. And so these folks are people, listen, how we came into the environmental justice movement was not because we were tree huggers and not because we wanted all of this green stuff.
We thought the trees were the lungs of our community, that the trees that we planted the trees, it would mean that our children with asthma and upper respiratory disease and our families that were being affected by all the environmental burdens in our community would be able to breathe deeper. We arrived at the environmental justice movement from a place of the fact that there was a disparate sighting of environmental burdens in our communities that were killing us. So it was always because of the people. We came to it because of the people.
And then who we are as a people are people who have always respected and honored Mother Earth. So we come to this conversation in a very different way. They come from a place of conservation and really exclusive, getting all of the funding, and now with climate change, what they’re realizing is, oh my god, the demographics are changing, and we’re going to have to get these people on board, onto our organization. So let’s get some folks to be spokespeople, but we create the agenda.
And so when it really became challenging I think was when we were organizing for the People’s Climate March. And I realized that because I run a grassroots small organization, I think people were wondering what is she even doing at the table. And I felt like, you know, I offered the Hermes Principles for Democratic Organizing. And I demanded that all of the big organizations agree to them. They’re really just seven principles that say you need to build just relationships. You need to engage in self transformation. People speak for themselves, you know, really a rejection of colonization and of people deciding that they have the answers. Big difference between the climate change movement and climate justice is that they focus on carbon, and so they would support things like cap and trade and offsets and we don’t.
We have to also focus on co-pollutants, which are the emissions that come from power plants and other polluting facilities that are creating such terrible health conditions for our folks. And so their focus is always different. They move really quickly, and they don’t engage or consult with communities and now they have to. Now we are on a national level. We have such a platform that you can’t marginalize us. We’ve been able to mobilize people all over the country, and so it is impossible to just get the one person who’s happy to either be your poster child or who was so happy because they have a job and they’re getting paid, but they don’t mind a white led organization speaking for people of color.
So that’s changed, not as fast or as deeply as we’d like it to, because these are old institutions that with multimillion dollar budgets and tons of people working for them, but we created a thing called the BEA. It’s called Building Equity and Alignment for Impact. And the idea behind the BEA was that we knew that climate change was here and that we were going to have to find a way of getting along with each other, and that Big Greens would have to be aligned, and that’s the local leadership and not make our work harder for us. They would have to share resources and expertise, and philanthropy would have to start moving money to the frontline of the climate crisis. And I feel like the BEA has been really successful, and I would urge folks to check it out.
And we’ve also met with philanthropy and with other organizations so that they could figure out how they can operationalize the Hermes Principles in their institutions. And some of them are doing that. I know that Sierra Club is trying and so is NRDC, but it’s a really, really slow process. And in Puerto Rico, when that happened, when the disaster happened, people started calling me and saying, hey, I really want to go to Puerto Rico and I want to do this. We had graduate students wanting to go to Puerto Rico, so that they could use it to write their thesis. Do you hear what I’m saying? They did this, they went to New Orleans after Katrina to take [Sophie 00:43:08]. They literally see us as people whose minds they can pick, whose ideas they can pick and extract because extraction continues to be part of the conversation right there, as extractive of the corporations that they are fighting against. And so it has been a huge challenge.
But you know, with Puerto Rico for example, we called the Greenpeace and we asked for their ship, because we wanted to get national media attention and they provided the ship and resources and they were good allies. So we find that there is leadership in these institutions that understands that not only have the demographics changed in the United States, but that time changes here, that it’s real, and that if they don’t build just relationships, we will all fail. And we’re willing to be in the room with them, because we have no pride when it comes to working with people who may know their stuff. We just want them to be respectful of frontline priorities and frontline’s agendas. We want to work in a way that’s respectful for each other, with each other. And they also know that if they don’t invite us to the table, that we’ll just build our own.
Vanessa Wakeman: Amen, amen.
Elizabeth Yeampierre: So a lot has changed, because literally our survival is at stake. And I wish that was rhetoric. I wish I was exaggerating, but it’s the truth. And listen, we here, we’ll talk about PR and we’ll talk about New Orleans, but this is worldwide and it’s affecting our people. You talk about the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance and the River Niger that is completely contaminated and causing disease. And that’s because of US corporations and what they do over there. If you look in Latin America, the same kinds of things. So all of this is, all of our struggles are connected, and they are all disparately impacting the people least responsible for creating this crisis, which is the biggest in our history. So yeah, it’s been hard.
Vanessa Wakeman: Yeah. That’s a mouthful. We are winding down our time, but I do want to ask one final question of you. I can hear that the commitment and the fire in your voice, and from everything I’ve read and know about you, this is a cause that you care about deeply and are committed to 24/7. As a leader, what does self care look like for you? How are you taking care of yourself as you’re juggling this work that, you know, I feel like we’re running against a ticking clock, this fight for climate justice. So how do you take care of yourself so that you are able to fight yet another day?
