“Fourth Avenue is a highway,” says Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of UPROSE (founded as the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park), Brooklyn’s oldest Latina/o advocacy group. Between 2006 and 2010, accidents—including 88 fatalities or severe injuries to pedestrians caused by cars speeding along the Avenue—were commonplace, which is why UPROSE launched a 2012 campaign to push the Department of Transportation to widen the median, giving pedestrians more room to stand and reducing the number of vehicular lanes from three to two.
“Within months of initiating this effort, the city acted,” Yeampierre continues. “These efforts usually take years so we were really pleased, especially since Sunset Park is the largest walk-to-work community in New York City. We simply wanted to slow cars down like they do in more privileged communities.”
For UPROSE, such traffic patterns are a matter of social justice.
Indeed, despite the ever-present threat of gentrification, Sunset Park is certainly not as economically privileged as nearby Park Slope. According to city-data.com, 44.9 percent of community residents are foreign born, the majority from China, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, and Poland. Just over a quarter of residents live below the poverty line. In addition, public health statistics show high rates of cancer and asthma, with the lower-income population vulnerable to diabetes and stroke.
Environmental degradation, UPROSE insists, is largely the reason why. Not only is the area’s population dense—39,710 people per square mile compared to 34,917 in other neighborhoods— but numerous factories, a waste treatment plant, contaminated brownfields along the waterfront, and the heavily-trafficked Gowanus Expressway contribute to the toxic release of arsenic, nickel, and other potentially carcinogenic chemicals into the community’s air.
Sunset is also one of six designated SMIAs—Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas—or in less formal parlance, a waterfront site with a heavy cluster of businesses that generate industrial pollution. Not surprisingly, community activists from SMIA-affected neighborhoods joined groups concerned about the disproportionate environmental burden of siting pollution-generating plants on community of color to form the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. UPROSE is part of the NYC-EJA.
Yeampierre has been at the helm of UPROSE since 1996. An attorney who previously worked at both the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (now called LatinoJustice PRLDEF), Yeampierre is also the chair of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council of the E.P.A. and has spoken at several White House events. She readily acknowledges the many Nuyorican activists on whose shoulders UPROSE stands. In fact, even though Sunset’s Puerto Rican population is now significantly smaller than it was when the group was created in 1964, Yeampierre is proud to pay homage to the organization’s founders and misses no chance to teach those involved in UPROSE about this legacy.
And, while the environmental issues UPROSE works on are mammoth, Yeampierre is quick to list the organization’s many achievements––in addition to enlarging the Fourth Avenue median, the efforts include planting trees and training youth to measure the carbon monoxide and particulate matter that contributes to respiratory distress. One of the group’s biggest victories came before Yeampierre took over. When the Dinkins administration announced in 1991 that it intended to build a 100-acre sludge composting plant along two miles of the Sunset Park waterfront, residents were aghast, fearful that such a facility would cause a slew of health problems, and UPROSE was part of a large coalition that defeated the proposal two years later. The group also helped stopped another unhealthy plan, this one to expand the Gowanus Expressway I-278.
“Our model is to teach young people to take ownership of their lives and empower themselves,” Yeampierre explains. “We don’t see our youth as being at risk. We believe they are at potential.” This is why UPROSE teaches them multiple skills, including how to use technology such as Geographic Information System, GIS, mapping, a tool that interprets patterns, trends, and relationships to highlight problems such as health disparities among different populations. Staff further trains youth to testify at public hearings, organize meetings and protests, do research, and develop strategies for community engagement.
In addition, as any seasoned organizer knows, long-term vision must be tempered with projects that can provide needed short-term victories. One UPROSE campaign, called School Lunch is No Good, SLING began in 2012 as an effort to improve food options at three schools with a heavy concentration of students from Sunset Park: Telecommunications, Fort Hamilton, and Al Noor. Student efforts led to tangible gains: The installation of a hallway water cooler at Telecommunications, the formation of an ongoing club at Fort Hamilton, and the planting of a vegetable garden, and the elimination of paper trays from the cafeteria at Al Noor.
“Whenever possible we try to move from fighting against something to building and planning in a way that is proactive,” Yeampierre says. Toward that end, this summer UPROSE will sponsor a NYC Climate Justice Youth Summit, its third, to teach youth of color about global weather shifts. “Most climate activists are young and white,” she adds. “But by 2042 the majority of this country’s residents will be people of color. Since U.S. demographics are shifting at the same time that the climate is shifting, we think it’s important that young people of color be trained to become environmental change makers.” In addition to providing an overview of the anticipated consequences of global warming, participants will also learn tangible skills like how to build storm barrels to capture rain water. “This will give urban youth a tool they can use to irrigate backyard gardens or wash cars and simultaneously ease demand on the existing water supply,” says Yeampierre.
Although teenagers are the target audience for the Summit, Yeampierre makes clear that young and old will continually interact during the two-day confab. “All of our programs, not just the Summit, are intentionally multiracial and multiethnic,” she says. “We’ve seen the prejudices people come in with dissipate when they work with one another. We pay attention to the attitudes young people have about themselves as well as about others. So many of them have been written off, and are not paid attention to because they are neither failing nor excelling. Our commitment is to train each of them to be a leader and organizer.”
While detractors in other sectors of the environmental justice movement have criticized UPROSE for refusing to engage in civil disobedience and for cooperating with government entities, Yeampierre notes that the group does not want to put young people of color into the criminal justice or penal systems. “If adults want to risk arrest that’s fine, but we don’t want to put minors in harm’s way. For us this decision was long thought out. Our interest is in moving forward and making sure everyone can participate in our work,” she says. The organization—“We’re small but impactful,” Yeampierre laughs—operates on a budget of approximately $650,000 a year.
“Since Sandy many people in Sunset Park have expressed an interest in doing something about the environment and climate change. We never tell anyone what they should do but we bring people together to come up with a common vision,” Yeampierre concludes. Community meetings have led to numerous suggestions: Painting rooftops white to reduce the energy needed to heat and cool dwellings, starting community vegetable gardens, planting trees along the newly enlarged Fourth Avenue median, and urging the completion of a proposed 88-acre waterfront park to run from 43rd to 51st Streets once contaminants are removed, among them.
“We want to make sure that everyone can integrate climate change into their lives,” Yeampierre emphasizes. “It’s an enormous challenge but people want to do more than change their light bulbs. In this community, we need to figure out what those with limited economic means can do and organize projects that can begin now.”
ContributorEleanor J. Bader