WORDS BY Yessenia Funes
The Frontline interviews Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of New York City’s UPROSE, about her journey as a woman in the climate movement and on the powerful role women play.
The climate justice movement is full of badass women. The Frontline could spotlight one every day this month and still leave so many ignored. However, Elizabeth Yeampierre was one of the first leaders I met in person. She’s the executive director of UPROSE, a Brooklyn-based organization focused on a just transition to clean energy and community development. The first time I met her was more than four years ago when Grist brought a few climate people together in New York City to share conversation over a meal.
Elizabeth’s outspokenness left me feeling inspired. She pulls no punches and calls it like she sees it. She radiates an energy many women of color will be attracted to because, well, it feels familiar and refreshing all at the same time. She can so easily put into words what the rest of us are feeling and thinking yet unable to communicate. Y’all gotta see her in action to understand. Today, you’ll get a taste.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re spotlighting a fellow Latina in the struggle. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Our conversation covers a number of topics, including self-care. In that vein, I wanted to give y’all a little update: We want to bring you the best work we can without burning out ourselves, so we’re shifting The Frontline to a Monday and Wednesday publishing schedule. We want to refocus and bring y’all the best content we can, meaning more in-depth storytelling, hard-hitting investigations, and interviews with heroes like Elizabeth.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What does Women’s History Month mean to you?
Women’s History Month, for me, is like Black History Month in the sense that it’s every day. It’s not just a month, but it’s a life. And it makes me think about my maternal ancestors. It makes me think about all the women who mentored me on my journey to the work that I’m doing and played such a major part in my development, my political understanding, and my cultural grounding. It makes me think about all of them, and I hope that everything that I do honors them.
It makes me think about how hard it is for us and how when we’re together in a space, it feels like shared leadership. It feels like a space where children are always welcomed, and the complexity and challenges in our life are not separate from the work that we’re doing—and that we can hold space for each other in that way. And that is really comforting, particularly during these times.
The Climate Justice Alliance is really packed with women leaders. We’re leaderful, and that makes it possible for one of us to step out so another one can step in. It’s liberating to be able to work with each other in that way. And it’s also radically different from what I experienced coming up when I had to deal with a lot of patriarchal men and women who had a very narrow definition of what leadership was, who were very competitive, and who made one feel uncomfortable.
So at this time, where we’re dealing with so much—not just COVID but extreme weather events and attacks on our existence on every level—to be in a space with women who don’t come in with ego but bring in that culture that’s grounded in our maternal ancestors? That’s liberating. That’s refreshing. I don’t think I could ever go back to another way of working with people.
I’m glad that you brought up the Climate Justice Alliance. I wanted to hear a bit about the role women play in the climate movement—specifically, the global climate justice movement. It is clear women are the ones leading. What is their role, and how has it evolved?
Think about who we are. We’re the descendants of enslavement and colonization, we are people who come from people who’ve always honored Mother Earth. This climate justice work is just an extension of us honoring those traditions. How we treat each other is really important because a lot of the focus in this country is on outcomes. Did you pass the legislation? How many people did you serve? For us, a lot of it is also how our cultural practice reflects our core values, even building institutions that reflect those core values.
So if you look at the Climate Justice Alliance, we’re looking at a triad of leadership. Instead of an executive director, we’re trying to reimagine what a nonprofit can look like that anchors movement work rather being a part of the nonprofit industrial complex. We’re trying to make sure that we take care of each other in a way that honors our traditions. I think that really comes from struggle and the level of struggle that is uniquely faced by women—of having to take care of their community, their families, each other. We try really hard to not only make sure that we’re centered on the matriarchal, but that we are willing to engage in self-transformation. To be introspective and to challenge each other and ourselves; to be not only accountable to each other but to be tender and kind. That may sound like the soft stuff, but that’s hard stuff when you think about how colonized we’ve been and what our education has prepared us to be.
How have you seen this understanding and appreciation for women in the climate space evolve? You’ve been in the game for a minute, and I feel like nowadays there’s a lot of conversation around the role women play, the climate impacts that women globally face, and the leadership women bring to the table as well.
When I first came into the environmental justice movement, it felt very patriarchal. And it felt patriarchal coming from women, too, where it was competitive and everybody was sort of jousting to be at the front of the room and get all the shine. It doesn’t feel the same in the climate justice space. Everyone shares shine. Everybody shares leadership. We understand that when you’re talking about a threat as big as climate change, that our communities are all going to benefit from us being leaderful and from us investing and ensuring that we are intergenerational.
