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.

Carlos and the Guardians

Carlos and the Guardians

Rev. Paul Langston-Daley is the Senior Program Leader for Justice Building at UUSC. In November 2016, he travelled to Nicaragua on UUCSJ’s Guardians of the River: Climate Justice for Theologians journey specifically for religious professionals (ministers, seminarians and religious educators).


It had already been a difficult year, and then November came and with it, the election of Donald Trump. I was feeling pretty, cynical about the future. The trip to Nicaragua was scheduled for the end of the month and I was trying, like most people to see some kind of silver lining in what was about to unfold. I was particularly looking forward to being there with colleagues, as we shared this experience together.

I didn’t know much about Nicaragua – I knew some about the Sandinistas and about American interference and involvement in the civil war, but not much else. The study materials provided by the College of Social Justice were outstanding, providing a backdrop to frame the experience, but not requiring more than was manageable in an average schedule. It was engaging, and familiarity with the history, and with the current political climate, provided depth to the trip.

Though there were many highlights – the women of Matagalpa, the lush green mountains of the countryside, the many wonderful speakers who shared their lives with us, worship that helped to ground us each day – the real center of the trip was our visit with Carlos and the Guardians of the River. The Guardians are a grassroots community resisting a gold mine that would destroy their sacred river the Yaoska. I was unprepared for how deeply this meeting would impact me. The sharing of gifts, when we all brought a symbol of something that connects us to mother earth, brought an unanticipated level of vulnerability and caring. My fellow religious leaders brought an incredible depth of sharing as they made offerings to those gathered. Colored leaves, special stones, gifts of nuts, cranberries and honey, all were shared with reverence to nature, the beauty of this place, and at our being together in solidarity. Hearing the Guardians sing, the joy they shared at being in this place, the passion they held for life, the depth of their love for the planet, all of it was palpable. Gratitude was present in a form that was undeniable and we were embraced in that gratitude.

Participants with Guardians of the River making an altar of their gifts

Participants with Guardians of the River making an altar of their gifts

Reverence for all life is not just a quaint sentiment for these Guardians of the River.  For them, this beautiful, Eden like place is worthy of their protection. The songs they sang brought laughter and tears. We swam in the river, admired the mountains, marveled at the power and wonder of this pristine garden. I was deeply grateful to these Guardians, who know a deeper certainty, who claim a nobler truth, the people who stopped the gold mine. Because they understand that the land and its people are far more precious than gold. Everywhere we went, reverence for and connection to the land was present. The fruit trees, the chickens, the coffee, paradise is here. A deep religious connection to the earth, to all life, abides.

I learned more than I could have imagined, not just about Nicaragua, its people, and their struggles, but about a shared commitment to the earth that knows no borders or boundaries. I learned about the power of a people capable of stopping a multi-national corporation. I began to understand what it might take to return to my own country to face a new administration. I returned to the United States with a sense of hope and spirit.

It has been a little more than a year since my trip, and on the days when I feel things are impossible; when I don’t think I can bear one more tweet, or policy move, or ridiculous statement from the White House, I recall the voice of Maria, a young Guardian of the River.  I remember their struggle, the challenges they faced, the stories of those who resisted, and my spirit is renewed. I am reminded that with love, nothing is impossible.

To learn about future journeys specifically for religious professionals, visit uucsj.org/journeys/religious-leaders/ 

Post Hurricane Harvey Houston Update

Post Hurricane Harvey Houston Update

In early December, our Director, Kathleen McTigue, and UUSC consultant, Syma Mirza  met with four grassroots groups in Houston, Texas: the Fe y Justicia Worker Justice Center, the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS), and the Living Hope Wheelchair Association, as well as the local Houston organizer for RAICES. Kathleen also met with members of four area UU congregations.


Chemical plant from TEJAS Toxic TourVisiting Houston earlier this month was an eye-opening experience for me. Traveling with UUSC consultant Syma Mirza, I met some of the UUSC partner groups in Houston to learn about their post-Harvey work. One of them, the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Network (TEJAS), took us on their “toxic tour” so we could see for ourselves how vast and poisonous the industrial complexes on the Gulf really are. These immense industrial campuses that produce (and often release) toxic chemicals are located right next to homes, schools, and playgrounds. Even with the car windows rolled up, the air smells of chemicals. The populations closest to the toxins are, predictably, lower income and often communities of color, including those who are undocumented and live doubly in the shadows.

