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Five ways to build joyous neighborhood community

Elizabeth Yeampierre, in conversation with Eric Holthaus in 2020.

Elizabeth Yeampierre is a force of nature. She has a brain full of wisdom and care and a heart full of enthusiasm and infectious love. It's impossible not to smile when you're talking with her.

But in one word, I would call her work ambitious. She's fought for public power, anti-displacement, and climate justice in New York City for decades through the organization she directs, UPROSE. From my viewpoint, it seems like she's spent her career trying to, and succeeding at, setting a standard for what a just transition looks like at a neighborhood scale in the community of Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

“All of UPROSE's work is done in the interest of a Just Transition, a move away from the extraction economy and towards climate solutions that put frontline communities in positions of leadership. Our work occurs at the intersection of social, racial, economic, environmental, and climate justice, where different campaigns and initiatives naturally feed into, complement, and support one another.”

Our conversation over Zoom took place last November, in the days just after the presidential election. That it's taken me nearly a year to post this interview is something I deeply regret, but re-reading it now has convinced me even more completely how necessary and relevant Yeampierre's lessons are.

This particular quote is going to stay with me forever:

"I live here and I come from struggle, I have lived the lives that a lot of the people in our community live, and I'm very privileged to have had access to formal education and to get to do the work that I love and dream about. So I feel very blessed, but it's hard for me to accept more. Eric, you don't know me, and some people may think I'm a pain in the ass, but I just think that I wake up every single day thinking about climate change, and I think if everybody was working as hard as we were, and they weren't navel gazing, and they weren't trying to supplant leadership or duplicate efforts, if they were working in a way that was complimentary, we would be moving a lot faster with each other."

Five steps toward building a neighborhood-level Just Transition

The work at UPROSE is all about relationship building, imagining what the community's goal is for themselves 10 days or 10 years from now, what they want their neighborhood to be like, and then building backwards from that. Like Yeampierre told me, "they may not see it yet, but we know how important they are."

Here, in Elizabeth Yeampierre's own lightly-edited words, are five of the steps that she's used to guide UPROSE into a community-building powerhouse.

1. Think big

I am happy to share with you all the work that... Well, we'd have to be meeting for a while to share all the work that we're doing. But we're pretty badass, Eric.

We were told that we couldn't defeat Industry City, that it was like David and five Goliaths. We were told that that was going to be impossible. We were told that this comprehensive waterfront plan that we've developed would not get any traction and already we're getting two projects that are working on getting operationalized. Yesterday, we met with NYSERDA and they've helped us map the energy usage throughout the entire neighborhood. And we had a conversation about, how do we take the entire neighborhood off the grid? What is going to be required in order to do that? How do we make sure that we make this accessible to the people that are most in need? How do we do it on a small scale and on a large scale?

We're sitting and I'm looking at it out of the conference room, and I'm like, "You see that rooftop?" And they're like, "Yeah." I say, "Do you see what I see?" They're like, "Yes." So do the rendering, do the design and then we'll go into the owners, let's not go in and talk to them first, but let them know what their rooftop could be like. And let's design it. And then let's go in, and let's see if they're open to having a conversation of how they're going to save energy and also start trending what businesses can do in partnership with communities to install green roofs and solar.

2. Be humble and inclusive

When you think about what our community is dealing with, racial violence, the police brutality, the immigration stuff and climate change, it's a lot. So we need to be mindful about taking care of people's spirits and reminding them that we exist because our ancestors made us possible and so that they're stronger than they realize, and that collectively, we have the solutions, and that's real.

This work also requires a lot of humility, and being intergenerational and understanding that power and knowledge and wisdom exists across that continuum of age. And that even in movement spaces, you've got older people holding on to power and younger people wanting what they have. And we're sitting back thinking, "Wow, that's extractive, that's competitive, that's pushing older people out."

That also is part of our cultural practice. In a society that is ageist and competitive, we need to deconstruct that and we need to talk about how we build community in a way that's very different. Our elders here, they're used to seeing very young people facilitate meetings, and they love it. They get such joy. It's like their grandchildren are doing this and you see the pride in their faces. And I get chills thinking about it because I know when I first started making that happen, it was because young people had come to UPROSE and they were just like, "What do you do here?" People were rude, disrespectful, made racist comments, treated our young people like they were there to steal things. And now, they don't feel like they can run a meeting without young people being integrated into leadership. So we changed the culture.

When we communicate, we try to put ourselves in the position of the person that we're trying to serve. How do they process that information? What will my mom think of that? What will my aunties think of that?

When we don't have intergenerational relationships, it also means that younger people will make the same mistakes we made, they'll move slower, they won't move as nimbly, or they will move and they will then appoint themselves as leaders without being accountable to a base. In climate change, we can't do that. It has to be different.

3. Inspire joy

This place gives me joy. I am happy every time I walk in here, I learn something every single day, the work never gets boring because it's changing constantly. We're constantly growing with each other and learning new things and new strategies, and I get to get people who work for government to change it up. I get to pass legislation, I get to challenge them, I get to undo the direction. I get to do that still.

It takes a lot of time, it takes having a lot of deep relationships and trust in the community. It also requires bringing together a lot of different stakeholders so that community is small businesses, faith-based institutions, community-based organizations.

The fact that people are coming from the Global South means that they've been living within their carbon footprint, and that they know how to do and build things. And that while we're looking at technology, we also need to look at these cultural traditions as the centerpiece to how you build climate adaptation, mitigation and results.

