This case study is based mainly on an interview with Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of UPROSE on August 5, 2020, as well as the documents she has suggested, including their website.
UPROSE is located in Sunset Park, an industrial waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn. It is New York City’s largest Significant Maritime & Industrial Area (SMIA) with a deep-sea port, a designated Industrial Business Zone (IBZ), and a Brownfield Opportunity Area (BOA). It is a diverse and culturally rich working class community with a majority of Latino and Asian residents. Over the years, environmental justice activists have developed a number of initiatives to improve environmental conditions, support the development of clean industry, green jobs, and clean community owned energy sources, as well as to resist the displacement of low-income residents through gentrification. In September 2020, the community succeeded in preventing a rezoning effort that would have converted part of its manufacturing land into a mega-development for hotel and office space, and UPROSE put forward its alternative plan for the Green Resilient Industrial District: GRID (https://www.uprose.org/the-grid).
UPROSE is a grassroots organization in Sunset Park, Brooklyn that was established in 1966 to address the unmet needs of the Puerto Rican community. It is now “an intergenerational, multi-racial, nationally-recognized, women of color led, grassroots organization [in Sunset Park, Brooklyn] that promotes sustainability and resiliency through community organizing, education, leadership development and cultural/artistic expression in Brooklyn, NY.” (https://www.uprose.org/#).
Mission and guiding principles:
UPROSE’s culture of practice is anchored by the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing that was adopted by activists who met on Globalization On December 6-8, 1996. Forty people of color and European-American representatives met in Jemez, New Mexico, for the “Working Group Meeting on Globalization and Trade” that was hosted by the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice. The “Jemez Principles” represent the common understandings between participants from different cultures, politics and organizations (https://www.uprose.org/values).
- Be Inclusive
- Emphasis on Bottom-Up Organizing
- Let People Speak for Themselves
- Work Together In Solidarity and Mutuality
- Build Just Relationships Among Ourselves
- Commitment to Self-Transformation
Membership and community/women’s participation
UPROSE is not a membership led organization, but follows and staff's community priorities. The number of community residents who participate in UPROSE’s activities depend on the type of activity or event. Before COVID about 25 people would participate regularly, but sometimes, as little as three people would show up. In the direct actions about 300 people would show up. Digital events have attracted around 2500 people. Also, there are people in Sunset Park, who have never come to a thing, but consider themselves part of UPROSE. It's hard to quantify. Over 75% of the participants are women.
UPROSE was set up as a traditional organization with a board of directors and executive director and staff. The board predominantly made up of BIWOC plays a much more active role than they have in the past in terms of engaging in governance, our campaigns ,development and with our advisory board. It is a small board made up mostly of frontline BIWOC for a long time. We provide comprehensive reports on all our campaigns and decisions are made as a team. The board of directors is aligned with our mission, there's deep love and trust, and they meet all of our youth and staff.
At the staff level, we have staff meetings twice a week, usually on Mondays and we never know what direction something is going to take. The truth is that the bottom line is what's in the interest of our community, and it is a team decision.
Coalitions and Partnerships
UPROSE is part of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA), NYRenews , Climate Works for All and the national Climate Justice Alliance.
Space and Budget
UPROSE’s annual operating budget is $1.2 million. It has recently moved to a new space in a new office building that it shares with the NYC-EJA
The idea of being in an office building still bothers me. Is this the right space? Are we sending the message that we're out of contact with our community that we're not accessible? I wanted us to be at a storefront with a big sign that said, "climate justice center," so everybody who walked by would see it and walk right in, but the community loves it. When the interns came in last week, they got very excited and said they wanted to come back. We are practicing social distancing here, but they love being in this space. It's cheerful; it's got a lot of sunlight and community art. We've met with some of the organizers of the community in the space and they just love it, too. That for me was an affirmation that this was the right space. One of the things they said over and over was, “we deserve to have a nice space.” “you deserve it”, “we deserve to have something beautiful”. So that kind of took me out of that scary space where I was thinking, I want to be a storefront for people to be able to walk in from the street. I wanted the conference room to look radically different from any conference room that I've ever seen. I wanted the sunflowers and art and the space to deliver a message. I wanted people to walk in and be inspired and changed just by the room itself. I think our space does that. So everybody's happy. We love it and the community really loves it.
