Racial/Class Collaboration at Climate Justice Conference

Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas and Lucy Robinson of Grace Chuch, Amherst

On September 28, a day after Thomas F. Stocker, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, called climate change “the greatest challenge of our time,” more than 220 people gathered at a United Methodist Church in Springfield for the Second Annual Climate Action Now Conference. Welcomed by reggae music and rap, an unusually diverse group of people from different cultural, class and ethnic backgrounds gathered to organize around climate change and environmental justice. Forty groups co-sponsored the event, including Greening Grace, of Grace Church, Amherst.

Conference organizer Susan Theberge spoke of the “unfolding catastrophe” of climate change and the urgent need to “build a united, unstoppable people’s movement for climate justice.” Michaelann Bewsee of Arise for Social Justice described the particular vulnerability of the poor to extreme weather and other effects of climate change. Still, she said, global warming affects everyone. “If we don’t get it together,” she observed, “we will all be homeless. This planet is our home.”

In her keynote speech, Jacqui Patterson, the Environmental Justice Director for the national NAACP, argued that when society puts profits before people and turns natural resources into commodities, the result is economic and environmental injustice. Front-line communities affected by climate change need to be at the table where decisions are made, asserted Ms. Patterson, and she urged justice-based, not just economic-based, decisions. Workshops led by different community groups covered a variety of topics, such as waste, recycling and composting; transportation and climate change; food and agriculture; military industrial pollution and climate change; and clean energy. Each workshop was designed to end with concrete action plans that participants would pursue further.

What made this conference so unusual – even pioneering – was that it brought together climate activists and social justice advocates in a shared venture to help a struggling city become more resilient in the face of climate change. Springfield faces a host of economic and environmental challenges. For instance, the median household income is 20 percent lower than the national median. Most Springfield neighborhoods have been designated “food deserts” by the USDA, with a lack of access to fresh vegetables, meat, fish and dairy products. The city has more than 987 identified hazardous waste sites – one for every 150 residents.

Anthropologist Tom Taffe pointed out in his workshop, “Building Sustainable, Livable and Equitable Communities,” that more than 80 percent of the area’s African Americans and Latinos live in Springfield and Holyoke. The Pioneer Valley is one of the most racially segregated areas in the U.S. Dr. Taffe expressed appreciation for this groundbreaking conference, remarking that people from Amherst, Northampton and the northern half of the Valley ordinarily come to Springfield as self-proclaimed experts. “This is the first time I’ve seen the northern half of the Valley sit down with the southern half of the Valley as equals,” he said.

This day-long collaboration across lines of culture, race and class for the sake of the common good was energizing. Connections were made between people of different backgrounds, with very dynamic information and ideas coming from all the parties in the discussions. The conference conveyed a clear message: environmental justice is a necessary component of addressing the problem of climate change.

The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, now Missioner for Creation Care in the Diocese of Western Mass., served for 9 years as Priest Associate of Grace Church, Amherst, where parishioner Lucy Robinson continues to convene the parish’s faith and environment group, Greening Grace.


 

Originally posted by the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts on October 15, 2013, in News & Publications/Parishes in the News.

 

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