Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr.’s forward motion for a world that works for all

Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr. (Photo by author)

Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr. (Photo by author)

In what is being billed as “the largest climate rally in history,” thousands of people are expected to gather on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, Feb. 17 to call for a definitive shift in the nation’s energy policy. The “Forward on Climate Rally” will urge President Obama to once and for all reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and take steps to reduce carbon pollution. The historic gathering will call on the president to translate the strong comments he made about tackling the climate crisis in his recent inaugural address — “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations” — into a far-ranging set of policies and executive orders for global sustainability in his second term.

The demonstration’s three major sponsors — 350.org, the Sierra Club and Hip Hop Caucus — are betting that integrating grassroots momentum, historic longevity and a commitment to move beyond traditional, predominantly white environmentalism is key to making the breakthrough that will be crucial to dealing full-on with this accelerating crisis.

350.org has played a dramatic role in building the movement for climate safety through grassroots organizing, online networking, social media and a series of coordinated national and international action campaigns. It launched the Keystone XL pipeline campaign, which took off after more than 1,200 people were arrested engaging in nonviolent civil resistance at the White House in 2011, and recently organized a 22-city “Do the Math” bus tour where it spread the message of rising carbon emissions — and what we can do about them — to sold-out halls across the U.S.

The Sierra Club, founded by pioneering environmentalist John Muir 120 years ago, is the oldest and largest environmental organization in the U.S., with 1.3 million members. Its board recently broke with its long-standing prohibition against nonviolent civil disobedience by authorizing the organization’s participation in a “Forward on Climate” civil disobedience action to be held separately from the rally.

Hip Hop Caucus is a national civil and human rights organization that mobilizes, educates and engages young people on “the social issues that directly impact their lives and communities.” It has tenaciously set out to bridge racial, class and political divides by tackling police brutality, the disastrous federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. war in Iraq, youth violence and widespread, systematic attempts to prevent people of color from voting. It has been working on eco-justice and the climate crisis for years, including helping to organize the Green the Block campaign and the Green the City Summit.

Hip Hop Caucus’ president, Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr., has been a tireless advocate for connecting the dots between poverty, racism, violence and environmental destruction — and for taking nonviolent action to create a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. For him, there are no silos separating social issues. I have seen this time and again over the last half-dozen years as we’ve worked together on numerous fronts, and also since he became a member of the board of Pace e Bene, a nonviolence training organization with whom I work.

I first met Rev. Yearwood — or, as he likes to be called, “Rev” — when he played an active role in the Declaration of Peace, a 2006 nationwide action campaign that called for a just and peaceful end to the U.S. war in Iraq. Although he had only founded Hip Hop Caucus two years earlier, Rev. Yearwood brought a wealth of experience to the table. In 2003 and 2004 he served as the Political and Grassroots Director of Russell Simmons’ Hip Hop Summit Action Network and was also a key architect of P. Diddy’s Citizen Change organization, known for its “Vote Or Die!” campaign. He also worked on Jay-Z’s Voice Your Choice campaign and an AFL-CIO project called Hip Hop Voices. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Rev. Yearwood became the national director of the Gulf Coast Renewal Campaign, where he organized a coalition of national and grassroots organizations to advocate for the rights of Katrina survivors.

Partnering on the Declaration of Peace, I was struck by the deep passion Rev. Yearwood felt about ending the war. Though he was an officer and chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, he spoke out against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As his outspoken anti-war resistance increased — including being arrested at the White House as part of the campaign to “declare peace” — the Air Force threatened him with a dishonorable discharge. When he resisted this step, the harassment escalated and he was threatened with deployment to Iraq, as well as a possible jail sentence.

In July 2007 he circulated a letter to U.S. peace and justice movements, explaining what was happening to him and asked for the support of U.S. citizens. The Air Force backed down after hearing from people across the country and around the world. “Thanks to my brothers and sisters in the movement,” Yearwood wrote only a month after his appeal for support, “I will end my service with the honorable discharge that I earned. I am eternally grateful, and evermore committed to taking on the powers that be for the powers that ought to be.” In 2007, he led the national “Make Hip Hop Not War” tour, linking the issues of the wars abroad with the violence in urban America.

Since then, Rev. Yearwood has kept at it on all fronts, linking injustice with the danger of the carbon crisis. In 2009, he and 350.org founder Bill McKibben co-wrote an op-ed titled “People, Let’s Get Our Carbon Down” that — while publicizing the organization’s first internationally-coordinated day of action that fall — emphasized the disproportionate impacts people of color and the poor face as a result of the climate crisis and environmental destruction. This past fall he joined McKibben in crisscrossing the country, and now he’s gearing up for the rally on the National Mall.

When I caught up with him recently to ask him about this impending action for climate sanity, I found him as clear and committed as ever. “Justice,” Rev. Yearwood told me, “is a tree with many branches, whether they are LGBT rights, or ending war, or ending torture or ending police brutality. This is one of the branches.” Not only is it the right strategy, he said, but it is also the right time, coming at the very beginning of President Obama’s second term.

The Keystone XL pipeline, for Rev. Yearwood, has assumed the kind of clarifying iconic power of Birmingham in the Civil Rights movement or Sun City in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Given the dangers the planet faces, the dramatic, symbolic weight that Keystone now carries, and the chance to move the president from soaring rhetoric to concrete action, Rev. Yearwood considers this one of the most important actions he’s ever been part of.

That’s why he’s organizing full bore for Feb. 17 — and planning to put his body on the line. At this critical moment, he plans to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience with the Sierra Club as it risks arrest for the first time — an action that may well be imbued with the spirit of John Muir and all those who have been toiling relentlessly in all the movements for a sustainable and sustaining world for us all.

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