Women use the space. In the old space, we organized women's circles, healing circles, self-defense classes. We've had a group of women who came together to create quilts and organize a quilt making session while talking about domestic abuse. The new space has not been as communal only because just after we moved in we had to deal with COVID, so nobody's been here. But in the old space, people came in to do hip hop and salsa dance classes, watch and critique films and community made media. We had plays and shows like Theater of the Oppressed and a performance of the Vagina Dialogues. Everything from arts, to workshops for children, for little kids, all came out of the community. We just provided the space and the staff support for them.
When, how and why did you join the organization?
I am a NYC born and raised Puerto Rican. My family lived in the upper west side when we were displaced by Robert Moses. We never experienced stability. I went to 5 schools in 8 years. My grandmother came to the United States with her children in the 40s and moved into a
working class, racially mixed community in the upper west side. When we were displaced, we lost a community of care where people on the block looked out for each other. They shared food and clothing and took care of each other’s children. I know they took care of me as a little girl. I was very shy, painfully shy and remember never feeling safe again after we were displaced. Going from school to school shut me down and I didn’t speak until I was about 19 years old and only did so because I decided if I was going to be a lawyer, I had to start talking. I still think that I'm a shy person, even though people don't see that. The person that you see is the advocate, the activist. The assertive and aggressive person came out of my knowing that I had to fight for my people. It is hard. Sometimes when I do a lot of public speaking, I'm exhausted and I need to be all by myself to just gather my energy because I think my nature is still a pretty quiet, shy person. I forced myself to become this way over time because of different experiences, mostly the patriarchal and racist experiences I had as a young woman.
I went to five schools in eight years. We were uprooted several times. I lived in Harlem, Washington Heights and South Bronx, on Simpson Street. I didn't really start school until third grade, because there was no teaching in the classroom. I was terrified to go to school, and my mom would just keep me home. My family had all the problems that many did in the South Bronx. My grandmother lost the last half of her 13 children to hunger and disease in Puerto Rico. The rest of the family went on to live in public housing in Puerto Rico in Santurce, in what's considered the most violent public housing, Caserio Llorens Torres in Santurce and the surviving 7 children came with her to the US. My mom was about 4 when she arrived in the US. Life was always hard.
My grandmother taught me a lot of political lessons, and I adored her. She never smiled and nobody asked her why. She came to the United States with what was left of her children and I just really wanted to know her story. So I asked her a lot of questions and drove her crazy. For example, when I was nine, when she told me that she liked Muñoz Marin, I would get mad at her because I, despite being 9 years old, supported independence in Puerto Rico and dreamed of leading a revolution, or armed insurrection against colonialism in the island. I had black, tightly curled hair and I would wear fatigues, and march around saying, "patria o muerte." I was very influenced by my Black Cuban stepfather, who would talk about Castro in the most loving way. My grandmother would say to me, “Revolution doesn't put food on your table. I needed to feed my children. My children died from hunger and from disease”.
That was an early lesson of making sure I met people where they were at and refrain from speaking for them. There is the political framework and the core values we have, and then there is what is practical, and what people on the ground are telling us they need. You have to honor that it is a privilege to have access to a formal equation and fight for a vision,, but on the ground, people still have to eat and they still need food, they need to have shelter. So my grandmother without realizing it was teaching me that I needed to always listen to people on the ground and honor their struggle, and that I could never let my education or any opportunity that presented itself to me get in the way of honoring that.
I grew up going through a lot of things on a personal level, physically, emotionally, and endured a lot of suffering and a lot of pain. I think that the one thing that made it possible for me to succeed was being told “no” by white people. I was told that I would never get into high school. And so I did, and in my first year in high school, I got a 67 in Spanish, and a 75 in English. A white teacher told me that I couldn't speak either language, and so I became an “ A “ student in both and was exempted from final exams because I scored so high. When I applied to college I was sort of developing my voice. My school was predominantly Black and Puerto Rican and we were actively discouraged from even applying to college -- my grandmother had paid for me to go to Catholic school. Anyway, we all scored in the top 10% of the class and we all got into our colleges. I remember moving into college with shopping bags, just happy to be there and being made fun of by roommates. I then went to law school and graduated despite financial hardships. Some of us get through.