It was different in the EJ movement. Maybe because it was early on and because they were coming out of the civil rights movement and a tradition where you picked one or two iconic leaders. It felt very confining. The climate justice movement feels different. I think people celebrate being part of a leaderful movement as opposed to trying to find that one person.
“It’s important to rethink what leadership looks like, and it has to be grounded on matriarchy.”
It sounds like an environment that makes space for everyone, but I’m also hyper aware that being in this world can be exhausting. We were just talking about your physical health before the interview. How do you take the time and care for yourself to ensure your sustainability in this movement because we know that we need women like you, but you also need whatever you need to make that work possible.
Well, it’s really important that the movement be intergenerational. It’s important that we invest in developing leadership. When we do that, we can step out and then step back in again when we want to. Building trust is really important. There is so much at stake. I think that what we’re trying to do is to make sure that there’s enough of us so that we don’t have to worry. In New York City, it’s a little harder. New York City is like the bastion of capitalism and patriarchy.
Nationally, we’ve been able to create that space so that if someone’s not feeling well or needs to take care of a child or an elder, somebody else can step into that space. And that should be okay. No one should be threatened by that. That’s not the case across the board, but that’s the goal. How do we create a leaderful presence so that we are able to sustain over time? Because we have to. We have no choice. Anything else will burn us out.
To have a top-down iconic person who is everything to everybody—that will not only burn that person out. You also won’t have the benefit of the creative thinking of the collective. One person can only know so much. And climate change is vast, and it requires an understanding of a lot of different kinds of disciplines. In being leaderful, we can bring that vast breadth of knowledge to the table. If we follow an old patriarchal model of leadership, what you’re basically doing is limiting the thinking to one way of thinking, and we need more than that. We need to be bigger than that. It’s important to rethink what leadership looks like, and it has to be grounded on matriarchy. The conventional, dated, old ways of thinking will not be able to address the challenges of climate change.
What you said about one person only knowing so much is so important. This is such a vast space, and it’s important to have people who have their own knowledge and background to tackle it from all angles. Including in news rooms!
Yeah. It requires a lot of different perspectives and voices. It’s difficult because we’re living in a capitalist society that really thinks in a narrow way about what power and leadership looks like. And we’re basically challenging that and saying No, climate change is demanding another kind of leadership. It’s almost like the thing that created the crisis is also trying to define what the leadership should look like—and we’re saying no to all of it.
The “thing” that you’re talking about is capitalism and patriarchy?
100 percent. What women do you look up to?
When I was little, my hero was Lolita Lebrón. And then growing up, Antonia Pantoja, Iris Morales, Esmeralda Simmons, Marta Moreno Vega, Esperanza Martell… These are all women who, from the time I was in my late teens through now, mentored me and guided me—who would pull my coat, who would give me a different perspective. I try to be to another generation of women what they were to me. Through storytelling, they would sit down with me and walk me through all kinds of scenarios so that I would be able to anchor myself culturally and politically. And I will always be in deep gratitude for them because they were my education.
They were so necessary for my political development—and also for my fearlessness. I would add my mom to that. They did that for me as a young woman. Lolita Lebron was a fighter for independence of Puerto Rico. I, as a little girl, wanted to be able to lead a revolution for freedom in Puerto Rico. Little kids have different dreams, but when I was eight-years old, I’m watching the Young Lords on TV, and I’m hearing about Lolita Lebrón, and I was like That’s who I want to be. Antonia Pantoja passed away. She was the creator of a lot of our institutions. Marta Moreno Vega founded a bunch of institutions. Iris Morales was a Young Lord. Esperanza Martell is a healer and a shaman in our community.
The other women who have played a big role are the women who came after: younger women. I think that people sometimes think of mentoring as something that older women do for younger women. They don’t realize that we really do learn from each other across generations. There are times when I’m in a space with someone who’s 19 years old or much younger than me, and I’m listening and learning and changing. I’ve changed the way that I communicate. I’ve changed the way that I think about gender. I’ve changed the way that I think about so many things because younger people have taught me.
Sometimes the older person is a product of a lot of oppression and may not necessarily be carrying all that wisdom, but young people come with hope and with a renewed vision of a future that transforms. So I feel like mentorship is something that happens across generations and not just from older people to younger people. I certainly have changed, evolved, and benefited from being in community with people who could be my children. I’m really grateful to them.
The intergenerational thing is real. We won’t have power if we don’t have intergenerational power. That’s not just rhetoric. We can solve problems when we’re together.