Last month, eleven youth and three counselors joined me for the 3rd Annual Environmental Justice For All! Retreat at Silver Lake Conference Center in Connecticut. The retreat continued its tradition of providing an extravagant welcome to youth of color in recognition that communities of color (and low income communities) bear a disproportionate burden of environmental degradation as a result of industry and government policies. The retreat provided the opportunity for youth of color to lead the conversation and expand their knowledge of issues affecting vulnerable communities locally and around the world.
The theme of the program was grounded and driven by Romans 12:2: "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." For many, it was the first time they learned 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 also transformed our souls at the retreat. We dug our hands into the garden soil where we planted tomatoes and basil. We practiced gratitude through outdoor worship. Upon taking in the serene beauty of the waterfront at the retreat center, 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.
During the retreat, 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, 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 joined together in a commitment to regularly clean up their block and 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. I look forward to this continued ministry of personal and social transformation.
Pam Arifian is Director of the Northeast Regional Environmental Justice Center at Silver Lake.