On June 1st, hurricane season starts again

On June 1st, hurricane season starts again

“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”

She repeated it. We were a tired, overwhelmed group of CSJ participants on a toxic tour run by t.e.j.a.s. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services). Our group of ten college students and four adult leaders had spent the last week volunteering with Rebuilding Together Houston with their Harvey relief efforts. For four days, our dedicated group worked under the watchful, kind eyes of the Rebuilding crew leaders. We painted, de-molded, deconstructed, constructed and aided in the recovery of homes impacted by Hurricane Harvey. With all of our collective effort of the week, we helped with three houses. On our last day, we left early to join this toxic tour.

“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”

Connecticut College Group Rebuilding Together HoustonIt was difficult to imagine hurricane force winds with the mild sun and chilly breezes we had been enjoying. On this day, the skies were clouded over and our guide directed our eyes to the gas flames being emitted above the petrochemical companies. We were standing in a children’s playground as we watched the gas burn. We were surrounded by houses. At a local mural, our guide pointed out the references to the petrochemical companies local children had drawn as a part of their community. This was their normal. These were all communities of color.

“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”

As we drove through seemingly endless miles of petrochemical infrastructure, we started to understand scale. As we peered over the edge of what had once been a popular lodge and heard about polluted flood waters and the damage they did to both buildings and human bodies, we started to understand impact. As our guide spoke about history and laws, we thought about historical patterns of abuse. And as we visited communities and heard about local resistance, we began to think about justice.

“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”

One of the most difficult parts of the toxic tour happened for me once it was over. Our rental van was running on empty. I plugged directions into my GPS and gratefully pulled into a gas station. Once there, I raised my eyes to see the name of the same petrochemical company that we had heard about during our tour—Valero. I put gas in the car and I cringed. How  to confront the enormity of this? How to understand not only our society’s dependence on fossil fuels, but also the effects that this has on the environment? How to understand that Hurricane Harvey was the third “500 year flood” (1/500 chance in happening per year) in five years? How to understand that connection of environmental justice with our country’s ongoing legacy of white supremacy?

“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”

I don’t know. But after that tour where we used our vehicle’s gas to drive from petrochemical plant to petrochemical plant, where we looked out our windows at the passing miles of petrochemical infrastructure as if we were on some sort of convoluted Texas safari, I was left mainly with a sense of scale. It’s a big problem. It’s gonna take a big solution. The beauty of both the toxic tour and our time with Rebuilding Houston was that we learned not only about the effects of the hurricane and environmental pollution, but also the power of communities coming together. People in strong networks create a web of support that might be the only thing that can keep us all floating with the rising tides. We will need those life rafts in the days to come. As we were reminded over and over,

“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”

Saving Seed

Saving Seed

Rebecca Hennessy lives in Portsmouth, NH and traveled to Nicaragua as a member of South Church in cooperation with the UUCSJ. She is a mother and a garlic farmer. She owns a small value-added food business, Backyard Garlic, coaches ultimate frisbee and likes exploring new places.


Memories of Nicaragua continue to organize in my mind and body.  Reflections on being a part of a delegation as well as an individual have increasingly become a part of my daily life. For me, this is a sure sign of a good trip. One experience in particular, I hold carefully, as though it were alive in the palm of my hand.

On day 5 of our 8-day trip we travelled to Las Diosas farm to spend the afternoon. We shared a meal with the women working there and learned more about what happens from day to day. FEM and Las Diosas’ mission of rebellious attention to reproductive processes and resources were apparent everywhere we looked – through building local, to international markets, expertise in alternative farming techniques, and visionary business practices. The farm has a plant nursery, experimental garden, testing and processing facilities for hibiscus, coffee, and honey, and infrastructure to support continued growth of women owned and operated cooperatives. Also on the farm is the ongoing study and practice of saving seed.Handful of Seeds - Nicaragua

I felt joy on this farm. In simply being there and in what I learned. And it was the practice of saving seed that is most present to me now. A seed can be deceptively simple. Profundity is a trait of simplicity, after all.  And much can be said of the word  – saving. Seed is potential, diversity. Seed is survival. And when a seed is understood for the qualities it brings to the plant, it begins to reveal the history of the soil from which it grew.  From which, and in which, it can be saved.

