GOOD HUMANS: Yari Greaney cut her trail from Stanford divestiture fight to D.C. and back again

Colin Sullivan

Aug. 5, 2021

Meet Yari Greaney, a self-described goofball with a bright smile who can claim an impressive list of political accomplishments before she’s glimpsed the age of 30.

Greaney is Preston-Werner Ventures’ recently hired program manager for Local Politics and Environmental Justice. She’s an avid hiker, birder and activist who always points out that she lives on Lisjan Ohlone lands on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, not in “El Cerrito,” as the area is commonly referred to in modern maps.

She does so because she recognizes the violence that made El Cerrito exist and wants to draw a spotlight to the various policies that stole the land from its original owners. Other issues she cares about deeply and intends to work on at PWV are the prison incarceration crisis in the United States and how to disrupt an often tilted power dynamic between funders and grantees in philanthropy.

“I want a just world,” Greaney said. “I want a world that is capable of healing. And I want a world that equitably deals with climate impacts, where wealth is redistributed and justice better understood.”

Greaney was hired by PWV to improve our outreach on EJ issues and help shift a funding dynamic that is often focused on technical or macroeconomic solutions to climate change. Returning land to Indigenous communities (also called “Landback”) is just as valid a place to start as anywhere when it comes to rethinking how colonization and systemic racism shaped the United States, she said, not to mention how we can better protect those lands from corporate actors.

So maybe “owners” of the lands where she resides isn’t the right word, for someone who has committed her professional life to upending unjust economic rules and structures. The notion “private ownership” might be one of the concepts she’d change first, in fact, could she enact the progressive policy agenda of her dreams.

The Landback concept might be news to many, but to Greaney and others close to Indigenous groups it’s a topic that’s been around for some time with renewed traction the last few years. The Atlantic magazine, for example, this spring featured a well-executed article written by a Native American that retold a story of “staggering loss” during which 2.4 billion acres controlled by tribes in 1491 became just 56 million acres controlled today, or 2 percent of the total U.S. contiguous land mass.

When Yari Greaney moved back to California from the East Coast last year, the reality of the Landback movement hit her squarely on the way west, when she saw a few national parks along the way. For her, visiting the parks was a more loaded affair than the usual tourist, because she wants to listen to Indigenous demands for reconciliation and the return of those lands.

“America’s greatest idea,” in other words, as many refer to the national park system, doesn’t sit too well with Greaney, as ideas go.

“The history of the national parks is super fraught,” she acknowledged, when asked whether the recreational-vehicle tourist vibe at the ones she visited (Yosemite, Sequoia and Yellowstone) flared her sense of outrage. “Once you’re politicized in this way, everywhere you look you see exploitation and evidence of colonization.”

“I could be angry all the time if I wanted to be,” she added, with a laugh and her typical broad smile. “Sometimes it’s about recognizing where your anger is helpful to the movement.”

Syncing justice with climate

That attitude is standard when talking to Greaney, who is one of the most upbeat and optimistic environmental activists this reporter has ever met, out of hundreds. This despite being focused on arguably the most poorly understood silo in the movement, meaning the intersection between racial justice, climate change and local politics.

It is an era of historical reconsideration, no doubt, and Greaney is right there in the mix of what many consider an ongoing culture war. Just as reparations for descendants of slaves have become more approachable in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, she hopes Landback momentum will follow suit, as Americans revisit the history of mining and drilling for fossil fuels on lands that were never ours to develop in the first place, in her view.

“We live on stolen land, and our economy was built on the backs of slave labor and the colonization of Indigenous communities,” she said. “In thinking about how to build a path toward climate and EJ, I think it’s important that we reckon with those wrongs.”

Greaney’s refusal to identify with El Cerrito is infectious, so I did some investigating. Here’s what I found: This reporter does not live in Washington, D.C. No longer, anyway. I officially work, fret, walk my dog and drink too much coffee in a swampy green urban forest that might more accurately be called “Nacotchtank Piscataway lands” — for Indigenous Algonquian tribes who lived along and between the Potomac and Anacostia rivers in the 17th Century.

The Atlantic article having further noted that the original Indigenous population of what would become the United States was somewhere between 5 million and 15 million at the time of first contact. By 1890, “around the time America began creating national parks in earnest, roughly 250,000 native people were still alive,” wrote Ojibwe writer David Treuer, in the magazine’s May cover story.

Treuer went on to propose a consortium of tribal governments to run U.S. national parks. He also explained that Landback means advocating for affordable housing for Indigenous people in urban areas, fighting for clean air and water, and defunding the police, border patrol and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) wing of the Homeland Security Department.

