UPROSE: Building a Grassroots Climate Justice Movement in Brooklyn - One Block at a Time

By A.J. Hudson, MA

November 12, 2019

How Did I Apply my Skills to Community Organizing Work?

The Environmental Fellows Program (EFP) was really special for me. I had a deeply gratifying experience where I effectively got to return home and apply the skills I gained in grad school to the communities closest to my heart. Through my placement at UPROSE, a community organization in Sunset Park Brooklyn, I did Climate Justice work in low-income communities across Brooklyn and New York and build coalitions for people of color on the same blocks where I had lived and worked for years. I got to fight for my neighborhood, and for thousands of people who live in neighborhoods like mine, to have access to green jobs, clean air, and renewable energy. Not only did this help me impact the places I love, it impacted me. It showed me that I could apply my skills from teaching and interests from my master’s degree to fight for environmental justice in my communities.

The two activities that took up the majority of my time at UPROSE were: the Summer Series Climate Justice Teach-Ins & the Climate Justice Youth Summit. Because of my background as a teacher and science museum educator, these were really powerful opportunities for me to use these skills in a new setting and towards a new goal: empowering young people to be climate activists. The Climate Justice Teach-Ins were weekly 3-hour workshop style events that brought 20-30 local community members together to learn about different climate justice topics ranging from “the role colonialism has played in our current environmental crisis” to “fighting our extractive economy with local deep democracy.”

The start of one of my Climate Justice Teach-Ins. Every Wednesday night for a month I would lead community members through a series of learning activities to help them understand how the science of climate change and how to take political action towards a just transition.

Community members who attended all 4 sessions were awarded with a special certificate to honor their time and certify their new political organizing skills. I planned and taught all of the workshops, and wrote a framework curriculum for UPROSE to continue using after my fellowship ended. My second project was helping organize and lead The 7th Climate Justice Youth Summit. UPROSE’s yearly Youth Summit in Brooklyn, held this year during the international Climate Summit at the UN and coordinated with other climate strikes across the Global South, was the largest gathering of young people of color on climate change in the nation to date. The summit brought young people from across the world to engage with the tenets of climate justice and practice the leadership skills they need to make change in their communities. Both of my projects were built to educate and politically empower people to enact change in their own community. These experiences also let me apply my skills as an educator and climate scientist to help build a climate justice movement in Brooklyn!

Enjoying the fruits of our labor during the 7th annual NYC Climate Justice Youth Summit! This photo was taken during a workshop we held on how environmental justice youth organizers could navigate environmental philanthropy in order to fund their movements without compromising their ethics or mission.

What was the work like?

There were several different activities and programs that I was involved with during my time at UPROSE in addition to my Climate Justice and Youth Organizing work:

  • Protesting and testifying for different environmental justice causes around the city and state that intersected with the UPROSE mission of Climate Justice.
  • Visiting Albany, NY several times to push state lawmakers and the governor to pass different environmental justice bills, and to slow down bills that did not have sufficient justice or equity provisions. This involved protesting and demonstrations.
  • Tabling the local community to explain the benefits of solar power and to sign up people to join Sunset Solar, the free solar farm cooperative that UPROSE is building.
  • Pushing back against developers who want to help gentrify Sunset Park, Brooklyn (Industry City and Jamestown Properties) with viral social media campaigns, and by spreading and educating community members on visions of alternative just transition inspired development of Brooklyn’s abandoned waterfront.
  • Helping train my coworkers on different science and technical aspects of climate change and environmental science that they were less familiar with.
  • Reaching out to local community members to serve as Block Captains for our local Climate Justice Center initiatives, to receive special training on sustainability, heat wave and storm readiness to share with their neighbors.

UPROSE protesting for the climate and community protection act at the New York State Capitol building in Albany, NY with environmental justice groups from across the state. This combined demonstration—meant to pressure lawmakers was—was a few days before the pivotal vote that led to us passing the most sweeping climate change legislation that nation has ever seen. The demonstrations also occurred during my first and second week on the job!

What Surprised me About my Placement?

As a fellow, I was surprised by how quickly I was integrated into the organization — essentially at UPROSE, I hit the ground running. In my second week I was already representing UPROSE to other Environmental Justice organizations and protesting the state senate as well as organizing and demonstrating for climate justice. That is part of the magic of a program like EFP which places you into a role in an organization where you have a real ability to create impact—I wasn’t just a coffee-grabbing intern—my fellowship gave me independence and real responsibilities. This wasn’t actually a stretch for me, because if I am honest I was itching for some action after two years of academic research on climate change inequities, but at the same time it came as a surprise. I didn’t realize how present an NGO could be within their community. Internships that I was offered at most of the Big Greens (before being selected for EFP) seemed to basically be office jobs revolving around email. Well, not UPROSE! We are out here representing Brooklyn and the broader frontline communities of NY state. We show up for the events, and UPROSE included me in that “we” since day one. Which was truly special.

Where will this summer take me?

This summer was a unique opportunity for me to practice the kind of community-centric environmental action and social justice-oriented work that I have been preaching as an academic for the past two years who pushed constantly for grassroots and bottom-up climate adaptation in an environmental program that was stubbornly prescriptive. My fellowship at UPROSE was an incarnation of that work. This practice will serve me well in my dissertation at the University of Miami which will be focused on participatory action environmental research and the capacity for communities to build social change and create just transitions. EFP gave me an incredible opportunity to put thought/strategy into action and to learn what this work feels like with boots on the ground. I have spent years in NYC as an education advocate, a civil rights protester, and a teacher-as-social-worker-and-community-organizer-and… but this was my first time testing my political actions skills directly for environmental justice and the current climate crisis. It has been a really satisfying mix of my skills and passions, but it was also an unfamiliar and new capacity for me and a working-context that I hope to nurture and develop.

Getting to combine my passions and skillsets this summer towards what I am most passionate about was truly rewarding. I really did get inspired this summer, and I really did get a fresh reminder of why I do this work. It was a sorely needed reminder. Two years at Yale, with the endless racial microaggressions and heavy top-down approaches to environmentalism that ignore negative impacts on communities had really left me wondering if I could really be an environmentalist and if I myself had a sustainable role to play in this movement. I now know that I do. This summer taught me that I have an indispensable role in this movement: we all do! I learned that my skills as a teacher, despite being non-traditional environmentalist skills, can place me in the heart of a movement for climate justice and a better future. The frontline communities facing the brunt of climate change have the answers to solve it, and we are doing that work to build a better world every day, and have been for decades. So join us, and find how your own passion and skills can add to our movement for a just transition!

About A.J. Hudson, MA

A. J. Hudson graduated from Yale University with a Master of Environmental Science degree in May 2019, his studies focused on the intersection of resource extraction with environmental justice for minorities, colonized and indigenous peoples. This fall he began a predoctoral fellowship at the University of Miami studying climate justice. Before graduate school, A.J. spent several years teaching public high school in Brooklyn so he is passionate about science communication that empowers young people of color.