Empowering Youth in Environmental Justice

May 24, 2017
By Pam Arifian

A new and engaged community was formed at the 4th Annual Environmental Justice For All! Retreat, which took place at Silver Lake Conference Center this past weekend. A signature program of the UCC Northeast Environmental Justice Center, this Retreat marked a new chapter for the program.

This year, the EJ4A! Retreat was open to all high-school youth regardless of race or ethnic identity. For the first three years, the EJ4A! Retreat offered an extravagant welcome exclusively to youth from communities of color, in recognition of the fact that communities of color (and low-income communities) bear a disproportionate burden from industry and government decisions regarding policy that, intentionally or not, negatively impacts access to clean air and water.  The retreat provided the opportunity for youth of color over the last three years to lead conversation and expand their knowledge of issues affecting vulnerable communities locally and around the world, and to grow into leaders on environmental justice issues.

The long-term plan for this training retreat had always included an expanded welcome to all youth regardless of race or ethnic identity after the first three years. Participants from last year’s Retreat were not aware of this long-term plan when many reflected on their awesome experience, and enthusiastically suggested opening the Retreat up to include white teenagers as well, so that we all can learn and work together on solutions.

The participants and chaperones for this year’s retreat reflected a mix of races and ethnicities, and came from UCC churches and other faith communities in New Haven, Bridgeport, Guilford, Lebanon, Hartford as well as South Hadley, MA. Some of the participants returned for their second or fourth retreat, and some after having been a conferee at SLCC summer camp for several years. Two members of this Retreat had attended all three previous retreats, and returned this year as Youth Mentor and Counselor-in-Training, contributing their experience and leadership to make this year’s retreat successful. Five of the youth had never been to Silver Lake before, and everyone reported learning a lot of new material about issues they had never explored before.

The Retreat was facilitated by Pam Arifian, Director of the UCC Northeast Environmental Justice Center, in partnership with a stellar adult leadership team, including Keyairra Wright (4-time EJ4A chaperone, former SLCC Board member and summer staff member, and Dean for “River of Dreams” conference this summer), Devonte Little (Supervisor for the CTUCC Joseph Clemmons Job Training Program), Sultan Harris (EJ4A! Alumna and former SLCC conferee), and Brian Lapis (3-time EJ4A! chaperone, SLCC Board of Directors, SLCC Summer Dean for “Fun in the Son” conference).
 “It created a sense of trust and a bond between all of us” – retreat participant

The retreat curriculum provided a narrative arc that started with creating a foundation of safe space together on Friday night so that we were ready to dig in to the difficult environmental and public health issues through the lens of environmental racism. The curriculum is rooted in our Christian faith tradition and shared values of gratitude for the gift of creation and the responsibility and privilege of our call to be stewards of creation. We experienced awe and peace in the outdoors, in the woods at low ropes, in the garden, with worship at the waterfall chapel and at the waterfront at sunset, and enjoyed s’mores and fellowship at the campfire. We learned about our own complicity in environmental racism issues and participated in working together on solutions, and we committed to support each other in this continued work beyond the retreat.

Some participants were surprised to learn that asthma and cancer rates affect some communities more than others based on income and race or ethnic identity. The issues were made relevant with connections to current events, such as the ongoing Flint, Michigan water crisis, the devastation caused by fracking and the current legislation (HB6329) in the CT State legislature that would ban fracking waste in CT, and the fight for clean water and Native sovereignty in the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s fight against Dakota Access Pipeline and other pipeline struggles across the country.

Keyairra Wright reflected on her four years of serving as a counselor for the EJ4A! Retreat, and said “Each time we meet, the youth are increasingly more aware of the environmental injustices that face them. They can see and have witnessed the intersectionality of injustice faced by marginalized members of our community, more information is mainstream, and there are more resources to learn from. I am grateful for the opportunity to gain fresh perspectives from Connecticut's youth. I look forward to recruiting even more young people in the future and continuing to learn alongside them.”

The low ropes course offered practical training through challenges that helped the participants work together as a team to overcome differences and create solutions, skills that are essential for engaging in the climate justice movement. We learned to communicate across lines of difference in ability (for example, some participants were blindfolded or unable to speak during one challenge), and to listen to each other and different perspectives, and to trust and support each other as some of us scaled a wall.

In the Silver Lake organic garden, we created a food map to explore the many ways a simple decision we make several times a day has far-reaching impacts on some of the environmental and social justice issues that we were learning about. We learned about how we can do things differently to reduce our impacts on these issues, and then we worked together to plant organic tomatoes, basil and peppers, and to prepare the soil and install irrigation to support other pesticide-free crops for use in the camp kitchen. The group enjoyed this work so much that they decided to keep working until the job was done instead of breaking for the scheduled free time!

The narrative arc of the weekend moved from learning about the ways in which our actions are contributing to various environmental- and climate justice issues into an exploration of what a Shalom-filled world would look like, based on Zechariah 8. We envisioned what Shalom would look like in our communities – safe streets and clean environment, access to affordable health care and nutritious food, and engagement in community life.

“It was empowering to see all the things that I can do to change our society,” said one retreat participant on their evaluation.
The group spent time reflecting on their own gifts, and learning about how others have stepped up to solve local and global environmental injustices. We learned about the various ways one can engage in social change, from hands-on help (such as neighborhood clean up after a major weather event, or helping to grow food for those in need) and spiritual development to democratic engagement (such as protests and involvement in local, state and federal government) and civil disobedience.

“You won't be hearing 'religion and politics don't mix' from this group of young people," said chaperone Brian Lapis. "Over the course of the weekend they earnestly discerned that people of faith, inspired to ‘loose the yoke of injustice’ (Isaiah 58), must be in touch with their legislators local and beyond,.”

At the end of the weekend, we each committed to a specific action that each of us would take as a way to be responsible and act on our newfound knowledge. One participant reflected that publicly making their commitments to the group would “keep us honest with promises to implement what we learned in our every day lives.”

“Never underestimate the capacity of teenagers to grasp and embrace the heady topics of environmental justice.  There was A LOT of information for these young people to process, and they stuck with it.  And it stuck with them! They each took what they learned and created "doable" individual action plans.  Pam did a great job of mixing multimedia clips, conversation and time outside at Silver Lake Conference Center to deliver the message,” Lapis said.

Lapis reflected that “this weekend was a great "next step" for high school aged conferees, from ‘playing’ as summer conferees to learning how to be leaders in the environmental justice movement. It is a great living example of how Silver Lake compliments local church Christian Education programs, and cultivates leaders from seed to fruit.”

Pam Arifian is the Director of the United Church of Christ Northeast Environmental Justice Center. The EJ4A! Retreat is an annual leadership training retreat for high school youth. To learn more about the work of the UCC Northeast Environmental Justice Center, including education programming at Silver Lake and at your church, please visit www.ctucc.org/ejc

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