So I have had amazing opportunities. I've spoken at Harvard and Yale Law School several times; I've been invited as a thought leader to speak at the Pasteur Institute, with international thought leaders. There is nothing that I have accomplished or that I have been able to do that has removed me from identifying as a working-class person, as somebody who comes from struggle. I feel I was blessed with the ability to communicate clearly. For me, the bottom line is being able to connect to people's hearts and minds on the ground. I feel that if I lose that, and if I am not accessible to people in my neighborhood and to the people who look like my mom, then I am a failure. I will then become part of the petty bourgeoisie and part of the folks that are completely disconnected to what really matters. I know that everything that I've accomplished is because of people who struggled and opened paths for me. I've been very blessed to have mentors that have opened those doors for me. And so, I try to build and sustain a leaderful intergenerational space, where I am also creating paths for the emergence of leadership that is transformational. I work hard to do that. I've had to work hard to unlearn everything that's been taught to me, to decolonize my education. A lot of the goals and aspirations are capitalist, they are transactional, and they are patriarchal. It's the only education we've ever had. So I feel that I am in this perpetual state of learning new things, and testing myself to be a better human being and to be a vehicle for transformation. I am perfectly flawed; I know that I am.
But I think a lot comes from literally growing up and seeing all the pain. From the time that I was very little, I saw people spit on my gay Black uncle Roberto and throwing things at him and me, lodging my little body across him to protect him from people throwing rocks at him, I think it was at that point, I remember thinking I will never let anything like this happen to my family. That's what I'm going to do when I grow up.
I guess the other thing that's really important is that I grew up in an Orisha family, in Yoruba traditions. From the time I was little, there was a consciousness about my Black and Indigenous ancestry. In my family there were people visiting from Brazil, Panama, Cuba and the global south. In the house, there was drumming, singing and the sharing of oral histories, which are called Patakis. We would sit down in front of the shrine and told stories going back to ancient times. . I know a lot of the Patakis. I am an initiate, and my brother is a babalawo, and my mom is Santera. For 47 years, I grew up in this African belief system that honors mother earth and experienced the world in our house. It was political. And it looked like everybody, you know, and we knew our history and what we needed to do to have power. We were descendants of the African Diaspora.
My mom told me, you're light skinned, but the ship stopped in the Caribbean on the way up and our people are everywhere. So I felt like my people were my people wherever they lived. Those traditions shaped my politics and my core values and my spirituality and my organizing. Christianity was seen as responsible for the enslavement and colonization of our people, but an exception was made for Jesus. Jesus was venerated. I was told that Jesus was cool, that Jesus was an amazing organizer, that the disciples were organizers, and that Jesus stood for social justice and that he flipped capitalist tables. I was taught that. I grew up learning about Gods and Goddesses and feeling that Christianity in terms of its manifestation in our life was imperialist, colonizing, extractive, enslaving even though I went to Catholic school. Catholic school was just an alternative for the working class because there was no learning going on in public schools.
UPROSE is a frontline-led grassroots women of color led organization that is intergenerational. We see our organization as being a space that staffs the community. We get our charge, our marching orders, and our priorities from the community. So I’d say most of our campaigns have come from what the community has told us is important and timely and necessary. The fight against Industry City, when we've never done anti displacement work, came from the community. Getting back the B37 bus, extending the median, the park, fighting the power plants, Climate Justice Center, all came from the community. Literally the community telling us that these things were the priorities. Even the forum that we hosted recently for the debate for state assembly -- It was the community residents that asked us to put it together. At the last minute we organized that and got people to support us to do it on a platform that we had never done before. And we had a few thousand viewers. All of those things come from the community.
Foundation and evolution of UPROSE
UPROSE was founded in 1966 by Puerto Rican activists who were trying to meet unmet needs. They created a social service organization with educational support programs that were very traditional. I never met the founders of the organization. Every once in a while, I'm in a group of elders where people will tell me they worked for UPROSE back in the 70s, 80s or early 90s. I was recruited in 1996 because the organization had lost most of its money.
When I came into UPROSE there was no funding for my salary, and very little for the first three years, and the organization was a mess. The staff had never been supervised. There had been no leadership or professional training. Also during that time in the 90s, Giuliani had just basically defunded a lot of organizations that were founded during the Civil Rights Movement.
