Transforming Minds: 3rd Annual EJ4All Retreat

5/31/2016
By Pam Arifian


Arifian (far right) and the 2016 EJ4All Retreat

By Pam Arifian

SHARON (05/31/2015) -- On Friday, May 20th, eleven youth and three counselors joined me for the 3rd Annual Environmental Justice For All! Retreat at Silver Lake Conference Center. A signature program of the UCC Northeast Environmental Justice Center, this EJ4A! Retreat delivered another extraordinary weekend of learning, building faithful and justice-minded community, and fun.

The 3rd Annual EJ4A! Retreat continued its tradition of providing extravagant welcome to youth from communities of color. Funded by a UCC Neighbors in Need grant, this intentional invitation is in recognition that communities of color (and low income communities) bear a disproportionate burden from industry and government policies that impact access to clean, healthy air and water. This retreat provided the opportunity for youth of color to lead conversation and expand their knowledge of issues affecting vulnerable communities locally and around the world.

The participants came from three churches in Connecticut and Massachusetts. They were alumnae and new participants from Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church in New Haven, new participants from Manantial de Gracia in West Hartford, one new participant from First Congregational Church of Longmeadow, Massachusetts, and one participant who is unaffiliated with a house of worship. Our esteemed counselors included Silver Lake staff alum and current member of the SLCC Board of Directors Keyairra Wright, Silver Lake staff alum Jarell Lindsey, and Isaac Monts, Program Associate for the CTUCC Racial Justice Ministry.

The program was grounded and driven by the same scripture that inspired this year's CTUCC Youth Revival: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2 NRSV). For many, it was the first time learning about environmental issues such as air and water quality, climate change, and energy practices, specifically through the lens of environmental racism. The conversation included discussions about the environmental, economic, and social justice issues surrounding the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, as well as spontaneous and impassioned discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement. Buoyed by the safe space we had intentionally created to allow us to lean in to these difficult topics, the group dove in with care and courage, and our minds were indeed transformed.

We transformed our souls by getting our hands in the garden soil where we planted tomatoes and basil, and by practicing gratitude through worship in the Waterfall Chapel and at the Waterfront. Upon taking in the serene beauty of the waterfront, one participant immediately made a connection to the sorrow she felt for communities that suffered poisoned environments, like one spoiled by fracking (hydraulic fracturing) waste spills seen in a video earlier in the retreat.

At the low ropes course, the group had fun solving problems and challenges that required out-of-the-box thinking and cooperation, including one that involved overcoming communication challenges (they were not allowed to use their voices) to accomplish the challenge. This activity provided great practice for the necessary work of coalition building and teamwork required to make progress in the environmental and climate justice movement.

On Sunday, we learned the many ways that we can utilize our gifts and talents to engage in the environmental justice movement, from education and spiritual development, to hands-on service, civic engagement, and civil disobedience. At the end of the retreat, we made commitments to each other – choosing achievable goals that would allow each of us to be responsible for putting our new knowledge into action. The commitments ranged from starting up a new environmental club at high school to creating environmentally-themed comics to engaging with local environmental justice groups. Three participants from Manantial de Gracia teamed up on their commitments, promising to regularly clean up their block and to do a public service announcement at their former school to help spread awareness about environmental justice issues and to inspire students to engage in the movement.

In 2017, the Environmental Justice For All! Retreat will expand its invitation to include high-school youth from all races and ethnicities.

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

2016 EJ4A Retreat

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