We also gained insight into a particularly vicious dimension of intersectional oppression. As in so many other cities, Houston’s construction industry relies heavily on undocumented workers, especially in the more dangerous jobs. These workers are routinely subject to wage theft and workplace harassment, and post-Harvey are often sent into clean-up and demolition jobs without the proper protective equipment. When they become ill or are injured, they do not have recourse to the support and protections that most of us assume are available by law. And if they are disabled due to workplace injury, none of the standard support – from counseling to the proper kind of wheelchairs – are within their reach.

The Living Hope Wheelchair Association is a scrappy, grassroots organization working for the rights and dignity of people with spinal cord injuries, especially those who are undocumented.

Long before Harvey struck, Living Hope was providing life-saving services and equipment to its members, and building grassroots power to advocate for housing, employment, and transportation. But in the wake of Harvey’s destruction, and with their constituents profoundly vulnerable to the flood waters, the Association gained sudden new visibility.

We sat in their small office and listened to Board members tell their stories; all of them are living in wheelchairs, all are undocumented, and all devote countless volunteer hours to Living Hope. As I listened, one question kept arising for me: doesn’t their new visibility bring with it a new level of personal danger for these leaders, for arrest and deportation? One Board member responded, “Visibility brings more fear, but it won’t hold us back. To be honest, with Jeff Sessions as Attorney General we know they’ll come for whoever they want. We can’t control that, but we can control our commitment, our solidarity. That’s ours.”

We are proud to support the work of Living Hope through the UUSC disaster relief grants. As we enter the new year, UUCSJ will continue our conversations with these and other UUSC partners to discern when and how volunteers from outside the region might usefully support their work.


Sign up to join the volunteer list if you’re available to travel to Texas or Florida to support relief efforts and would like to hear more detailed information as it becomes available.

UUCSJ By The Numbers

UUCSJ By The Numbers

The UU College of Social Justice was jointly founded in the summer of 2012 by the UUA and UUSC, so this year we are celebrating a big anniversary. We are grateful for all of our alumni and supporters who have made our work possible!

In honor of of all of you and our anniversary, here is CSJ by the numbers (as of October 2017).

 

 

UUCSJ has been inspiring and sustaining faith based action for social justice for 5 years!

 

During our 5 years, we have run 39 immersion journeys for adults, with a total of 470 participants (78 of whom were ministers, DREs or seminary students).

 

Through 18 week-long youth focused immersion learning journeys and training programs as well as three one-day offerings during General Assembly, 392 youth have experienced how Unitarian Universalism can inform their work for justice.

 

We have placed 65 interns in summer-long immersion internships in over 15 different grassroots justice organizations.

 

We have sent 53 skilled volunteers to placements with partner organizations for between one to 8 weeks. Most of those placements were lawyers and Spanish speakers working with RAICES in San Antonio Texas to help the women and children detained in Karnes.

 

Total participants across our programs totals 1,063. This number does not include collaborative training programs like the UU-UNO Spring Seminar and the Goldmine Youth Leadership program which extend our reach even further!

 

Of the participants who have completed an impact assessment form, 88% said that, as a result of their journey, they have a deeper sense of the connection between their faith and the role it can play in social justice.

 

Participants – both those who came as individuals and those traveling in a congregational delegation – came from 260 congregations representing nearly every state in the country.

Beyond Fair Trade: Building Just Relationships

Beyond Fair Trade: Building Just Relationships

Jan Taddeo (writer) and JenJoy Royal (photographer) travelled with UUCSJ to Nicaragua in February 2017 for our Beyond Fair Trade: Building Just Relationships immersion journey. We partner with Equal Exchange for this journey to explore the power of fair trade to improve the lives of producers and help consumers live their values. To learn more about this journey or to register for our upcoming February 2018 journey visit www.uucsj.org/fairtrade 


It’s been eight months since I journeyed to Nicaragua with the UU College of Social Justice. Every morning when I drink my coffee I am reminded of the many complexities associated with this journey. Nicaragua is a beautiful country, with a very complex historical relationship with the United States. The people we engaged with during our journey were warm and welcoming, and their lives are complex. The Equal Exchange coffee I drink each morning takes an intricate journey to arrive at my breakfast table.

