On Saturday morning, dozens of young people of color took over Cadman Plaza in downtown Brooklyn hours after the highly publicized Climate Strike on Friday (Sept. 20). One thing that was noticeable: most of the faces were predominantly Black and brown youth — which was intentional.
“You are the leaders. You are the ones fighting power plants and shutting down pipelines. You are doing it with a lot of sacrifice. You’re doing it in communities were the police are after you. You’re doing it in the middle of ICE raids. Leadership looks like the faces in this room,” Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, issued in her opening remarks at the Brooklyn-founded advocacy group’s seventh Climate Justice Youth Summit on September 21.
The day-long event united young people of color hailing from underprivileged communities across the U.S. and Global South to address the impact of climate change on communities of color.
New York Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez kicked off the event off with a keynote speech. The floor was then opened where members stood up and shared how climate change has impacted their community.
Voices chimed in one after another as individuals recounted their experiences that exposed them first-hand the effects of environmental disasters that left governmental messes on their front stoop.
“People of color know how climate change is affecting them so that means they have the solutions. The people above us make decisions that don’t really help us in a positive way that we need,” Nyeshia Mallet, a student at Cooper Union School of Art and summit organizer, told BET.com about the importance of centering Black and brown voices within the movement. “With the strike that happened yesterday, I would've liked to see a lot of young people of color leading that strike. That’s why we had our own. We have always been involved and coming up with solutions.”
No voice, no matter how young or inexperienced, was too small to be heard. An Iraqi woman recounted how the war in her home country polluted her community’s water system. A young man from Puerto Rico described the desolation many are facing across the Caribbean nation in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Many homes are still roofless and covered in FEMA-provided tarps on the island. A lot of families are displaced and lacking basic necessities.
Mallet remembered when Hurricane Sandy left parts of Brooklyn devastated when it hit New York in 2012.
“It was the first time I saw how climate change affects people of color. A lot of my friends lost their homes. People had to move out of their homes that they were in for generations,” the 18-year-old recalled. “There are still people who don’t have homes five years after Sandy.”
For 17-year-old Aqelah Miyzaan, it was a surreal moment to be around other like-minded peers with the same zeal. The high school senior traveled two hours from Detroit as a part of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC).
“I remember I was going around canvassing [and] a man said he’s been doing this his whole life and basically told me to give up. My feelings were so hurt. I was like, ‘Give up?’ If you give up, who's going to do it?’” Miyzaan recollected.
A series of hour-long workshops called “learning circles” about migration, policing, patriarchy and intergenerational leadership featured throughout the day. The sessions focused on educating the youth on how to address problems, building a platform, making their voices heard, and coming up with solutions to confront environmental degradation due to urban development.
Speakers addressed how to equip the next generation of leaders with the tools to fight climate injustice, a term coined by activists that conveys how environmental hazards go hand-in-hand with systemic injustices inflicted upon communities of color.
Mexican-born, Texas-raised activist Selene Garcia, a 14-year-old high school student from San Antonio, found the educational environment enriching.
“I knew it had to do with racism, colonization, genocide, and all of that but I didn’t understand exactly how it is all relate and everything makes more sense,” Garcia said.
One phrase that rung out clearly throughout the discussions was the concept of a “just transition.” The framework, birthed by the climate justice movement, examines ways to move away from a capitalistic society reliant on extracting natural resources to a regenerative economy that puts more power into the hands of the people and does not exploit Earth’s natural resources.
The message is clear: the fight against climate change isn’t just an abstract global problem: It’s local and it’s personal. And now is the time to fight.
BET Digital spoke to summit attendees about how their communities have been impacted by climate change and what they are doing to address it. You can also watch a recap of UPROSE's #FrontlineClimateStrike march below.
“We’re surrounded by five Great Lakes. So, we could have a [flood] and I can’t think of anyone that would know what to do if that happens. At school, they teach us more about an active shooter,” Miyzaan said. “Since global warming is happening, the sea level is rising and [a flood is] more possible than that. Why do we learn more about an active shooter than flooding?”
“[UPROSE] has a solar co-op that we are doing right now. It’s open to all of Brooklyn. We have a panel that’s going up around the Bushwick Terminal. We got that open a few years ago because there’s not a lot of green spaces in New York, especially Brooklyn, other than the cemetery and Prospect Park. We’re going to have solar panels, and people from Brooklyn can sign up through Con-Ed to power their house.”
“For generations, we’ve been experiencing different kinds of environmental racism, whether it's having nuclear plants in our neighborhoods or having garbage literally left on our streets. Now, we’re being threatened by extreme weather events, especially the Global South,” Turner said. “We’re not the ones who are going to be getting government aid. Climate change and climate injustices have been happening for decades, but now’s the time to act or we’re gonna die.”
“They’re doing fracking in North Carolina now and trying to do the same thing they were doing up in the Dakotas… The communities around us would much rather have a few plants to create jobs, but that’s not clean energy. It’s been making a lot of people sick for awhile. Our traditional areas and lands are becoming [unusable] and we’re unable to go on them for our traditional ways of living. We have to conform to different areas and ways of life that challenge who we are. A lot of individuals from back home do have breathing problems, especially if they live near the plants. They face problems of health issues… and boom, they got cancer.
“I want to take back a lot of these community-oriented ideas on community gardens and housing. We’ve had so much time and years to develop as to what we become as the Cherokee Nation, and most of it is set around capitalism.”
Photo: Rae Breaux, Climate Justice Alliance