Written by Emily Mullins
The Central Pacific Conference of the United Church of Christ will welcome UCC members from throughout the region to Camp Adams, its camp and retreat center in Molalla, Ore., this weekend for a conference on climate change. While more than 50 environmental activists, advocates and concerned citizens have registered for the event, the attendees event organizers are perhaps most excited about are the youth and young adults who are spearheading initiatives to combat climate change and make the earth a better place for future generations.
Some, like Hannah Sohl, a 24-year-old member of Ashland First Congregational UCC in Ashland, Ore., have even played integral roles organizing the event, titled Rise Up: Climate, Faith and Action, and will host workshops during the three-day conference March 7-9.
"Younger and future generations are the ones who are going to have to deal with the consequences of climate change," Sohl said. "If we really want to make change then we have to learn how to raise our voices together, step up, and take leadership on this issue."
Sohl is founder of Rogue Climate, a grassroots organization that brings Southern Oregon communities together to support practical solutions to the climate crisis. The organization, led by a board and steering committee comprised of people under age 30, is currently working to train and empower young people to be effective advocates for the earth, and plans to work with other stakeholders on a clean energy plan for Southern Oregon and push for legislation calling for clean energy during the 2015 legislative session.
During the Rise Up: Climate, Faith and Action conference, Sohl will lead a workshop about incorporating art and creativity into climate activism, a method she says provides an unexpected way for people to engage in this type of advocacy work. A Rogue Climate project last year drew 1,000 people to create 1,400 pieces of art that depicted what they love about Oregon's Rogue Valley and what worries them about climate change. The pieces came together to create a 117-foot-long salmon displayed in downtown Medford, Ore., during a day of climate celebration.
"We live in a fairly conservative part of the country, and it was an incredible way to engage people who had never been involved in climate change issues before," Sohl said. "It gave them an on-ramp to get involved that felt different than what they had expected climate activism to look like. I'm going to talk about that experience during the workshop."
The Rev. Caren Caldwell, associate pastor of Medford Congregational UCC in Medford, Ore., and an organizer of the event, feels energized by the passion she sees from members of younger generations, and thinks it's important to include them in this type of social justice advocacy.
"We have all been inspired by Hannah's efforts – she is an incredibly bright and talented 24-year-old woman who, through her own passion, is taking this on full time and running with it," said Caldwell, who has volunteered with Rogue Climate. "At the same time, she is also gathering people from her generation around her to do this work and they are all incredibly bright, well-educated and respected and have the right skills to do this organizing.
"When we started seeing that, we said, 'We can't just bring in the usual people and think we're doing anything,'" Caldwell adds. "We've got to make use not only of our experienced people, but engage our young people too."
The event will have a specific and deliberate flow to it, Caldwell said, to help attendees gain the tools to understand climate change and its impacts, and determine what people of faith can do about it. It will begin with keynote addresses from the Rev. Jim Antal, conference minister and president of the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC, and representatives from the Oregon nonprofit EcoFaith Recovery.
The first set of informational workshops will educate people on pressing environmental issues, such as divestment and clean energy. The second set will focus on capacity building, answering questions about how to lobby, organize and make use of direct actions. The final set of workshops will focus on next steps, such as how attendees can bring ideas back to their congregations, how to start a network, and how to recruit others. The goal, Caldwell said, is to create a network of climate activists within the Central Pacific Conference who will leave the event and keep advocating for change.
"We don't want them to disperse and never see each other again," she said. "I want to see a highly-engaged group of activists come out of this conference."
"I'm really excited to come together with people from all over the state and region who are ready and willing to step up their involvement and really envision what role we can play together as UCC churches," Sohl adds. "I'm excited to come together and think about what we can accomplish in the next few years."