I spent the whole first year going to meetings, community board meetings, just listening, learning about the organizing culture of Sunset Park, and what the priorities were, what were the unmet needs and assessing who's doing what. I was also assessing what my strengths are and what the strengths of the people that I will bring into the organization that could add value, and complement the work that has already been done. I could list all the different organizations that did social services- I did not want to run a social service agency, the neighborhood was full of them and that was not my strength. My strength is organizing for social justice. So I decided early on that I didn't want UPROSE to be part of the nonprofit industrial complex, I didn't want the organization to be competitive. I wanted it to be a collaborative organization that focused and centered its campaigns on racial justice and organizing.
I remember the first two things that people brought to my attention. One was that the Gowanus Expressway was about to be expanded, and the concern that there was no community engagement. The other was that Sunset Park was in a lead belt, and that our council member was not supporting legislation for lead abatement. Both of those two things were environmental justice concerns.
The other thing that happened early on was that we had two or three young people who walked in with an interest in the organization. UPROSE was a storefront then, and my mom used to volunteer and answer the phone for us. My mom is like the mayor of any block. She is charismatic and persuasive and freaking brilliant- she's a natural organizer. People were really attracted to her energy. They'd come into the front office, they’d sit down and knit, they'd have lunch… And I would listen to their stories and what they were saying. So the young people came in and one was a sassy 12 years old who asked “what do you do here?” and I remember jokingly saying, “I'm the facilitator of your dreams, what do you want to do?” She wanted to know what I did. I said, “I am a lawyer, and I'm an organizer. And I will teach you everything that I know, if you fill up the place with young people.” And she did, she filled up the place with young people. She was the first person that we sent to Antarctica on a scientific expedition. The organization became a magnet for young people who were looking for something different and meaningful. The United Way programs that predated my arrival used a traditional youth development approach such as tutoring, homework help and educational remediation. We moved from that youth development model to youth organizing model. That meant that the young people would then be taking on complex issues like understanding legislation around lead, and organizing around transportation justice and environmental justice. They would have to start understanding science and infrastructure and engineering and math, and they'd have to know how to communicate that.
We witnessed immediate academic benefits and results, because we meaningfully integrated young people into leadership and provided them with support, so that they could lead on these issues. It was very nontraditional- we weren't thinking that our young people were unable to get good grades, even though they were getting poor grades. We believed that they had just not been engaged in a way that was exciting and meaningful. Their volunteerism wasn't relevant; the programs were picked for them. That very patronizing way of engaging youth renders them powerless.
We started out by educating them about how movements have been led by young people all over the country and in our history, whether it was South Africa, whether it was the Young Lords or the Black Panthers, or the American Indian Movement. We identified all the movements that were held by the Global South here in this country, and let them know that these people have changed the landscape so that we could have rights. We wanted them to totally walk in their power and the organization became intergenerational.
This intergenerational engagement process helps us start to create an identity and path for ourselves. We were that organization that was doing work that wasn't being done in Sunset Park by anybody - we weren't competing, just adding value. We listened to people at the Community Board, and noticed that older white folks from Windsor terrace led it. They were often vocally and boldly racist. They would make comments like, “She’s Latina with an accent. I don't even know why she speaks. I don't understand anything she's saying.” There were challenges.
UPROSE was founded by Puerto Ricans and maintains its Puerto Rican identity because we must honor the founders and a history of resistance. It is important because Puerto Ricans socio-economically lag behind every single racial and ethnic group, including new immigrants in New York. But because we are social justice activists, our world is big, our organization embraces and celebrates differences. We are really about building a movement and creating a space that unites. The first thing we asked people when they walked in the door was, "who are your people?" We would then take that story, and integrate it into our leadership training workshops. So if you were Egyptian, we would integrate something about Egypt, if you were Palestinian, we would integrate something. That was a way of us saying we see you and our struggles are connected to each other. We give high visibility to whatever group is going through something at the moment. Since 1996, there have been times when we put a lot of focus on the LGBTQ community and young people. There is a big difference between what happens to queer people of color and white queer people, and so we put our focus on those most impacted. When it was Palestine, it was the Palestinians. Right now there's a lot going on in Bangladesh and our approach has been to organize an event to put a spotlight on Bangladesh. When hurricane Maria happened in Puerto Rico, all of our resources were focused on Puerto Rico.