The preparation for our journey to Nicaragua included several weeks of reading, learning, and reflecting about the history of the country, and the history of U.S. involvement in Central America. Not knowing this history prior to making the commitment, I was overwhelmed with the stories of our entanglement, interference, military involvement, and economic influence. I wasn’t quite sure how we would be received by the people. On one hand, Nicaraguans have many reasons to be wary, distrustful, and fearful of Americans. On the other hand, many U.S. citizens came to Nicaragua to support the people in their struggle. However, I need not have been concerned, we were met with great hospitality and trust.

Jan Taddeo Picking Coffee Cherries

Jan Taddeo Picking Coffee Cherries

The greatest example of the trust placed in us showed up in our first meeting with the leadership of the farming cooperative in Quibuto. After engaging in an enthusiastic game of “All My Friends and Neighbors” (todos mis amigos y vecinos) to break the ice, the coop leaders gave a presentation about their needs and concerns as farmers. Their presentation included details of their costs, from planting the seeds to harvesting and processing the crops. This was followed by a breakdown of how much money they receive from the larger coop that buys the crops from the small farmers, how much that coop receives from Equal Exchange, and then their understanding of how much Equal Exchange makes on a pound of coffee. They explained  the challenges they face in obtaining deeds for the land so they can plant more coffee, and the hardships of weather, blight, and infestations that can wipe out crops that take three years to mature.

Representatives in attendance from Equal Exchange were able to engage in a deep conversation about all of the forces that impact the creation and distribution of coffee. It was a difficult and fascinating conversation to hear, even when everyone was speaking the same language. We were able to ask questions which led to more conversation and it was an honor to be invited in and trusted. We learned that even though this is a fair-trade relationship between Equal Exchange and this small farming cooperative, it is still a difficult life, in part because coffee is a complex crop.

The group hard at working harvesting coffee

The group hard at working harvesting coffee

I never thought too much about what a coffee plant looks like, how it grows, or how we get coffee from it. On this journey we followed the trail from coffee seed to coffee bean to coffee tasting. We drove by fields of coffee bushes devastated by rust. We saw seedlings that were just a few months old and learned that they will not produce fruit for three years. We climbed the side of the mountainous landscape to reach the coffee bushes living under the shade of giant eucalyptus trees (did you know coffee grew on bushes?). We were taught how to tell when the coffee cherries are ripe and had the opportunity to harvest them. It’s much harder than it looks!

Back at one of the homes in the village, we helped unload giant bags of coffee cherries, dumped them into a bin that was attached to a depulper, and ran the cherries through it. We assisted in washing the naked beans, gently swishing them in the trough with a large paddle to allow the good beans to float to the top and the unripe beans and debris to sink to the bottom. Then we took buckets of beans up to the large drying racks in the front yard. There the farmers would carefully sort through the beans, separating the top quality beans from the lower quality beans. The best beans are the ones that move forward to the next level of processing at the larger coop, which then ships the beans all over the world. In touring that facility on our way out of the village, we also got to visit the tasting room! Yum!

Coffee Sorting

Coffee sorting

The coffee we drink that comes from Nicaragua, and from many other countries, has a complicated history with the land, and a complex life from seedling to the cup of steaming coffee on the breakfast table. The people who grow the coffee work harder than I ever imagined, and they lead humble lives compared to mine.

We stayed three days in Quibuto, living with the families, getting to know their children, grieving with them when the sudden death of young man shocked the community, and being entertained by them at a big community party on our last evening together. We discussed a wide range of topics with the people we stayed with, depending on our language skills. Some heard their stories from the revolution, or enjoyed deep theological conversations. Not knowing Spanish, I got to know my family through dancing with them to the rock music their 17-year-old nephew put on the radio. I brought color pencils and paper, and the children and teens drew beautiful pictures for me. I managed to learn that my host’s niece is attending nursing school at the university. Being a vegan, I was a bit of a mystery to them, yet they accommodated me with great generosity … the best rice and beans I’ve ever had. I promised my family that I will return again, next time fluent in Spanish. This is a promise I intend to keep.

There is so much more to share about this journey … this was really just one small part of our experience. We visited many places, met incredible people, and heard profoundly inspiring stories of resilience, perseverance, and the power of love to overcome great challenges. This was not a service journey … this was a cultural learning experience that challenged me, and transformed me. I look forward to returning.