From her office in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, nationally recognized environmental attorney Elizabeth Yeampierre looks out on a neighborhood cast from the melting pot of American life and built by Puerto Rican, Mexican, Dominican, Chinese and Indian immigrants. It’s an inspiring vision, but Yeampierre, who is herself of African and indigenous descent, is worried about the future of Sunset Park. Her neighbors, nearly one-third of whom live below the poverty line, work and dwell in the shadow of polluting factories, which Yeampierre believes are fueling all manner of respiratory illness.
In the coming years, climate change will multiply environmental risks, driving up the price of food while intensifying devastating storms. In the face of such threats, struggling families in neighborhoods like Sunset Park stand to suffer the most. Communities of color are among the most vulnerable to climate change and other environmental health threats in the United States — one study last year, for instance, found that non-white communities, on average, breathe more polluted air than white communities.
Yeampierre is determined to build a safer, healthier and more resilient community. It’s a goal shared by the larger environmental movement, but as she notes, little of the energy and resources of the biggest green groups trickle down to neighborhoods like hers. It’s because activists in these communities remain on the margins of the national environmental movement, which is dominated by white men and women from largely middle-class upbringings. Yeampierre believes that by sidelining local advocates in communities of color, these organizations dedicated to positive change are alienating potential supporters they will need to win larger fights on health and climate.
The numbers are clear. By 2042, racial and ethnic minorities will outnumber non-Hispanic whites in the United States, according to the Census Bureau. Yeampierre says this shift poses a challenge for the environmental movement, which must expand its reach if it is to remain politically relevant in the years ahead.
“The demographics are changing and so is the weather,” she said.
Yeampierre, who serves as Executive Director of UPROSE, a local environmental justice organization, says that big green groups have an important role to play in supporting the work of organizations like hers.
“We know the community so well that we know when to organize an event [or] how to communicate,” she said. What local environmental justice groups often lack is access to data, analysis or legal counsel. This is where larger organizations could lend a hand.
Big green groups, Yeampierre said, “have a lot of expertise. They have resources. They have knowledge that can actually compliment the work that’s happening on the ground.”
The most successful models, she says, are ones where well-resourced organizations help those on the front lines accomplish their goals. With New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, explained Yeampierre, “They say, ‘We’re your lawyers. What is it that you need from us?’… When you’ve got these relationships of trust and respect, the local campaign is stronger.”
“If a big green group helicopters into a community and makes all the decisions and takes pictures of our people so that our people are their poster children, maybe they’ll win that campaign,” she said, “but when they leave they will not have done anything to build community power.” In other words, Yeampierre says, even if they win the battle, they will have done little to win the war.
When movements work from the bottom up, rather than the top down, local activists feel more invested in their work. Yeampierre pointed to the Climate Justice Alliance, a coalition of community-based environmental justice organizations, as a success story.
“What they push nationally is literally being shaped and informed by those of us that do the work on the ground,” Yeampierre said. “The fact that CJA creates national initiatives that come out of the local struggle means that you don’t have to convince people on the ground.”
Some large environmental organizations are striving to be more inclusive. Earlier this year, Aaron Mair became the first African American president of the Sierra Club. He told Politico that the Sierra Club has “embarked on real systemic change.” The organization has joined the Building Equity and Alignment for Impact Initiative, an initiative of grassroots organizations, big green groups, and philanthropists aiming to move away from a “top-down, funder-driven approach, and toward a base-building, bottom-up, collaborative approach.” It’s precisely that kind of shift Yeampierre is yearning to see.
Environmental groups are also branching out into other social justice issues — the Sierra Club, along with Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, and other environmental groups, issued statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement last year, and some groups have also come out in support of immigration reform.
Yeampierre isn’t the only one pushing for more support from big environmental groups. Van Jones, founder of Green for All and environmental and civil rights advocate, told ThinkProgress in 2013 that there are many small-scale environmental justice groups that are working hard to protect the health of their communities, but they don’t always have the resources they need to make major changes.
“The mainstream donors and environmental organizations could be strengthened just by recognizing the other ‘environmentalisms’ that are already existing and flourishing outside their purview,” Jones said.
The stakes are high for climate advocates.
“If institutions continue to be top-down and resources continue to be distributed to other organizations to drive the agenda and make decisions for us, we’re not going to be where we need to be,” Yeampierre said. “This movement and this crisis requires everyone.”
Jeremy Deaton writes about the science, policy, and politics of climate and energy for Nexus Media. You can follow him at @deaton_jeremy.