United Puerto Ricans of Sunset Park
Elizabeth Yeampierre takes a spiritual approach towards work that could equally offer success in any area of life. "If you organize out of love," she says, "things fall into place."
Of course, that idealism requires dedication, work, and an uncompromising vision. But for Yeampierre, the executive director of UPROSE (United Puerto Ricans of Sunset Park), to think otherwise undermines human potential. "Everything starts with an idea," she says. "We need to believe we can change things, and we have." Brooklyn’s Progress, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce’s monthly newspaper, says that "‘thinking out of the box is native to Yeampierre. If she has her way, we may see Sunset Park’s roofs planted with grass and trees and turned into parks."
UPROSE desperately needed that innovative vision when Yeampierre came aboard in 1996. Founded in 1964, UPROSE is one of Brooklyn’s longest running Latino social service groups. But by the mid-’90s it had become a floundering organization. Enter Yeampierre. "UPROSE suffered what we called the ‘big Giuliani hit’: it had lost all city funding, and was about to go under," she says. "I was asked to come in because they wanted someone who could save the organization. And we didn’t have a big budget, but we had a lot of resources and people." An emphasis on environmental issues was one addition Yeampierre, a former civil rights lawyer, brought to UPROSE’s agenda. Her initial staff of three soon numbered 21, and before long they were also focusing on social justice issues.
Today UPROSE has about 90 volunteers, or "youth organizers," as they prefer to call themselves. The spacious building where they convene offers a safe haven, recreation, and a meeting place to confront important issues. These elements facilitate a commitment to self-empowerment. "We found that, as a result of their activism, [young people’s] grades improved, their behavior improved," Yeampierre says. "It has to do with making choices over your life, being an advocate for yourself." UPROSE eliminates the hierarchy teens experience in other settings and allows volunteers equal say in what campaigns the organization tackles. "At UPROSE, everyone’s equal," says Murad Awawdeh, a 16-year-old Bard High School student and editor-in-chief of UPROSE’s future publication Bring the Buya. "Everyone treats each other with respect. Whereas in school, you have to say what the teacher wants you to say, where they refrain you from saying certain things."
Not at UPROSE. "We choose things that effect our community, that effect other people’s communities," says 20-year-old Frank Torres, a youth organizer for seven years at UPROSE. A recent successful campaign involved blocking a pre-application from Sunset Energy Fleet to build a power plant in Sunset Park. "We are the only grassroots organization to ever defeat a NYPA (New York Power Authority) power plant application," Torres says proudly. Such accomplishments don’t come easy. "Victories in the environmental front are few and far between," says Hugh Hogan, director of Open Space Equity Campaign at the New York City (NYC) Environmental Justice Alliance. "You see a lot of little victories, but very few of this magnitude."
Such David-and-Goliath successes make UPROSE a powerful asset in an indignant community. "The city is in the habit of imposing horrendous environmental burdens on areas just like Sunset Park— full of low-income immigrants without the influence or time to fight back," says Dave Cutler, executive director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance. "It’s pathetic what the city has allowed to happen to what was once the busiest harbor in the country, and Sunset Park is about as bad as it gets in that regard."
UPROSE seems determined to turn these disasters around. One current challenge involves replacing the Gowanus Expressway— the elevated highway along Third Avenue— with a tunnel. Experts believe replacing the existing obsolete highway will cost more than building a tunnel, which according to the New York State Department of Transportation would run about $700 million in 1990 dollars. According to the Gowanus Expressway Community Coalition, a tunnel also "would bring a divided community back together; it would get rid of urban blight and the source of air pollution [and] free up Third Avenue and the Sunset Park waterfront."
