WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
ART BY JAYDRA JOHNSON
In the era of climate calamity, what is love? The Frontline talks to three climate couples—folks in the movement who won’t let a burning planet keep them from its greatest gift: love.
I keep a book on my desk with a simple title: Love. I first bought this book—a collection of love poems, quotes, and passages—when I was just in high school. I held onto it with the hopes of gifting it to someone one day. But I didn’t want to hand it over to just anybody; this would have to be my somebody. Two semi-serious relationships came and went, and yet the book remained. It wasn’t until my current boyfriend and I shared our first “I love yous” that I finally let the book go. It eventually made its way back to me once we moved in together.
In the book, there’s a quote from German writer Jean Paul: “Paradise is always where love dwells.” These days, paradise may feel scarce. We’ve seen extreme heat spur disastrous wildfires on Greek beaches and hurricanes besiege archipelagos like Puerto Rico. Politicians continue to drag their feet to save our planet from burning to the ground. And yet, love is where we can build our own paradise, shielding ourselves from the pain and disbelief that accompanies climate grief.
Welcome to The Frontline, where love is the cure. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. The people who dedicate their lives to climate justice are a special sort—many of whom gravitate toward each other because of their shared work. Today, we celebrate these so-called climate couples and their stories. There’s nothing more beautiful than finding—and committing to—love even when the world feels like it’s on the brink of collapse.
Elizabeth & Eddie
The climate crisis didn’t bring together Elizabeth Yeampierre and Eddie Bautista. Though the two are now some of New York City’s most-recognized climate and environmental justice leaders, they bonded in their 20s organizing against the violent mistreatment of the city’s Latine community. “Nothing says romance like a case of police brutality,” joked Bautista, the executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.
Jokes aside, the New York City of the 1980s was unlike the one we know today. When the police weren’t targeting Latines, the Italians or Irish were, explained the married couple of 23 years. Both were dedicated to changing this reality, so they spent the first year of knowing each other as comrades on the frontlines before their relationship blossomed into something more.
Bautista wanted Yeampierre from the moment he saw her—and she was smitten, too—but he didn’t waste time chasing her. He knew this was a sister whose trust he’d have to earn. It was at a party in the Bronx where they finally sealed their love with a kiss. “That was it,” blushed Yeampierre, the executive director of UPROSE, a climate justice organization in Brooklyn.
Thirty-four years and a son later, the two still fight—both with each other and for their people. They wouldn’t have it any other way. They’re committed to each other despite the challenges. After all, challenges are inevitable when two children of the diaspora come together in union. Add on the stress of working as a climate activist? It’s not easy.
“When you have people of color who are coming from all kinds of oppression, you take that shit out on each other,” Yeampierre said. “At some point, you have to understand that even that is political: the fact that we are being prevented in our communities from being couples because we’re bringing all the historical baggage into the relationship.”
And yet they’re here—as in love as ever. They celebrated Valentine’s Day on Saturday, but dates are common for them. Bautista never quit being un romántico. The cards may have been stacked against them, but they know that’s never a reason to give up. It’s only fuel to go even harder.
Elijah & Jerome
What’s more precious than young love? Jerome Foster II and Elijah Mckenzie-Jackson are 19 and 18, respectively, but their youth makes their love all the more special. The two finally met in Glasgow, Scotland, after two years of online friendship when they attended the international climate negotiations known as COP26 almost four months ago. Foster II was attending from the U.S. and Mckenzie-Jackson from the U.K. They didn’t let long-distance keep them apart for long; the love birds are finally building a home together in New York City.
Mckenzie-Jackson, an artist and climate justice activist with Fridays for Future, grew up with two moms. He’s bisexual and has always been pretty out and proud about his identities. While he was attracted to Foster’s political activism, he was also drawn to how different Foster’s life was. Foster, a White House environmental justice adviser and co-editor in chief of international youth-led news site The Climate Reporter, grew up in a conservative family. They didn’t come out until meeting Mckenzie-Jackson.
“Finding love requires that you understand yourself. Even though I came from technology and [Mckenzie-Jackson] came from art, we have that same mindset about how do we build a better world?” Foster said. “It’s like the perfect union. That’s what’s important in finding someone in the movement: finding different perspectives to learn from each other.”
Now, the couple lives unapologetically. They know how to lean on each other. They also know that their personal sustainability is crucial in a movement that demands a lot from its young people. They don’t want the work to consume them entirely.
“The work we do will always take a toll on our personal lives,” Mckenzie-Jackson said. “It means so much to us. It’s not just a job you can end and not think about. It’s about the world ending, right? That’s really difficult.”
For the first time, the two have space to think not only of the planet and other people—but of each other. With their new home on the horizon, they plan to take time to be kids and enjoy one another. That’s what love’s all about: seeding joy.
Chris & Dany
Dany Sigwalt and Chris Roberson share the ultimate meet-cute. Roughly nine years ago, Sigwalt, the executive director of the youth-focused Power Shift Network, was riding her bike home when she caught a flat tire. She pulled into a local bike shop alley when she was approached by Roberson, the executive chef at the Highlander Center, a retreat center for grassroots organizers where he focuses on food justice. Though Roberson couldn’t fix Sigwalt’s tire, he could walk her home—a walk that changed the course of their life.
Today, the couple shares a three-year-old they’re raising with an awareness around waste and consumption. “We’re teaching that value comes from our own joys,” Roberson explained. The family of three is sure to spend time outdoors hiking and camping. However, Sigwalt and Roberson don’t necessarily approach climate work in the same way. While Sigwalt is focused on tearing down systems of oppression in her work with the Power Shift Network, which facilitated the birth of the Sunrise Movement, Roberson looks at the innovation climate change makes possible. Their different lenses complement one another.
“The things that create despair or worry for one of us don’t necessarily do it for the other, which is great because it’s not the same things pulling us down,” Roberson said. “Therefore, our hopes are also mixed and enriched by the differences that give us fuel to do the work.”
Still, climate change is hard work—especially as two Black individuals in a predominantly white space. The pandemic layered with what Sigwalt described as “the emotional realities of being Black in America” exacerbated the negative emotions that come with facing the severity of the planet’s ecological collapse. Luckily, the two are a team. They have each other when the world may feel like too much to bear.
“Being able to talk to Chris about stuff has been really grounding,” Sigwalt said. “Helping me figure out how to move with authenticity and purpose while navigating a very white climate space was important to me.”
As for advice? Sigwalt doesn’t hesitate. “Marry a chef,” she laughs.