When we saw that the community was becoming more and more Mexican over the years, we had an event to bring the Puerto Rican and the Mexican community together because we knew that there would be political conflicts. We wanted to build relationships between our two communities. We've also done the same thing with the Chinese community. Those are our core values about movement building: making sure that we see and celebrate differences and not homogenize, and that we connect people through struggle, and use our resources in a way that is strategic, and that lifts people, and that we all work together to lift that group. that has evolved with time.
Our venture into environmental justice really came from the community. We were fighting for open space, but our young people were like, we got to fight the proposal for a power plant. Little by little, we became experts in environmental justice, and identified people who could be part of the complex and multidimensional body of work called environmental justice.
I had the opportunity to go with Ron Shiffman to Europe. I never had the luxury of traveling anywhere. When Ron organized this trip to Berlin and to Barcelona, we were trying to figure out what a Greenway would look like. The trip was an intensive planning one on one workshop for me. I learned about the language of planning and zoning and land use, and an enormous amount about how space could be repurposed and how you can integrate sustainability and anchor justice. Throughout that entire trip, I felt like I was going to graduate school on planning. I came back with a lot of ideas that exist to this day.
At UPROSE we share everything we've learned. If we send one person to a conference, that person has to come back and share so that there is continuing learning with each other. When I came back, I shared everything I learned with staff and volunteers. Ron doesn't like me talking about it, but it was a transformational opportunity for us. It was a reminder that the things that you all have spent your lifetime studying are inaccessible to a lot of people that are working at the intersection of those disciplines. That became an integral part of how we pushed environmental justice solutions, and marked our entry into the climate justice movement, which we did in 2006, before anyone was talking about it.
There was a lot of planning that was being done in Sunset Park waterfront, and we felt that planning couldn't go forward without thinking about what that meant for an industrial waterfront community, what that meant in terms of extreme heat and extreme winds and storm surge, and no one was talking about that. The 197A plan did not include that. The Brownfield opportunity programs did not include that or the Greenway design. So through our Brownfield opportunity area grant, we incorporated a climate lens into our community planning effort, and we were the first in the state to do that.
Major achievements and challenges
There are lots of challenges, and I'd say, we have had several substantial accomplishments. One is ensuring that this is a movement that is intergenerational. With the Climate Justice Alliance and the national work that I do, when I see things that I put out that come back, I know that I had something to do with it. It makes me really proud and really happy that people are using that language and that framework and that we are growing an intergenerational movement. The Climate Justice Alliance started out as an idea, and now it is a force of nature that has to be reckoned with nationally
In Sunset Park we stopped a rezoning application from a powerful developer and have been able to lay the foundation for offshore wind. We helped double the amount of open space, stopped the siting of power plants, created a climate consciousness and a community led plan for the future of our industrial waterfront and tools around how infrastructure intersects with health, that is multi-dimensional. The reason we are not using the word 'intersectional' anymore, but rather multi-dimensional is because we operate on so many different planes. It isn't just the intersection of all of our needs, and a particular issue, like racial justice, and climate change. It's also all of the different levels of power and spaces that we need to be able to push, so that we can create the kind of enlightenment that we need in order to survive, and decolonize our communities.
This idea of multi-dimensional for me, is how we have had to hold space for fighting not only the big greens, and fighting corporate raiders, and fighting the kind of nonprofit industrial complex, and all of the division that exists as a result of 500 years of colonialism, and extraction. I see all of those things as I'm planning and thinking and educating the base. So language is, I think, really important, because language has to land on people's hearts and minds, and it can transform how we operationalize or manifest a vision.
Here's the biggest challenge: We have the science, and the technology, and we know what needs to be done to address climate change.. The biggest challenge is privilege. There are a lot of people who should be aligned and working really closely with us, but they don't know how to give up privilege. They run to the front and engage in behavior that is extractive and competitive. They supplant local leadership, and want to be us without us. Building a groundswell of support and letting people from the frontline know that they can lead and that they have everything that they need in order to do that becomes even harder. People from the global south, they live within their carbon footprint, and they know how to make things, build things and grow things. And that local knowledge is necessary in order for us to survive the impact of climate change. But how do we do that when every single time that we have an idea, somebody literally appropriates the idea like the fossil fuel company extracts oil? We have to build just relationships- not just a just transition.
We won’t succeed unless we radically transform what relationships look like on the ground, and on every single level. This is what I see as the biggest obstacle because I really think that the science is there. The technology is there, the solutions are there, but the people are not there.