Cutler offers a more specific argument for the tunnel. "Asthma is worse in New York than in any large city in the US, and the worst asthma here is in locations like Sunset Park next to the Expressway," he says. "As far as I know, almost no one suggests that the expressway’s current structure— high above the ground, where pollutants can be dispersed over a huge, heavily residential area— results in anything other than a maximization of the asthma hazard." Yeampierre confirms this theory. "The Lutheran Medical Center did a study that showed that the majority of the asthma discharges lived along the Gowanus," she says. "And even Lutheran is willing to admit a lot of asthma is caused by the accumulation of environmental burdens." UPROSE volunteers remain realistic but committed to the tunnel. "Building it will take a long time," says 18-year-old UPROSE youth organizer Jonathan Fonseca. "But we’ll spend the effort and time because it’s affecting our health and the health of our neighbors."
Those neighbors happen to comprise a very diverse community. "UPROSE has taken a lead role among groups representing the Latino, Palestinian, and Chinese populations," says Cutler, and "they do substantial work with all three populations, at least at the youth level." Doesn’t that makes the "Puerto Ricans" in the organization’s name a little misleading? Yeampierre says that yes, UPROSE was founded by Puerto Ricans, but "there are a lot of different backgrounds bringing something to UPROSE… We are a place that really celebrates multiculturalism." UPROSE’s meeting place makes that absolutely clear, with placards that read "Stop the Hate B4 it’s too late" and "Hate Free Zones." Their recent holiday display encompassed Christmas, Chanukah, Ramadan, and Kwanza symbols. "If there’s a space where people know [bias] isn’t acceptable, they take that home," Yeampierre says. "It’s the difference between organizing because you hate a situation and organizing because you love your community."
Perhaps more than their peers, the youth at UPROSE seem committed to this principle. Awawdeh, like many Arab people, understands prejudice’s ramifications. "I’m Palestinian, and my mother wears the veil," he says. "People would stare at her and throw things, and that affects me." Despite these experiences, he remains optimistic. "I was worried [about discrimination] at first, but then I realized people cared and there was nothing to worry about," Awawdeh says. "It’s really sad that something bad had to happen for everyone to get along with each other, to show that they care."
That "something bad" was, of course, 9/11. "A lot of Arabic youth dropped out [afterwards]," Yeampierre says, "because their parents worried if they were activists someone would also think they were terrorists." Other setbacks for UPROSE included loss of funding and, more cumbersome, loss of freedom. "We were really stunned that, despite all the rhetoric about unity and one nation, the same discriminatory policies were being implemented," she says. "There’s a tremendous throwback right now on civil rights [and] we’re losing everything we struggled for."
Despite those obstacles, the organizers at UPROSE remain committed to Sunset Park’s future. Torres wants more space for recreation. "During the summer, you’ll go to the park and they’ll be nowhere to move," he says. "Other times it’ll be closed because of other issues for who knows how long." Awawdeh hopes the waterfront along Third Avenue becomes a park and recreational area. UPROSE youth organizers Jennifer Fonseca (Jonathan’s twin sister), 18, and Joseph Diaz, 22, hope more people their age will become involved. Yeampierre holds the most developed vision. "I’d like to see this community has a high school," she says, "and make efforts to thwart gentrification and build low-income housing. I hope that whatever comes up, we’ll be able to handle the task."
She may soon find out. One of UPROSE’s biggest challenges recently resurfaced in December 2002 when Sunset Energy Fleet applied to place a power plant in Sunset Park. UPROSE organizers, though, seem prepared to retackle their 2000 victory. "Right now we’re educating people, trying to make them aware of the issue," says Torres.
David Cutler finds that organic approach crucial for Sunset Park’s future. "With most local nonprofits overwhelmed with needs for direct social services, UPROSE’s focus on advocacy for the community’s interests is absolutely vital," he says. That devotion, along with organizers like Torres’ unfettered optimism, reinforces Yeampierre’s commitment to organize out of love. "If we don’t see these changes, you’ll still see us organizing and educating the community," he says. "If we did all that work, and were able to defeat Sunset Energy Fleet, we could keep on at it again. It’s the small victories that make everyone want to continue."
Jason Boehm is a writer based in Sunset Park