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Ousley Scholar Elizabeth Yeampierre on Challenges of Climate Change

On Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, this year’s Ousley Scholar in Residence, Elizabeth Yeampierre, delivered a keynote speech on climate change, the challenges it poses, and how it affects poor communities. The talk was organized by the Office of Academic Diversity and Inclusiveness and in collaboration with the Weissberg Program in Human Rights and Social Justice. 

Elizabeth C. Yeampierre is a well-known leader in environmental and climate justice activism for African and indigenous communities. Born in New York and educated at Yale University, she also serves as the executive director of UPROSE, one of the oldest Latino-based community organizations in Brooklyn. She has extensive experience in advocating for community based solutions to climate change, sustainable development, and environmental justice. 

Yeampirre pointed out that indigenous and poor communities bear the consequences of excessive use of land by the industrial sector for commercial use. “If we lose the significant amount of area in New York to the commercial uses, we will not only be displacing the local community and small businesses, but we won’t serve the regional climate need too,” said Yeampirre. “This shows the connection between the industrial sector and our survival.” She believes that when people are displaced from their communities, it “disrupts social cohesion” and eventually makes it impossible for people to survive.

She considers local unions to be “counter-effective” in the movements for environmental and climate justice. She explained that, “unions who are coming in to support the developers is a reminder about the fact that unions that we romanticize, and that we think are doing justice, are not thinking about the future. They think about whether they get paid right now, and are not thinking about their families.” When unions do not cooperate with climate justice movements, it makes it difficult for organizations like Yeampirre’s that advocate for the safety of workers who may be exposed to toxic materials in various industries. “We talk a lot about technology; we talk about the kinds of systems that we need in order to survive climate change, but the relationships are failing us,” she explained. 

Yeampirre insisted that climate change is a global challenge and when it comes to climate justice, people, communities, organizations, and countries should seek justice for all in a collective effort and not individually. She explained that many organizations don’t know the value of climate activism and only work for “ego, press attention, and funding,” and that their work doesn’t bring about a “real transformation” or prescribe tangible solutions. “Some organizations duplicate their efforts to acquire funding and really do not make any difference,” she said. She thinks that the approach to climate change should be with “humility” because it is a complex issue that takes time to resolve and affects everyone. 

Furthermore, Yeampirre gave the example of Puerto Rico with the longest history of colonialism, where the citizens feel responsible towards their climate and make active contributions to climate missions like reducing carbon emissions, good practices of recycling and the reuse of materials, and other sustainable practices. “When you grow up in a working class, you know the importance. This is how [the children of working class parents] grew up. We don’t need the campaign to teach us this, this is part of our tradition,” she said. 

She further talked about her organization and how it engages with various networks across states to have a collective impact and provide assistance to those affected. “We created National Alliance of Networks and also initiated a program that supports the front line, including farmers in Puerto Rico,” said Yeampirre. “Media wasn’t paying attention; we stepped in because so many people were dying as a result of what was happening on the island, and to provide accurate information.” Her organization also sends young people to various places for scientific “expeditions” to first learn and then contribute positively. 

As a solution to the problem, Yeampirre insisted that rural communities should be involved and represented in the decision-making process, and since the “survival of communities depends on each other,” there should be a strong cooperative relationship and interaction among communities to help address this problem.“People who come from privilege should stop shaming, respect the culture and the history of struggle,” said Yeampirre.

Extractive economy is hurting people such uranium contaminated water and other chemical industries that expose local communities to great harm by “dislodging” chemicals into water. She also said that education on climate should be given to the younger generation so that they can contribute better than their parents have. Finally, she encouraged everyone to embrace “radical self-management” practices in their day to day activities. 

The talk was also followed by a Q&A where students and faculty engaged with Yeampirre and asked questions.

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