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 

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.


How UUCSJ Spent Our Summer Vacation

How UUCSJ Spent Our Summer Vacation

Equipping Youth Leaders to Change the World

Activate Boston Participants with Climate Justice Banner They Made

Activate Boston Participants with Climate Justice Banner They Made

In August, UUCSJ wrapped up a full summer of youth programming with Activate Climate Justice, which brought a passionate group of young climate justice leaders together to Boston. Over the course of the week, the group went on a Toxic Tour to build their awareness of environmental racism and community-led resistance, spent a day on the Boston Harbor Islands learning about the impact of rising seas, advocated for sustainable energy policies at the State House, met with local organizers of powerful grassroots groups, and participated in several hands-on projects, including a river clean-up, helping out at a local urban farm, and serving a locally-sourced meal to hundreds of community members.

As with all of our Activate programs, each day also included opportunities for spiritual centering, group worship and reflection, and community-building, culminating in strong connections between participants and a deeper connection to Unitarian Universalist values and practices. As we hear so often from Activate alums, the relationships built, sense of empowerment developed, and values and practices explored through these transformative experiences are what equips these young leaders to go forth and implement the action plans they made in their final days together, taking their next steps on what we hope will be lifelong journeys in social justice activism.

Activate New Orleans Participants and Community Art

Activate New Orleans Participants and Community Art

Earlier in the summer, our partners at the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal hosted Activate New Orleans in July, focused on Racial Justice & the Beloved Community, and BorderLinks hosted two youth justice delegations in Tucson, Arizona in June who explored immigration justice and ways to expand sanctuary and solidarity along the U.S./Mexico border. We also piloted our first youth journey to West Virginia, thanks to our newest community partners at Big Creek People in Action and the Southern Appalachia Labor School, as well as the UU Congregation of Charleston and the New River UU Fellowship. UUCSJ’s youth justice curriculum also reached participants in the Goldmine Leadership School in the UUA’s Pacific Western region through a week of immersive learning in Colorado.

We are so grateful to all of our partners, hosting organizations, program leaders, congregational leaders and youth groups, and youth participants for making these experiences so powerful. We also look forward to connecting with many more youth groups and young leaders as a new school year – and new year of Activate youth justice programs – begins! Learn more about our upcoming offerings in Boston, New Orleans, Tucson, Southwest Florida, West Virginia, and Nicaragua, and stay connected with us on Facebook and Twitter to learn more!

Offering Young Adults First Hand Experience with Grassroots Justice

Since 2012, UUCSJ has offered young adults a first-hand experience of grassroots justice work as summer interns at organizations to help them explore potential career paths while enhancing their own spiritual development. This past summer was our largest intern placement yet; UUCSJ placed 15 college-aged interns in eight nonprofit organizations in the US and UK. Some organizations were long-time partners of UUCSJ: RAICES in San Antonio and the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal (CELSJR) in New Orleans, and some were first time partners: Minnesota UU Social Justice Alliance in Minneapolis, MN, and the Interfaith Center for Social Justice Renewal in New York, NY.

Every other week, interns were invited to share reflections on their experiences with various justice issues in a private Facebook group, so they could share ideas and learn from one another. One intern describes their internship compared to past work experiences:

My internship with MUUSJA has been a very different from my other work experiences I’ve had in that I’m learning to take a back seat to the leadership of others, especially people of color… I’m learning that, especially as a person of privilege, some of the best things I can do for social justice movements are seemingly small things. That’s something that takes a lot of humility to accept, that isn’t always met with agreement among the people I’m surrounded by, and that might take getting used to. But I think it’s something that’s important to internalize as I plan for potential career options for the years ahead. – MUUSJA intern

Many of their experiences had a profound impact on their career development:

2017 RAICES Interns with Staff

2017 RAICES Interns with Staff

I am so grateful to be where I am at right now… It’s has been a profoundly empowering experience. I will leave this internship feeling more confident about following my passion for immigration justice work… As grim as work can be these people have helped to keep me from feeling too grim or weighed down by it. – RAICES intern

Having the opportunity to experience the important and intentional work that RMM is doing throughout New York has been inspiring. It’s exciting to know that I can finally put down more roots in a place and know that, I won’t be leaving, and instead I’ll be growing and contributing alongside others who are committed to making NY a more equitable and just place for all. – RMM Intern



It All Makes A Difference

Guardians of the River: Climate Justice for Theologians 2016 group

Guardians of the River: Climate Justice for Theologians 2016 group

Jacquline Brett is a recent graduate of Meadville Lombard’s Masters of Divinity program (MDiv) and will be at Meadville for another year for the Master of Arts in Leadership Studies (MALS) program. She has participated in UUCSJ’s 2015 Religious Professionals Journey to the Border and our 2016 Journey to Nicaragua, Guardians of the River: Climate Justice for Theologians. 

