Meeting High Expectations! Environmental Justice for All

6/5/2015
By Pam Arifian

Retreat participants pose in the Silver Lake garden after planting time.
Retreat participants pose in the Silver Lake garden after planting time.
Photo by Debby Kirk

SHARON (06/05/2015) -- Thanks to the generous support of the UCC Neighbors in Need offering, the Northeast Center for Environmental Justice at Silver Lake Conference Center hosted the Second Annual Environmental Justice For All! (EJ4A!) Retreat May 29th through 31st. After the great success of last year's inaugural retreat, the Second Annual did not disappoint. Of the eight high-school-aged participants, four (from Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church in New Haven) returned from last year. They joined four new participants who came from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and from a Methodist church in Bridgeport.

As a result of the extravagant welcome at camp — the intentional community building, engaging programming, and fun — at least five of the participants plan on returning for summer conferences. One is interested in being a counselor, while at least two said that they were open to the idea of working on summer staff in the future. "That old camp magic was abundant again!" said Pam Arifian, the program leader.

While future EJ4A! Retreats will be open to all youth regardless of race, ethnicity or cultural background, organizers intentionally invited youth of color exclusively to these first two Retreats. "Our intention in doing so is to provide an opportunity specifically for youth of color to come to camp," said Arifian, the Director of the Northeast Center for Environmental Justice, "and to learn and lead conversation on environmental justice." Communities of color have historically borne a disproportionate environmental burden, in part because voices from those communities are so often absent from environmental discussions.

Group challenge: Changing places on the telephone pole.
Group challenge: Changing places on the telephone pole. Photo by Keyairra Wright

"My biggest takeaway is we still have a ton of work to do, both on the racial and environmental challenges." — Participant's Evaluation

After creating safe space and building community on Friday night, the group spent Saturday morning learning about environmental justice issues through the lens of our faith and values. "We established an understanding that 'environment' involves more than just rainforests and polar bears," said Arifian. In fact, our environment is everywhere that we work, play, learn, and pray.

The group shared gratitude for an abundant and beautiful Creation, and explored the meaning behind the Biblical charge to have "dominion" over Creation; that dominion should be understood as a responsibility to serve and keep, not as in entitlement to all resources to do with what we want. They discussed the parable of the Good Samaritan, and that, while it is important to provide care for those in need as the Samaritan did, if injustice continues to happen, people need to look up the road to address what is causing harm in the first place. This is the movement from charity to justice.

For many it was the first introduction to an understanding of several environmental issues, from clean air and water to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas. They learned about environmental racism, which occurs when industries with the most toxic emissions, pollution sources, and urban decay are placed or allowed to occur in proximity to low-income communities and communities of color. The environmental justice movement strives for the fair distribution of both environmental benefits and burdens, and for meaningful access regardless of race and socio-economic status to decision-making on environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

"It helped me believe that we can actually make a big change: no matter how hard the situation is!" — Participant's Evaluation

The discovery of these heavy concepts was followed by some fun and experiential lessons in interdependence on the low ropes course and in the garden. The physical and mental challenges offered by the low ropes course allowed the group to improve their communication and problem-solving skills across barriers within a community, and "to focus more as well as to think outside the box."

Photo by Keyairra Wright
Photo by Keyairra Wright

"I came away with the feeling that I should not take natural resources for granted." — Participant's Evaluation

The Garden service project began as many Silver Lake Garden projects do: with a lesson in our food system and the power of our decisions about what to eat with respect to the many resources, processes and injustices encompassed in that choice. They then turned their attention to the Garden itself, home to more than 25 varieties of organically cultivated vegetables, fruits, herbs, and other plants, supporting a thriving ecosystem full of pollinators and beneficial insects. They learned how organic techniques can reduce the environmental footprint of food when compared to the industrial food system that relies heavily on fossil fuels. "We worked together to plant tomatoes and basil," reported Arifian, "which will supply the camp kitchen with local, organic, and deliciously fresh food." They also buried ollas, unglazed clay pots that remain porous and provide efficient irrigation for the Three Sisters crops of maize (corn), winter squash, and climbing beans.

After dinner, which featured SLCC-grown organic lettuce and spinach, the group worshiped with the Connecticut Conference Choir and the combined choruses of United Congregational Church UCC of Bridgeport and the Salisbury Congregational Church UCC, who were celebrating their partnership together as inderdependent churches. Some members of the EJ4A! group shared their reflections about what they had learned that day about unequal access to clean air and water, and that we all need to work together to make it right.

"My biggest take away is that we as teens, particularly teens of color, can do something about these issues." — Participant's Evaluation

On Sunday, the discussion shifted from learning about the environmental issues to cultivating hope. They learned how each person can use their variety of skills, talents, and passions to help create Shalom in our communities. Inspired by videos of grassroots climate action in California and in New York, the group learned about different ways to effect social change.

"We generated a list of actions that were relevant and realistic to us," said Arifian, "and from this list, we generated commitments. Each of us made a commitment to the group, a promise to do a specific action, as a way of being responsible for our new knowledge, and for holding each other accountable." Remembering their lessons from the day before, about how people need to cross lines of difference to work together on a common issue of climate change, they pledged to do just that.

"To say that it was a wonderful weekend would tell only a small fraction of the story," said Arifian. "We built community, grew understanding about major environmental issues in our world, and learned how to cross lines of difference to work together to solve big problems." The participants came away assured that everyone has skills, talents, and passions to contribute, and now are equipped with the tools to start the journey of leading environmental justice activism in their own communities.
 

Pam Arifian is Director of the Northeast Regional Environmental Justice Center at Silver Lake Conference Center.