In this way, seed is memory and soil is history. Both record human activity – present and past. Saving seed is an act of deep affection. It is an act of profound attention to what has gone before.

Knowing how to save seed is not unlike knowing how to raise a hand in protest.  March 8 is International Women’s Day.  And March 24 is March for Our Lives. For both, I will remember what I learned from the women of FEM and on the Las Diosas farm. I will care for the seed in my hand, how it roots me, saves me, in what I believe. I will work to have a deeper understanding of the history I inherited and the history in the making – it is the soil in which I grow. Saving is conserving as well as setting free.

We often heard the word ‘organized’ on our journey. For me the word organized came to mean – knowing who you are and what you bring to the work. It meant planting your words and actions with a rebellious attention, selective care and abundant joy.

Visiting Across Borders

Visiting Across Borders

Gina Collignon is UUCSJ’s Senior Associate for Immersion Learning. She recently led a group from the Bethesda, MD/Washington DC area (that included members from the Cedar Lane, All Souls Unitarian in DC, and Davies Memorial UU churches) to the Arizona/Mexico Border.


Manual at the Border Wall

Manual at the Border Wall

“People used to visit here,” Manuel told us. “They would set up chairs and talk. Sometimes they would bring food and pass it through to each other.” We all stood on the U.S. side of the U.S./Mexico border. Rust iron slats rose high into the air, creating a physical barrier between us and the land that looked not that different mere feet away. Forces of the state had recently put up mesh wiring across the slats, effectively negating what little physical space remained open between the two neighboring lands. “Why would they do that?”  Manuel continued. “Drugs didn’t come through there. They are too tiny of spaces. Families would come to be together, to spend time, to share things. Now, the fence blocks even that.”

The image stayed trapped in my head: family members bringing foldout chairs merely to be close to the physical presence of those they loved; friends coming to chat, state-sponsored separation notwithstanding. As we walked away, I fell into conversation with a fellow delegation member. “These borders are in our mind. It’s just a physical manifestation of our own fears.” She looked at me as if I had said the most obvious thing ever. “Yeah.”

Returning to Borderlinks with a church that had already decided to become a sanctuary church was an eye- and heart-opening experience. As we chatted (a group of adults already committed to justice and yet still learning what that means), someone realized that even though they had committed to being a sanctuary church, they lived in a city divided by race. A river acted as a border separating the two sides. This realization brought us to a deeper questioning of the word “sanctuary.” Is our church really a sanctuary? Who defines sanctuary? How do we know when we’ve achieved that status? As the week progressed, we practiced the act of meeting across borders through visiting with detainees, meeting with people at the forefront of working for immigration justice, through daring to sit with our own messy emotions and identities.

Two Way Traffic SignAs I watched Borderlinks magnificently guide us through our itinerary, again and again I thought, “These borders are in our mind.” And privilege means that our emotive borders become physical borders. Privilege means that unjust borders can be something that we’re blind to. Privilege means sometimes not seeing the socio-economic, race-based, gender-based, body-based, culture-based (and so many more) borders that surround us constantly. “People used to visit here,” Manuel had told us. “They would set up chairs and talk.” Maybe that is one of the first steps we have to do to deconstruct the internalized borders we all carry within us. Set up a chair and talk to the person across. This might be part of the movement that then carries us through the work of dismantling and opposing the physical and legal borders being legally enacted around us. Only when the borders come down can people truly meet.

Activating the Next Generation

Activating the Next Generation

Deva Jones, Senior Associate for Service-Learning and Volunteer Placements, led a group of youth on one of UUCSJ’s newest programs Activate Florida: Solidarity with Migrant Farmworkers this April. To learn more about this program visit https://uucsj.org/florida/ 


Old Ship Youth Group in ImmokaleeWhat do you think of when you hear, “Florida?  For many, the first words that come to mind are beaches, warm weather, vacation, and Disney World. For myself and the youth I led on a service learning trip to Immokalee, Fla., we do think of shared experiences, fun, and the outdoors. But above all else, we remember the inspiring farm and food justice organizers we met there, and the new framework for activism that they helped us build.

The Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice (UUCSJ), a collaboration between the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), promotes human rights through immersion learning programs. In April, I had the privilege of leading a youth group from Old Ship Church in Hingham, Mass. on the very first UUCSJ Activate Youth Justice Journey to Immokalee. During our trip, we learned first-hand about issues facing migrant farmworkers and grassroots efforts to improve conditions.