One of the profound things about participating in a UUCSJ trip is that memories of the experience, and the processing of what was learned, linger for months after returning home. The experiences are rich in depth of meaning and are very impactful. Even months later, I continually find myself coming to a deeper and fuller understanding of something I witnessed, was in conversation about, or heard in a story someone told. And then months later still, I connect another dot with something else occurring here at home, or elsewhere in the world. This has been true for me both on the Border Witness journey to Arizona and Mexico, and perhaps most especially on the trip to Nicaragua. 

The Women of FEM

The Women of FEM

On the Nicaragua journey, as a woman of color I very much wanted to understand how race and gender intersected with issues of climate. I was left with much to consider as we engaged with many different communities of people: university professors, workers, scientists, leaders of non-profits, a women’s group, and powerful activists who were simple but proud peasants determined to take a stand for environmental justice in their communities. I especially appreciated that almost everyone we met were people of color who told the story of their experience or of their research. As I listened to a scientist explain and illustrate a simple process that was used to engage the wisdom of the community in tracking climate change, I was not only impressed by the process, but began to understand as I had not before how urgent this situation is in the world over.

I loved living with a family in the mountains during part of our stay. I so respected their fierce commitment to their community and their generosity of spirit as hosts.  We arrived in Nicaragua just after the U.S. election of 2016, full of both our privilege as Americans and a sense of dread for the future of our country. We were told more than once by Nicaraguans we encountered, who looked us straight in the eye and advised (with great sympathy), that rather than figuring out how to help them, we Americans had plenty of our own work to do back here at home. And we needed to set about doing it. I for one returned home with a greater sense of our interconnectedness in this process. As I remember the women at the edge of the Yaoska River who prepared an amazing, simple meal over an open fire, I’ve reflected on how greatly each of us is needed to change the world, no matter what small corner of it we occupy, no matter how wealthy or poor we are. We each have the capacity to offer a little something of ourselves. And it all makes a difference.

Learn more about our Journeys for Religious Professionals or register for the upcoming fall journeys at

Hear About Activate Justice Trainings from Participants

Are you a high school aged youth who is wondering how to engage more fully in social justice work? We at UUCSJ have the program for you this very summer! But don’t take our word for it, hear about Activate Youth Justice Trainings from youth who have not only already participated in one Activate training, but are also choosing to do another this summer!

John Martin Tomlinson
Activate Southwest Borders 2015 and Activate NOLA: Racial Justice and Beloved Community 2017

Activate Tucson 2015 Group Preparing for Arrival Walk

Activate Tucson 2015 Group Preparing for Arrival Walk

“I attended Activate Southwest Borders and it was a life-changing event for me. It was one of the most the meaningful weeks of my life and it changed my path in life. I had never before been surrounded by such great people. I made friends with the most amazing people, and made strong ongoing bonds with several of them. The program motivated me to try to become fluent in Spanish and I have been making strides. I am planning to go back to the border with the Spanish language and first aid skills I have learned. Since that trip, I have been hoping to attend another Activate program so I can learn in only the way an immersive Activate program teaches.

I will have the chance to have another transformative experience and meet more like-minded youth at the UUSCJ Activate program, New Orleans Racial Justice and Beloved Community. Racism is one of the most serious issues facing the United States and the world – it affects every aspect of our society. With our current political climate it is more important than ever that we learn about racial justice work. To maintain our humanity, we must understand the roots of racism, and how to combat it, no matter where it occurs, in Arizona, in New Orleans or in Europe. I am especially interested in how I can tie together what I learn in New Orleans with what I learned at Activate Southwest Borders. This will help me with future immigration justice work.”

Selena Silari
Activate Tucson 2015 and Activate NOLA 2017

“Two Summers ago, I participated in the Activate Southwest Border program. This experience lead to a deeper exploration into immigration justice in my sophomore year of high school. I did a presentation for my school and preached to my congregation about immigration and the issues going on at the border. This experience brought deep awareness and inspired me to continue to gain an understanding of the injustices of the world and how we can help.”

Activate Boston: Climate Justice 2016 Group at the People Over Pipelines March

Activate Boston: Climate Justice 2016 Group at the People Over Pipelines March

Isak Atkins-Pearcy
Activate Boston: Climate Justice 2016 and 2017

“My UUCSJ experience last summer was my favorite week of my entire summer of 2016. Thank you!”