Climate change and disaster-related planning / advocacy
I first heard about COVID from my son. He had friends in China who were sharing a lot of information about what was going on there. So we immediately moved into action, even before it was in the press about what we needed to do to guard ourselves and to protect our organizations. We knew immediately what was going to happen and impact environmental justice communities even before the media discovered it, or rediscovered environmental racism, environmental justice. We knew that it was the people with upper respiratory disease, people with a long history and legacy of poor health as a result of toxic exposure, who were going to be the ones most impacted. I saw that in my family, it happened to me. It happened all over the United States in our communities.
We were also nationally preparing and thinking about what climate disruption was going to mean for our communities. We were creating toolboxes. If you go on the Movement Generation website or NYC-EJA, you'll see that we are examining things like rainwater harvesting, food security, green jobs and renewable energy. We were looking at how to protect ourselves and how to ensure social cohesion in the face of disruption. We didn't know that it would be COVID. COVID really knocked out a lot of us and reminded us how important it is that we be leaderful; that if somebody gets knocked out there's somebody else to step into the work.
UPROSE had already embraced the concept and framework developed by climate justice members of CJA called a Just Recovery. The idea of a People to People just recovery originally came out of Hurricane Harvey, devastating Houston, a city that's surrounded by petrochemical industries. We were developing this idea of what happens in the event of an extreme weather event. How can the community support and help each other? How do we all engage in collective care and make sure that nobody dies? And it was the framework that we used in Puerto Rico.
Communities create sectors of mutual aid and support each other in a lot of different ways. In Sunset Park, the first thing that people were concerned about was food. We've got big families, big Arab families, Chinese families, Mexican families. People lost their jobs, and there was no income security. The minute that there's no income security, people don't have access to food. So, our community mobilized around that on zoom and created a bunch of groupings. We weren't needed to do that, because it was work being held by groups that beautifully sprung into action. We did what we always do, which is to do an assessment of who's doing what to prevent duplicating efforts. We passed funds donated for COVID on to them to buy food. We included in all of the food packages literature, about community-owned solar, about all the different things people need to know to reduce expenses, and asked them how they wanted us to support them. What happens in these situations is that people step over each other's toes, desperate to take care of people. We always have a long yard approach. For example, in Puerto Rico we asked the people on the ground, what they needed, and what role we could play in the US to support what they needed for the long term. In the short term, everyone in New York was collecting food and water bottles and they were sending it to Puerto Rico. We were sending water filtration devices, solar cubes and solar generators, because we knew that they were using generators that operated on diesel that Puerto Rico leads the world on per capita basis. We were having meetings with funders, introducing them to people in Puerto Rico, and moved out of the way. We didn't think Puerto Ricans needed a middleman, which is often what happens in the United States. That's part of the just recovery: we work with each other in such a way that we remove ourselves and put somebody in a position where they can fend for themselves. And then, always ask what they need. The just recovery model is about identifying all the things that people need, from clothing, to medicine, to infrastructure, to food, water, all of it, and identifying the people that are going to do it and how that is to be funded, supported and sustained over time.
Right now, one of the things that we're sharing with our Sunset Park community is the role of climate justice in how we collectively move forward. People in the community are so excited that they're able to feed each other and that they are able to generate tons and tons of food for people in the neighborhood. We are saying to them, "but what happens when the food supply is depleted? What do you do if that happens? You are able to feed families right now as part of a mutual aid effort, because there is a supply chain. But if the economy tanks in the way we think it can because of recurrent extreme weather events or the next wave of COVID comes and that food supply chain stops. What do we do? That is where planning becomes really important. Looking at our rooftops, looking at our backyards, looking at how we grow locally, looking at how we connect to other sources of food for food security, independent of the market, how do we survive? Those are the scary conversations that we're having now.