Boycott Wendy's BannerLike many low-wage workers across the United States, migrant farmworkers in Southwest Florida face wage theft, harassment, threats of deportation, and discrimination in their work environments. In the face of these injustices, the resilient Immokalee community works together to advocate for their rights, including through the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). CIW is a community-led grassroots organization that monitors workplace conditions and improves pay, conditions, and treatment for farmworkers through the Fair Food Program, a worker’s rights and corporate responsibility agreement. After learning from the CIW for two full days and leading a demonstration outside of a Wendy’s restaurant in Naples, Fla. (Wendy’s remains the only large fast food chain to not sign onto the Fair Food Program), the Old Ship Church youth group was eager to put their new knowledge and understanding of justice issues and grassroots organizing to work.

Youth With Dignity Sign

Learning about issues first-hand, and with peers, is a powerful way for youth to become engaged in new human rights and social justice issues. Through learning about one issue in depth, such as farmworker justice in Southwest Florida, youth become equipped with new activist tools and skills—and are inspired to action.

What do you think of when you hear the word, “youth”? When I think of the youth from Old Ship Church and the many others I have met through UUCSJ, I think of thoughtful, energetic activists who want to build a better, more just future.

 

 

We Keep Coming Back

We Keep Coming Back

Rev. Beth Banks is the Senior Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Davis. She journeyed with other UU Religious Professionals to the Arizona-Mexico border in 2014. Below is her reflection of how that journey helped her energize her congregation around immigration justice.

2014 Religious Professionals Border Witness Participants

2014 Religious Professionals Border Witness Participants

In November of 2014, the College of Social Justice offered a border trip for religious leaders of our denomination. I wanted to travel with colleagues who came to learn for their own sake, but who also came to find inspiration for a new level of justice engagement with their congregations.

Each morning started with worship, preparing us for the day’s experience ahead. The week was intellectually stimulating, but it was my heart more than my mind that was broken open. We witnessed tremendous injustice, and what gave me hope, was witnessing the determination of both dedicated individuals and agencies who, because of their faith, had energy that did not cease.

Before returning home from the border trip, the staff of UUCSJ challenged us to choose something concerning immigration that we believed we could address within our sphere of influence. That’s how a new relationship focused on justice between the undocumented students of The University of California at Davis and The Unitarian Universalist Church of Davis began. In November 2014, the same month as the UU College of Social Justice trip for religious leaders, the AB 540 Undocumented Student Center was established by UC Davis. That first year, the Center served the needs of a couple hundred undocumented students. Since that first year, the number of known undocumented students is closer to 500, and there are more students every year.

Our relationship started with the allies who chose to represent the undocumented students. They spoke in worship services, and congregation members took special collections or made donations of gift cards to grocery stores. It seemed like such a small effort, and yet it was the sphere of influence available to us at the time.

SPEAK Member Raising their fists

SPEAK Members

However, at the beginning of the 2016-2017 academic year, the Center put us in direct relationship with members from SPEAK, a support group for students who are undocumented and their allies. Together, we discovered that the members of UUCD, as Unitarian Universalists, are uniquely positioned to be of assistance, as the students hoped to be in relationship with organizations that are LGBTQI friendly as well.

Trust has come slowly. We had much to learn, and so did the students. We were not necessarily skilled allies, and they were not familiar with churches that would support diversity as an ideal. With every passing season, there are more and more volunteer opportunities for congregants to support the students. We supply snacks at the Center where they study, offer our space on our church campus for their end of the year banquets and graduation parties for families. we’re running a Faithify fund raiser for their emergency funds, which supports their presence at the university or pays their DACA fees.

SPEAK - We Exist We Resist

SPEAK – We Exist We Resist

In return we promise to take the UndocuALLY training, to help those of us who have never lived in fear of deportation understand the secrecy needed to survive. With this training, we learn how to listen more carefully – slowly both groups are creating a bridge of trust.

This coming November the congregation is planning a border trip with UUCSJ because more people want to experience their own emersion learning. We will not learn alone. Prior to the trip, everyone in the congregation will be invited to attend the four sessions prepared by UUCSJ on immigration justice.