The UU College of Social Justice is offering three Activate Youth Justice immersive learning opportunities in June, July and August. Deadlines are approaching in May and generous financial aid is available! Learn more and register at

Please join us and spread the word. The deadline for all Activate programs is May 31st:

Activate @ GA, 10 am – 3 pm Weds. June 21st, followed by workshops during GA in the Youth Caucus space

Activate New Orleans: Racial Justice, July 16th– 23rd

Activate Boston: Climate Justice, August 6th – 13th


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

Let’s Get Ready – to March, to Resist, to Declare Our Conscience!

Let’s Get Ready – to March, to Resist, to Declare Our Conscience!

by Angela KellyDeclaration of Conscience

Ready or not, here we are, on the eve of an Inauguration so many of us are dreading. We are painfully aware of the threats posed by the incoming President to the rights, safety, and dignity of so many, to the future of our planet, and to values we cherish deep in our hearts. We know that many of these threats are not new for immigrants and refugees, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and so many others.

And yet we know that there is also much that is unprecedented about this moment. It demands something new of all of us: increased clarity and resilience; a renewed commitment to anti-oppressive learning and practice; and greater courage amidst uncertainty. We are also called in a new way to build beloved community, and to dedicate ourselves to centering practices that will sustain us through the tough times to come.

Whether in our home communities or in the nation’s Capitol, many of us will take to the streets this weekend. We will raise our voices with millions more, to counter and disrupt bigotry in all its forms. We will stand up to defend critical social programs and the laws that protect our environment. UUCSJ staff and our colleagues will be among the ranks marching in DC and Boston, joining with the powerful network of UU activists across the country, embodying faith-based resistance in the days ahead. There are UU Convergences being organized at several of the actions, including the Women’s March on Washington.

If you are looking for an action near you, please check out the latest listing at the UUA’s Show the Love page for several links that will help you get plugged in. Before you set out to march and rally, take some time to watch or listen to this excellent webinar with our colleagues Rev. Ashley Horan (MUUSJA), Lena K. Gardner (BLUU), Caitlin Breedlove and Nora Rasman (SSL): “Get More Out of the March: Mobilizing for Resistance”. Take some time to center yourself before hitting the streets, perhaps with this beautiful Blessing for the Women’s March by Rev. Erika Hewitt. Be sure to fortify your mind, body, heart and spirit, and consider how the signs you will carry, slogans you will chant, and voices you will hear and amplify will effectively lift up intersectional messages that reflect your values and commitments and the leadership and wisdom of those likely to be dos adversely affected by the incoming Administration. A recent webinar from the Icarus Project on Street Therapy: Emotional Resistance also offers a powerful framework and some timely tips for attending to our own self care and the wellness of those around us while taking mass action.

On Sunday, Jan. 22, sustain the momentum of this weekend’s actions by joining us for a public webinar on Sanctuary & Solidarity, with leaders of UUSC and the UUA, and grassroots movement organizers from across the country. Register here to get the link to join live on Sunday and/or the recording and follow-up resources. (And if you are particularly interested in exploring becoming a Sanctuary congregation as one pathway toward solidarity, mark your calendars for two more upcoming webinars on January 30th and February 27th, hosted by UUCSJ and UURISE; details and registration at this link.)

One action you can take right now is signing onto a Declaration of Conscience, jointly issued by UUA and UUSC earlier this week. The Declaration can be signed as an individual and/or as a congregation, as a way to register your dissent as well as your commitment to an emerging campaign that uplifts the values of justice and compassion, all humans’ worth and dignity, and our vital web of interdependence.

However you march, resist, and/or reaffirm your values at this time, please know you are not alone! We are buoyed not only by the collective strength of one another but by the power of our ancestors, the many who tirelessly fought oppression before us, as well as the enduring spirit of those who will come after us. We at UUCSJ are grateful for and inspired by your continued activism and engagement and will continue to share resources and action opportunities for the long haul ahead. Stay tuned!

Declaration of Conscience

At this extraordinary time in our nation’s history, we are called to affirm our profound commitment to the fundamental principles of justice, equity and compassion, to truth and core values of American society.

In the face of looming threats to immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community and the rise of hate speech, harassment and hate crimes, we affirm our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

In opposition to any steps to undermine the right of every citizen to vote or to turn back advances in access to health care and reproductive rights, we affirm our commitment to justice and compassion in human relations.

And against actions to weaken or eliminate initiatives to address the threat of climate change – actions that would threaten not only our country but the entire planet – we affirm our unyielding commitment to protect the interdependent web of all existence.

We will oppose any and all unjust government actions to deport, register, discriminate, or despoil.

As people of conscience, we declare our commitment to translate our values into action as we stand on the side of love with the most vulnerable among us.

We welcome and invite all to join in this commitment for justice.

The time is now.