And that also means convergence with climate change, as noted in the progressive publication In These Times, which last month published an exploration of Landback that calls for recognizing “Indigenous knowledge in adapting to climate change” to directly challenge fossil fuel capitalism. Another publication, by the Lakota People’s Law Project, last year ran an article under the headline “#Landback is Climate Justice” that argued U.S. policy and corporate dominance of that space have always pitted disenfranchised communities against one another.

“For example, the 40 acres and a mule promised to formerly enslaved people were, in fact, 40 acres of stolen Indian land,” the law project wrote. “It is time for both Black and Indigenous people to receive adequate reparations for the historical injustice that built this country. If the United States is ever to truly reckon with its past, then repatriation of land to Indigenous people must be a part of this effort.”

Greaney’s natural home is right inside this conflict, as someone who’s bridged racial justice community work with environmental science. She has a BS and an MS in Earth Systems from Stanford University and last year worked for the presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. More directly, Greaney has cut her teeth on local organizing efforts and led a drive in 2014 that forced Stanford University to divest itself of fossil fuel investments, as an undergraduate activist.

That early victory in her career has fueled Greaney’s work since. She says they were “4 students in a meeting room at the Student Union who had no idea what we were doing” but nevertheless succeeded after 350.org helped their efforts with a mentorship coordinator.

“We grew that campaign from the ground up,” she said, explaining that she was part of a negotiating team that met with a “uniformly demeaning and dismissive” university president. Her team persisted, however, and they won after “a huge outpouring” of faculty support.

"It was in the fossil fuel divestment campaign that I learned the power of collective action, and that beating the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industry really requires people power willing to do whatever it takes to fight back against the status quo."

Climate as ‘another kind of violence’

Greaney thereafter lived and worked in Washington (or Nacotchtank Piscataway lands, preferably). She became “super involved” as a local volunteer working on clean drinking water in the city as well as regional pipeline protests. She credits her pipeline activism in particular for teaching her about core justice issues, about how marginalized people are often exploited when energy infrastructure gets approved and built in their communities.

The Potomac Pipeline, which would have connected to the larger Mountain Valley Pipeline, was ultimately derailed after she worked alongside the group Rising Hearts Coalition to convince the D.C. City Council to oppose it.

While she admits that “you can’t win the climate movement just by fighting pipelines,” Greaney nevertheless sees value in working to stop immediate environmental harms to communities. It’s a great place to start, is another way to say it, especially for a broader environmental movement that has long suffered from limited diversity and the charge that it is overseen by privileged white elites.

“It’s about making the implementation and building of the fossil fuel industry less feasible,” she said, though she ruefully quoted a well-known quote that fighting pipelines can be a bit like “the most unfun game of Whac-A-Mole.”

Greaney also believes that communities used to violence are more likely to grasp the need to deal with climate change, especially as it becomes scarier in the mainstream view, with impacts no longer an abstract entity but a daily, weekly or monthly threat. She was involved in protests last summer and had a number of friends who were arrested or injured.

“It’s really scary when you’re not dealing with another kind of violence, I think,” she said. “But as settlers, as a white person, I don’t want to be part of this exploitative system, so I have to figure how to make amends.”

Greaney also sees herself as part of a trajectory that could span 1,000 years or as long as the Indigenous idea of building a future that lives seven generations ahead. And while “we’re living in wild, wild times,” she relishes the opportunity to keep fighting.

“All of this is totally possible” she added. “It’s just about changing the power dynamic. This movement existed before us, and it will exist after us. We’re here for only a moment.”

Changing how PWV operates, days into the job

Greaney is off to a quick start at PWV. Among her first ideas was a plan to pay non-profits for their time when meeting with our program mangers to discuss funding.

Greaney brought up the plan soon after her first day, explaining that smaller non-profits and community organizers often share their expertise with potential funders only to see the funders walk away.

A memo on the idea explained as follows: “Especially in the movement-building sector of the non-profit industrial complex, there is a history of funders extracting knowledge from grassroots communities and then often using that information to intentionally or unintentionally undermine their work.”

Even paying them $50 for their time (as PWV has decided to do) would “bring a bit more balance to the power imbalance inherent in funder-potential grantee meetings,” the memo said.

Greaney further explained that she wanted to kick off her work as PWV’s go-to on environmental justice in this way because “it’s very important that I incorporate the guidance and expertise of grassroots leaders, who are often volunteers or operating organizations with limited staff.”

“When we don't pay these organizers — who are often women, people of color, and people who have been oppressed by the systems they are organizing to change — then we are replicating and exacerbating harmful, extractive patterns that further exploit people.”

“We pay people for their labor,” she said. “We pay organizers for sharing their expertise. Paying people is one small step of many in the project of lessening the power imbalance.”

Thanks for reading.

— Colin Sullivan

Sullivan is the former West Coast bureau chief and congressional editor for E&ENews. He’s based on Nacotchtank Piscataway lands, across the street from a federal prison called “the National Zoo”.