The sphere of influence, the one small thing that I could do when I returned from the UUCSJ border emersion trip, was making contact with the Executive Director of the Undocumented Center. I returned to her office repeatedly, asking the same question, “How can we help?” Eventually, we found just the place where we were needed most. When I ask the students why they are beginning to trust, they give an answer that is so seemingly mundane. ‘“It’s because you didn’t go away, and kept coming back.”  We’re going to keep coming back.


To learn more about our journeys for Religious professionals or to sign up for the upcoming fall 2017 journeys to the Border (Border Witness for Religious Leaders: Oct. 30 – Nov. 4, 2017) or Nicaragua (Guardians of the River: Climate Justice for Theologians: Nov. 25-Dec. 2), visit https://uucsj.org/journeys/religious-leaders/ 

So Goes West Virginia…

So Goes West Virginia…

In mid-July of 2017, a group of teenagers and adults from the UU Church of Delaware County will visit West Virginia on a UUCSJ Youth Service Journey. In part of the preparation for this pilot program, last week I had the immense pleasure of visiting West Virginia, and meeting with a host of congregations, faith leaders, organizations and activists.

Welcome to West Virginia SignI have to admit, upon planning for this trip, I found myself feeling a range of emotions: intrigued, nervous, romanticizing. Like few other places in the country, West Virginia has come to stand for something very deeply entrenched in our national psyche. It has been heralded as the “home of coal,” and post-election we heard endless analyses of the state of the “white working class” and how on earth they could turn out in such large numbers for someone like Donald Trump. On the other hand, folks in West Virginia often refer to themselves as a “third world country” and as a “national sacrifice zone.”

It’s clear that there is something at stake in engaging with West Virginia. 

One of the first things I noticed upon getting there was the strange fact that West Virginians are on the one hand deeply skeptical of “outsiders” who have come to “do good,” and on the other hand so friendly and hospitable.

They have reason to be skeptical: in the past 100 years, West Virginians have been viciously exploited and plundered by coal companies, northern banks and corrupt politicians. They have watched their breathtaking mountains be destroyed and their water contaminated, their wealth and natural wonders siphoned away to feed the insatiable hunger for national and global progress. And as the coal boom has ended, they have been abandoned. Resources and jobs have fled, and Democrats and Republicans alike have come along with a string of empty promises. The dignity that comes with a job, a community and knowing you are making meaningful contributions to society has withered way, and in that vacuum these same coal companies and political ideologues have imported an insidious narrative of white supremacy and vapid nationalism.

West Virginia Portest SignsBut there is another side I witnessed: West Virginia wasn’t always “white”, and wasn’t always poor, it has a long history of multi-racial activism led by the most affected (especially in coal mining unions), a long history of people fighting for dignity, diversity and sustainable development. And now, in the face of vicious inequality and environmental disaster, ordinary people are coming together to fight for their mountains, their water, their state and for their future.

I was so deeply moved by all the people I met and learned about, from the justice work, wisdom and commitment of the UU Congregation of Charleston, to the small but mighty New River UU Fellowship trying to put their faith into action, to UUSC partner Legal Aid of West Virginia offering legal support to the down and out, to grassroots organizations like RiseUp West Virginia, Refresh Appalachia, Our Water, WV Environmental Council, the WV Hub and countless others trying to organize for peace and justice. I was so grateful to be part of an Appalachian-wide interfaith gathering as they wrestled with huge questions while trying to lay the foundations for a multi-faith organization to help build a new Appalachia from among the ruins. Lastly, I was so inspired by two rural organizations UUCSJ will be partnering with who are both doing heroic work empowering rural West Virginians: Big Creek People in Action and the Southern Appalachia Labor School.

The UUCSJ Youth Service Journey will offer youth the experience I had: to learn this tragic and complex history, to meet these incredible people, to hear about the contemporary struggles of “third world America,” and to work alongside these folks and witness the tremendous efforts they are making to build their own future and maintain their dignity. It is our hope that this journey will provide a learning experience that goes way beyond the local issues faced by West Virginia and Appalachia. As Rev. Mel Hoover said to me, “So goes West Virginia, so goes America.”

By joining in the effort to build a just, sustainable, inclusive Appalachia, we can help build a just, sustainable, inclusive America (and by extension… world!). 

Chris Casuccio, Senior Associate for Immersion Learning