The folks, especially the elders, once they win, it's like, "Okay, we could fix this." And they really believe we can and we're like, "No, you're going to have to play a leadership role because this is your issue, this is a thing that you're bringing to us. We'll staff you, we'll do the research, we'll give you tools." So, that has been joyous.

For our events we have music, we have a DJ, or we have some spoken word. When we were organizing for the People's Climate March, we had streets that were shut down where we have people doing art builds on the street. And while they're doing the art builds, we got little kids, five-years-old, and every age learning about climate justice. And they don't think that they're there to learn about climate justice. We know that.

One year we did, on the waterfront, on the pier, we did a Kite Festival, and I was having spine surgery, and the chief surgeon that was doing surgery said, "I have to get home because I've got to go to this kite festival." We did it on Father's Day because nobody ever does anything on Father's Day. It was about them learning about pollution, about reclaiming the air, everybody got buttons, they all learned about environmental justice, a thousand families showed up, a thousand kites went up in the air, it was beautiful. And they went there because it was Father's Day, it was a great activity for the family. We had kites going up about environmental justice, we had clowns, we had capoeira dancers, we had a salsa band, we had all of that. And every artist went up and talked about environmental justice. So, I think that it doesn't have to be heavy for communities that are holding so much. Do you know what I mean?

4. Have a vision

Ten years from now, if we walked around the industrial waterfront, it would be an eco-industrial hub where we would be engaged in food security, renewable energy, we would have offshore wind.

American companies that are building wind turbines will come to the industrial waterfront, and we will be building it here and we won't have to depend on Europe to get our parts. We're doing more than assembling it, we're building it because that is tons and tons of jobs. On the food security issue, that's an entire industry on itself. Renewable Energy, that's jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, which means that this community will be able to thrive more economically because those are jobs that pay at least $60,000 to $70,000 a year. And this is a community we're about... Something about 41% doesn't have a high school diploma. So I see that.

In our communities, I see green buildings, I see entire areas that are completely off the grid, and with green roofs and solar on rooftops and on the medians. I think the medians are an opportunity for us to bring in artists and to bring in local people in a multilingual way, put in art that educates people on climate change. Across from me is the MTA Jackie Gleason Bus Depot, and it's got an enormous wall, an enormous wall. And I've contacted MTA to see if they can give us the wall so that we can bring the entire community together to create a mural about climate justice and the stories of this community so that the minute that you hit Sunset Park, you know who we are, you know what our history is, and you know that we're all in on addressing climate justice.

That's my vision for Sunset. My vision for Sunset is that we can keep it working class and we can model what it's like to engage people in an intergenerational, multi-ethnic, multi-racial way to be part of a Just Transition vision. And so it's not enough to have a vision and to be aspirational, you need to be able to develop the systems that make it possible for us to operationalize that.

When I was little, I wanted to be revolutionary, I was watching the Young Lords on TV. And my grandma said to me, "You can't eat revolution." And what that taught me was that regardless of what my own political orientation is, that I really needed to listen and honor what people in the community were saying and what they need. So I want very much to be able to honor that struggle. And that struggle means they want jobs, they want their kids to get an education, they want to be free from ICE raids.

You can do it if you're doing it in a way that celebrates community, that is anchored in culture, and that is joyous. And so for me, and for us, it's impossible for us to think about infrastructure, to think about transportation amenities, and open space without thinking about culture, without thinking about arts, without thinking about music, all the different things that make up a people and integrating that into operationalizing the just transition.

That's my vision. It's a big vision. I do believe it's possible.

5. Be a pain in the ass

You've got the Big Green organizations and you've got all these new emerging organizations all jockeying for the front, thinking that the organizing happens in social media, stepping on each other's feet, stealing the narrative from the grassroots, and not knowing how to show up in a way that builds our power. So for those people who think I'm difficult or a pain in the ass, I am, because I think that that kind of extractive culture is what got us here. And I just think that if we worked with each other in a way that was fundamentally different, we'd be moving a lot faster. But instead, it's this competitive, top-down culture that is slowing us down. These are our allies.

We're dealing with the right and we're dealing with climate deniers, but we're also dealing with folks that should be working with us in a way that is fundamentally different, and haven't learned yet.

This is the abuse of privilege, this is why we have tensions.

Don't turn me into the poster child. Don't put me in the limited, minoritized community box. We got people here that are scientists, that are engineers, that are artists and they're all from the community, they are people who grew up in these communities.

This plan that we have for an industrial waterfront would bring in on a conservative level about 26,000 jobs. And so when Industry City was really talking about, I think seven... And they couldn't even document it, about 7000 jobs that would be office, that would be retail — in an industrial sector that really needs to be building for a Just Transition. That's what the industrial sector was created for, to build things. Not for retail, not for avocado toast, like I jokingly say often, but to build for things.

Infrastructure, if planned properly, connects communities with each other, uses the built environment and makes it possible for us to economically thrive.

People often think of organizations like ours and communities like ours is, "That's just a local thing and we need to be thinking meta, and we need to be thinking big." And we're saying, "This is a working class waterfront community. And this is a model that can be replicated and build up to scale and can have regional impacts." So even the way people think of our community is very small, "That's a little idea." In the meantime, you're not doing the big things, and you're not doing the little things either. You know what I'm saying?

And one of the things that's really clear is that this community really cares about climate change. They care about the health and the future of their children, they know what climate change is, and they have consistently talked about... I have flyers from 1997 and 1998 where they were talking about a green port. That's what they called it, a green port. And now we have different language for it. It can't be top down, it can't be cooked and baked in our office, they need to own it.

If we're engaged in energy democracy, that there is community ownership. There's a whole lot of things we don't know but it hasn't stopped us from doing them.