Elizabeth Yeampierre: This year I had a complicated spine surgery, and I’ve had a lot of health issues. It was really interesting to see how that I was part of a leader-full community that engaged in collective care. And the reason I talk about collective care is that racial justice, injustice isn’t nine to five. And so our ancestors had to step in when it was necessary. They had to put their lives on the line, and it wasn’t a nine to five job for them. It was what ever was necessary. Right? And so right now in the age of climate change, it’s whatever is necessary. But when you are part of a leader-full for community, you can step back so other people can step up. And I remember this year some strange things happened that made me feel so loved and so blessed. I kept calling my mom saying, “Mom, you know what they did for me, you know what they did for me?”
And she said, well, you know, my mom, she’s, you know, she’s just has only positive things to say, she’s like, because you know, you’re blessed, you’re so blessed. So I had, for example, there was a national meeting that was supposed to happen in another part of the country and they brought it to New York so that I wouldn’t feel left out and I could co-chair the meeting, and they basically moved everything to make it possible to come to me. They’ve had meetings where they set up the technology so that I can Skype in, I can zoom in, all kinds of accommodations without me even asking, just out of love and out of inclusivity and because I’m part of a community that engages in collective care.
And so my also being able to step away and somebody stepping into leadership or going to spaces where that’s a space that I usually occupied, and my being able to be comfortable and trust that everything’s gonna be okay, because that’s what we’ve been building all along, is a leader-full community, so that when one of us is not well, somebody else can take the lead.
So the reason I use collective care is that self care, this is a nation that focuses on self constantly. And people are very self indulgent at a time when that’s requiring sacrifice and requiring vigilance, because there’s so much at stake right now. But I think that when people are, you know, like can you come to work for a nonprofit and you see people are working till 9:00 at night, and coming in in the morning and working on weekends and you’re like, well I’m leaving at five because I’m practicing self care. In a not for profit setting where we have to work long hours, what would we try to do is make sure that we get an assessment of what the energy is, how people are doing and that we take care of them, that we don’t burn them out, that we’re providing food, that we’re giving people time off so that we have taken care of these people who are really the warriors in our community. So that we refer to as collective care. Yeah. I would just use that language.
Vanessa Wakeman: Thank you, thank you. And is there anything else you want to share? Can you share the website for UPROSE where people can find out more information about the work that you’re doing and maybe ways to be involved?
Elizabeth Yeampierre: Sure. Well first, thank you for this opportunity. I think you asked some really wonderful questions that were tough but really wonderful. The website is Uprose.org. U-P-R-O-S-E.org. We can be followed on Twitter. Either follow UPROSE or you can follow me, Yeampierre. Or also in Instagram, UPROSE Brooklyn and in Instagram. And if you’re in Brooklyn or if you’re in Sunset Park, UPROSE is EJ organization. The Climate Justice Alliance has member groups all over the country, and you can always reach out to those individual groups if you live in that state or in that community. In New York City, we’re members of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, and we’ve got members throughout the city, in Queens, in the Bronx, in Manhattan and in Brooklyn. And we always encourage people to go to the organization that is closest to you, that is in your community, because that’s where you’re going to make the most amount of change, where you’re going to engage in transformation is when the work is local.
So we always say the path to climate justice is local. So I would, you know, lots of people want to come to UPROSE from everywhere, and we’re like okay, we love that. We do, we do, but we really want to engage in base building and build the bigger we. And so there’s lots of organizations in different communities that do the same kind of work or very similar work to ours. And I would encourage that people either checkout CJA, the Climate Justice Alliance nationally. Citywide, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. And if you’re in Brooklyn, there’s three of us, there’s UPROSE, El Puente, and the Brooklyn Movement Center.
Vanessa Wakeman: Beautiful. Elizabeth, thank you so very much for taking some time to share your wisdom about your leadership and what’s going on in the climate justice fight. And we will definitely be watching and appreciate all the work that you do.
Elizabeth Yeampierre: Well, thank you so much. Thank you.
Vanessa Wakeman: As the host of a podcast, I’m always concerned about my ability to have a great conversation with the people that I’m asking to come on as guests. There can be really dynamic individuals and you just never know how the energy and conversation is gonna go during the interview, and the questions that I ask them, their responses. I have to say that my conversation with Elizabeth today was fantastic. Her passion and real commitment to the issues was evident, and I hope that people found the conversation to be valuable in helping to think about the topic of leadership. She definitely gave us a lot to think about, about how we engage communities. And I think there is so much power and opportunity to affect change when we paint leadership with broader strokes, as opposed to the narrow vision that excludes people based on a perceived lack of knowledge or skills that are required to be effective. So thank you again, Elizabeth.
And for all of our listeners, if you enjoyed this episode, I’ll ask that you please leave a review on iTunes and share it with your friends and colleagues. And if you get a moment, we, the Wakeman Agency, has a brand new website. So come to thewakemanagency.com to learn more about our social change work and give us some feedback about the information there. Thank you so much for listening and I hope you’ll tune in next week. Bye-bye.
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