That is one of the ways we complement and add value to the things that people are doing on the ground. This is what we're doing right now, but we can't continue this way forever. There's always going to be a disaster. We can't keep running, putting out fires, there's going to be a lot of fires. It's going to come to the point where we're not going to be able to sustain because it's all going to be very unpredictable. And climate change is going to exacerbate all of this. So what does that look like locally? This is the work that we're doing with the GRID, and the work that with the Pratt studio was so important for us. It is about not only taking your community off the grid, but how does the community thrive despite all of the imminent threats. How does it fend for itself? And so, when we think about COVID and a just recovery and climate change, we're thinking about it within that context. What do we need to do now, to make sure we're going to be okay 10 years from now, 20 years from now? We need to develop the human infrastructure to help us through all of this. We need to move away from stepping on each other’s toes, and really think about what we need for the long term right now, and how to build with each other in a way that is complimentary. It is also important to support people without stripping them of their dignity and their need for agency to be able to take care of their families and fend for themselves. The Savior mentality is about self promotion.
We need to think about stormwater management and rainwater harvesting and use our backyards, rooftops, fire escapes, and everything that is available, accessible and affordable to people so that they prepare- we recognize that water is sacred, and may be in short supply. The one thing that will go first as a result of climate change is fresh water. So, it has to be part of the work that we're doing, you know, people think about food, but they don't think about water, but that's the first thing that may be claimed by climate change. We recently had a big storm, that could have been an opportunity to capture all that water. It should have been captured. What New York City has plenty of is rooftops. Rooftops have become an opportunity for the privilege to have open space and to a lot of amenities but they're not seen as part of a design for addressing climate change or the needs of the most vulnerable.
Vision for the future and long-term sustainability of the organization
We focus on vision and mission, but we don't chase the dollars that derail our trajectory. We are nimble and adaptive at different times. The other important thing is that in becoming focused on the things we know how to do and do well – that we never neglect forget our connection to the base- it is the only way for an organization to evolve -- to evolve in strategies, to evolve in solutions, and to evolve in the areas that address root causes. We have evolved over time and grown based on community needs and priority of environmental climate justice. It is pretty broad, and encompasses a lot -- where we live, play, pray, and work. For example, when we were doing the anti-displacement work, we were asking organizations that worked on housing if this was something they wanted to do. Otherwise UPROSE is going to approach it from a climate lens, from a different perspective. I think organizations really hurt themselves by being dated by leadership that doesn't learn and evolve by not being intergenerational. By the way, if we only talk to people our age, we will quickly become irrelevant.
I really believe that the solutions are generated across generations. For me to sit through a Pratt studio, and hear them present charts and maps and data and research gives me ideas that would not have occurred to me -- ideas that are new, fresh, and necessary. One has to be open to constantly evolve and to language shifts. Two or three years ago, I would have never known of somebody who’d refer to oneself with the pronoun ‘they”. I grew up binary, but I have to be able to put myself in the space of embracing that concept and embracing that person's identity. That’s what I mean about this commitment to transformation, to self-transformation, and change. And if you're coming from a place of social justice, and you're coming from a place of love, then you have to be able to change your practice and open up and evolve- that applies to self and it applies to our culture of practice- transformation must be part of the work.
People think humility means powerlessness, and that you are shutting down your voice. Humility is just making your heart open to the possibility of learning new things and new concepts, and accepting brilliance in other people and making that part of how you build with a collective. Humility means knowing that if you're in a room with three people who know their stuff, you don't have to be the person that leads all the time. That leadership is a just a strategy like direct action or a press release, instead of part of an arsenal of strategies or tools that we use to build community power. We are leaderful and I think it's spiritual. Reading people's energy and people's spirit is not religious; that's just really connecting with spirit. I can be in a room with a lot of people in the community, and I will know exactly how they're feeling, how they're responding, how they're accessing information or not accessing information, I will know. And I will change my language based on what I'm feeling, which is why COVID has made it so hard. It's hard to feel people through this medium. It forces us to be more assertive in order to be heard and that is uncomfortable but we have to do it, because there's so much at stake.
Lessons from UPROSE’s experiences
I think people should learn to be comfortable in their own skin, and identify those things that give them joy. It’s that spirit that makes them want to fight for something. That collaboration is better than this practice of competition, and that they should move away from what other people define as success. I think people need to be fearless and realize that together we are so much stronger. That's not just rhetoric, that's real. I think they need to recognize that regardless of the level of education that they've gotten, it could be somebody like their grandmother who never had a formal education, who will school them, who will teach them about what it is they need to be doing and how to build community. That some of the answers and the solutions lie in places that they would never anticipate. I used to work on prisoners’ rights class actions when I was in law school. I remember that the inmates that I met were better lawyers than any of the lawyers that I ever met, because they had a way of navigating their way through the system and understanding the significance of words. It would have been arrogant of me to dismiss that and think that law school was providing me with all the tools I needed to be a better advocate.
