Climate Change Organizers Must Respect the Work Already Underway in Frontline Communities

Excerpt of speech by Elizabeth Yeampierre, co-founder of Uprose and co-chair of the national Climate Justice Alliance, recorded and produced by Melinda Tuhus

The ninth annual conference on New Directions in Environmental Law took place at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies on March 2. Organizers of the gathering maintain that climate change is the greatest threat to social justice, human rights and progress around the world. Conference participants explored existing challenges and legal and policy solutions to the crisis, placing climate justice at the center of the discussion.
Speakers at the conference addressed topics including: the impact of the climate crisis on immigration, incarcerated individuals, low-income communities and communities of color. Also explored were community responses to climate change that will generate justice and equity.
One of the conference’s keynote speakers was Elizabeth Yeampierre, co-founder of Uprose, the oldest Latino community organization in New York City, who also serves as co-chair of the national Climate Justice Alliance. She is of African and indigenous descent and focused her remarks on the need for those doing climate organizing to respect the work already being done in frontline communities. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus attended the conference and brings us this excerpt.

ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: When I was sitting, listening to the companera speak, I was reminded that the climate justice movement is led by women. We are a “leader-full,” intergenerational, grassroots movement and the leaders throughout the country and in our communities are mostly women – mostly women of color.

I was also heartened to see the word “justice” because there are a lot of folks who think they understand what justice is and they (don’t). They are climate missionaries, they are climate colonizers. They are people who believe in climate change, but don’t know how to support the grassroots, and really come in with the solutions and helicopter in to tell us what’s in our best interest.

So I guess my question for folks who say they really care about climate change is, “Why are these organizations that are new and developing right now, not mapping this country and assessing where the gaps are?” Where there’s a need to build climate consciousness, where there’s a need to get folks who are on the margins or even in the red states – to start understanding the connection between climate change and their survivability.

Instead, what all of these organizations are doing is looking at places where there is already frontline leadership, whether it’s in Seattle, or the Gulf South, or Kentucky, or Brooklyn or the Bronx, or Detroit – all of them are meeting and making a beeline for our communities, getting a lot of resources to descend into our communities, supplant local leadership, duplicate work, create redundancies and a waste of resources, and colonize our communities by telling us that people of privilege seem to care more about climate change than we do, know more about climate change than we do, and are really making it impossible for the frontline to speak for itself.

It is going to make us fail. We will lose, if people continue to descend on the same communities, because descending on places that are already doing the work is lazy; it’s easy. It’s so much harder to roll up your sleeve and go into places where there is no climate consciousness.

And I’m saying that to you because just this week there was a meeting in Washington to talk about how to get people of color and low-income people to have a platform on the Green New Deal (GND). We have a platform on the GND. How many are supporters of the GND? So, when we looked at the GND, we had questions. We wanted to know why there was language in there about cap and trade. We wanted to know why there was language in there about sequestration and carbon capture and why it wasn’t centered on frontline communities, and why it wasn’t building on the work of “just transition” that our communities were doing? And just transition is an economic frame that moves us away from fossil fuel extraction to a regenerative economy – the kind of work you see happening in our communities all over the country.

And so, we had a critique, and people responded to us in a negative way because we were critiquing the GND. Well, Alexandria comes from the Bronx, and we felt we had a right to say activists don’t sign a blank check. We wanted to make sure the frontline communities are centered; that we are creating holistic responses; that the resources are being invested locally in communities; that communities are not being displaced as a result of environmental amenities – as they have when we won environmental successes.

I know in my community, when we doubled the amount of open space, stopped the siting of a power plant, had an urban forestry campaign – that developers started using our successes as a way of displacing us. And that can’t happen, because when you push people out, you destroy social cohesion. And so it is really important for us to commit to building just relationships, engaging in self-transformation, and begin to work with each other in a way we have never worked with each other before. It means checking privilege, it means really challenging the way you come to the work. Because the truth is that we will not survive unless we deal with questions of race, and the fact that really this is about the intersection of racial injustice and climate change, right?

And that is the hardest thing to do. It is much easier to talk about bioswales, and installing green roofs, and thinking about infrastructure and how do we make sure we have permeable surfaces. That is so much easier to talk about than to talk about race. And we can’t talk about climate change without talking about race. And we can’t build relationships unless people are introspective and understand how they come to this work and how they use or abuse their privilege in this.

For more information on Uprose and Climate Justice Alliance, visit uprose.org and climatejusticealliance.org.

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