Hispanic heritage month celebration promotes diversity united
By Ashley Godfrey
NIEHS observed Hispanic Heritage Month Oct. 3 with a program featuring keynote speaker Elizabeth Yeampierre, J.D., a civil rights attorney and the executive director of the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park (UPROSE). In her address, Yeampierre stressed facilitating leadership within communities, by encouraging a collective understanding of environmental issues and putting resources into the hands of community members.
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“Her role and positive results organizing and inspiring community members to address environmental health hazards affecting the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park is very impressive,” said Gerard Román, NIH Hispanic Employment Program Manager and organizer of the event. “Her intergenerational model of advocacy and action seems to be very effective and quite fitting with the NIEHS strategies for securing environmental justice.”
This year’s celebration featured the theme “Diversity United, Building America’s Future Today.” The theme promotes the benefits of a united and diverse workforce, by encouraging a reflection of Hispanic-American contributions in the development of our nation, a message relevant to the mission of NIH and NIEHS.
As Joellen Austin, associate director for management at NIEHS, explained in her opening remarks, “We strive to be the nation’s model employer. Our goal is to recruit, develop, and retain a diverse and high-performing federal workforce.” Austin stressed that in the face of so many disparities in health, institutions must recruit people of varied perspectives to help make new discoveries in environmental health possible.
Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, introduced Yeampierre, by listing just a few of her many accomplishments. Yeampierre is a long-time advocate and trailblazer for community organizing, for sustainable and just development in Sunset Park, and she has been productive in delivering millions of dollars to her community for the creation of more green space. Yeampierre is the first Latina chair of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and is also a new member of the NIEHS National Environmental Health Advisory Council.
“Environmental justice is important and there are lots of challenges,” acknowledged Yeampierre. She said that advocacy is about listening with all of her senses and, most importantly, about communication. The population is growing, particularly in urban areas, and there is now a demographic shift toward a mixed and diverse population. Yeampierre believes this growing diversity provides different perspectives and different approaches to solving problems, and needs to be celebrated.
Bringing science and math into communities
Yeampierre described her intergenerational model of bringing knowledge into the Latino community as an effort to invite everyone to sit at the table, regardless of age or education level. Her philosophy is about giving regular kids the power to own the language of science, which makes them feel empowered. Yeampierre challenged the audience to think about diversity and how we can level the playing field. Her organization is proof it is possible to transform kids other people have simply written off.
Science can be exciting and inspirational for young people, Yeampierre told her audience. She explained that scientists are often isolated from the community, as they live in silos surrounded only by the information they know. Instead of retreating from the civic arena, she said, scientists need to make this knowledge accessible to communities at a grassroots level, allowing communities to own environmental justice and climate change in the same way they own civil rights.
Yeampierre encouraged putting power in the hands of community members, by actively engaging them. As an example of this transformation, she pointed to an UPROSE-initiated water-testing program where community members learned to test the water quality themselves.
“Local knowledge is power,” stated Yeampierre, “We need to incorporate culture into our work and come together to build community.”
NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., closed the presentation by stating environmental justice is ongoing. She said Yeampierre’s message goes beyond the Hispanic community and is valid for many different and diverse communities.
(Ashley Godfrey, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the Molecular and Genetic Epidemiology Group in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis.)
Empowering Brooklyn’s youth
Founded in 1966, UPROSE is Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization. UPROSE is dedicated to the empowerment of Southwest Brooklyn residents, primarily through broad and converging environmental, sustainable development, and youth justice campaigns. The group’s mission is to ensure and heighten community awareness and involvement, develop participatory community planning practices, and promote sustainable development with justice and governmental accountability. Led by Yeampierre, UPROSE gives the power of leadership directly to the community’s youth. Many of the programs and campaigns are started and run by the participants, including a community coalition that defeated a 520 megawatt power plant application.
“We develop leadership at UPROSE — it is a continuum,” stated Yeampierre. The participants range from 9 to 24, because UPROSE is intergenerational and no one ages out. According to Yeampierre, every student who has come through this program has been accepted by a tier one university.
Román said he hopes to stay connected with UPROSE for future outreach efforts. Students aspiring to become biomedical scientists and medical professionals need to know that they can also take advantage of the NIH summer internship program. In the future, his office will explore the possibility of having a group of students from UPROSE visit the NIH campus. “If this happens, we will ensure they get a rock-star welcome and first class, backstage access to the most amazing medical research place in the world,” stated Román.