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Privilege is our enemy: Elizabeth Yeampierre on Environmental Justice.

Elizabeth Yeampierre: Environmental and climate justice leader, co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance.

October 29th, 2019

“We are moving at the speed of comfort.”

Elizabeth Yeampierre is an internationally recognized Puerto Rican attorney, an environmental and climate justice leader, as well as the co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance. On Tuesday, October 29th, she gave an emotional speech at The Friends Center in Philadelphia addressing the greater impacts climate change has on communities of color, and the steps society needs to take to address this issue. This event was coordinated by The Tri-College Consortium: a collaboration among three private liberal arts colleges in the Philadelphia suburbs: Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, and Swarthmore College.

One of the biggest things that Yeampierre highlighted in her talk was that we are not moving fast enough to address the issue of climate change. She claims that this is because there is little moral imperative to take such action since American society accustomed itself to a lavish lifestyle, and has become spoiled with amenities at their fingertips. She believes that it is this sense of comfort and privilege that is disincentivizing people to act.

“We do not want to give up anything. We’re spoiled, we get up in the morning and we turn on our water and we drink it and we brush our teeth and we eat and we head to work and we never think about where it comes from, how it got there, and what it feels like when it’s all gone.”

In addition to these luxuries, Yeampierre emphasizes western culture’s lack of knowledge of the harsh realities that others face. Not only does she mention that people of color are more susceptible to diseases and mental health issues associated with climate change, but that this ongoing issue of inequality has been a generational battle. Climate change has led to harsher weather phenomenons such as super storms in the gulf and wild fires in California that disproportionally affect those who are descendents of extraction and slavery. These communities are in greater danger of wildfires, surrounded by petrochemical waste, and don’t even have clean drinking water.

Despite these inequalities, Elizabeth insisted that people of color don’t need support to fight these battles; that they have been fighting this battle for a long period of time. She strongly opposes the process that many Americans are taking to address the issue; victimizing people of color as if they can’t tackle these problems themselves. Not only does Elizabeth cite her own organization, The Climate Justice Alliance, as proof that this ideology is presumptuous and false, but she references young people of color in the past in groups such as the Civil Rights Movements and Black Panther, and other radical ideological groups that had to fight for their own safety.

“Young people of color have been exercising leadership for generations because their survival has depended on it.”

The most important takeaway Yeampierre emphasized was that we, as a society, need to change the process of addressing climate change. Today, different generations feel as if they’re morally superior to each other, and that hinders discussion. While older generations cite that they’re more experienced, younger generations cite that they’ll be more greatly affected. She stressed that discussion on how to take action needs to be intergenerational, rather than group talking down to the other.

Another takeaway of Yeampierre’s speech was that the transition to a more sustainable future must focus on the rights of workers and front line communities. This transition can not simply be a national tool organized by a few groups to represent minorities. She fears that putting money in the hands of a select group of representatives will lead to no money in the hands of communities, and thus a lack of power for these municipalities to address environmental issues in ways they best see fit.

“It has to be centered on front line communities. And it has to be centered on just transitions and the rights of communities and the rights of workers.”

Levi Hatten, sophomore at Swarthmore College, talks about his experience with environmental injustice.

The audience found Yeampierre’s testament very moving to say the least. Levi Hatten, a sophomore at Swarthmore, described that Yeampierre shined light on issues that aren’t mentioned frequently at all. He found personal connection when Elizabeth talked about people being adversely affected by coal mining in Kentucky where his family is from. This speech has encouraged him to start becoming involved with environmental groups, something he was on the fence about doing when he first started college.

If there is one thing that Elizabeth Yeampierre wants people to realize the most, it is that we need to fundamentally change society’s behavior and thinking if we are to properly address climate change. We must work together in a way that includes everyone, rather than one where certain people are seen as higher than others. There must not be just one or even a few main leaders in a movement; there needs to be many who each lead their own community to a more sustainable future.

“The biggest challenge and the thing that threatens us the most in addressing climate change is not the right wing. I think the biggest challenge is privilege.”

The Environmental Exchange

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