And so people sell themselves short, because there was the sort of traditional, formal way of thinking about education, or formal education provides us with one set of tools that are necessary. But it's just one set and is very limited, and also, has been created by a lot of white men. So we need to be able to think beyond that and be comfortable with that. Also, I think people have to embrace being leaders, and know that nobody's leadership, or brilliance is threatened by somebody else's leadership and brilliance and that collectively we are more powerful. The capitalist way of thinking that we've learned and absorbed makes us jockeying for power and meetings, instead of being part of this intellectual playground, which is so much fun. We're not all the same, but collectively, we all bring something that is radically different and necessary for transformation. It is the difference in our approach that makes it possible for us to do amazing things. People need to be comfortable with the idea that everyone brings something that is necessary for us to engage in transformation.
An organization led by women
There is a really big difference. When I first met the Young Lords, I was in my early 20s, and they were way older, in their 40s. I looked up to them, it was an honor to meet them. But they were very patriarchal. I was relegated to passing out leaflets, but they didn't really want to hear what I thought about anything. I then met with the women that were part of Young Lords, I thought maybe I was being super sensitive, or maybe it was my ego, I didn't know what it was. The women told me the stories about what they called the Young Lords’ glass ceiling. So I realized that was not a space where I could function, I didn't know if it was because of age and I was a woman.
Our organizing as women is really different in that we bring our whole self. If you have a child, the child can come to work. And we will create a space where the child feels welcomed. We are collectively taking care of the child so that the mother can do the work and not feel that she's neglecting her baby; it is our community's baby. There's always food. We don't have to be asked. For example, when someone’s mother was sick and had a home attendant, I said, “You will have to leave the office every once in a while when the home attendant doesn't expect you so that you can show up. And she will know that it's not predictable, when you show up.” It's really taking care of the whole person; they're not just a worker. We spend most of our life at work. So work has to be a nurturing joyful place; it can't just be a grind. The work that we do is hard and heavy, and is also an extension of what we're trying to do for our families and our friends and our community. So the workspace has to be a place that is taking care of the whole person. When COVID happened, the women from the Climate Justice Alliance were really taking care of each other. We had circles that were very emotional. There were issues having to do with mental health that made things really difficult for a lot of people. There were attempted suicides in many organizations. We, as Executive Directors, didn't know how to navigate our way through and needed each other to learn how to deal with that and a lot of issues. We wanted to make sure that if our staff were homeschooling or doing stuff with their children, they didn't feel that they were going to lose their jobs. We sent gift packages to everyone. The moment that we heard that someone was depressed, flowers would show up, and if they were having trouble, food would show up at their door. Food showed up at mine, flowers showed up at mine, and of course, earrings showed up at mine. We did the same for each other.
It is a different culture of how men work with each other. Men work more in silos, in a very unhealthy way that has been part of their social conditioning. We don't work like that and yet, we generate an enormous amount of outcome and success. We get the work done. I think men sometimes think that when we joke around, and are playful and tell stories that we're not as focused and as productive as they are. But we are really focused and we are really productive. We just make space for who we are. If someone was suffering from depression, we match her up with somebody. It is different. I don't know how other organizations do it, but here, there is a feminist, women-centered, particularly women of color centered culture that honors our traditions, as women who come from struggle, and women who come from the global south, where we make our decisions in a circle. A few weeks ago, someone came in to do some healing for us, and put us through breathing exercises. We took three hours of our day to go through that, and have another session set up to walk us through what we need to do to heal because we're all holding so much anxiety and stress and fear, a lot of fear.
It's different. It's healthier. I wish men were more like that, because men die early. The intensity is so focused in one way, without making room for art, for music, for food, for community, for letting the stress out of your body. I think the most important thing is letting it out. I have five brothers, a son and a husband, and so on. Other women led organizations don't make space for boys. We do. We are intentional about including our boys, because we want boys to experience what it's like to be in a non patriarchal environment. Our boys are expected not to be patriarchal, not to be sexist, but nobody exposes them to different ways of thinking about power and privilege. We think there has to be a space where they see women in power and leadership, and that they are loved and engaged in that space. Someone has to introduce our boys to a different way of building power and community.
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