Making space for environmental justice

First Universalist Church hosts conversation with political leaders

Green New Deal
Attendees filled the pews at First Universalist Church on May 28 to hear U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar speak about environmental justice. Submitted photo

“If we were to address the racialized wealth gap, what would that mean for resilient communities?”

This is the question that state Rep. Aisha Gomez (District 62B) asked the audience to consider as they sat in the packed pews of First Universalist Church on May 28. The crowd had gathered for a “Community Conversation on Environmental Justice, ” an event co-organized by First Universalist’s environmental justice team and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s office. The panel discussion was designed to cover climate change and the Green New Deal, but as Gomez’s prodding question reminded attendees, cultivating resiliency in a time of climate crisis is about more than isolated climate policy.

Omar and her co-panelists took this expansive understanding of environmental justice in stride, threading the conversation with analyses of youth participation, indigenous sovereignty and racial oppression. Omar was joined on the panel by attorney and Honor the Earth National Campaigns Director Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation), state Rep. Frank Hornstein (District 61A) and high school climate justice activist Juwaria Jama. The panelists in turn addressed a range of questions from urban forestry to organizing fatigue.

It was the congregation’s environmental justice (EJ) team that originated the idea for the panel. Recognizing Omar’s vocal support of a sweeping package of environmental proposals known as the Green New Deal, the EJ team composed a letter to her staff in April offering First Universalist as a space to galvanize support in Omar’s home district.

Located in a large building on the corner of 34th & Dupont, this socially minded congregation is increasingly considering its role not only as a place to cultivate spiritual worship, but as a provider of physical space for everything from film screenings to Drag Story Hour.

Stan Sattinger is team lead of First Universalist’s environmental justice team, which was founded in 2015.

While Sattinger’s previous organizing experience was primarily outside of church spaces, he views First Universalist as a natural vehicle for building strong environmental movements. “I think spiritual [and] religious organizations are the great hope that I have for the revolution of values that will get the public pulling in the right direction,” he said. “It has to be values-driven, and that’s where religious organizations come in.”

Over the past several years, Sattinger has worked alongside a committed group of congregational EJ team members to strategically leverage their community activism toward addressing environmental justice and the climate crisis. Serving as event hosts is one of those strategies.

Until the recent panel with Omar, the biggest event the EJ team had put on was a benefit concert for the Indigenous Youth Mentoring Society. The congregation also hosts an ongoing series called Mde Maka Ska Community Conversations, discussions convened by indigenous leaders LaMoine and Wakinyan LaPointe to facilitate relationships, movements and initiatives among indigenous communities and allies.

Green New Deal

By hosting a wide range of environmental- and indigenous-focused events, the EJ team is trying to create as many entry points as possible for politicizing the congregation towards climate action.

“Our mission is to involve as many people in the congregation as possible,” Sattinger said. “We want more of the congregation to take active roles in going to things like hearings and rallies — things that get results.”

When it came to reaching out to Omar’s office about the “Community Conversation” event, Sattinger and the EJ team viewed it as one of those “results-getting” moments. “We saw [the Green New Deal] as a great hope for actually getting significant action on climate change,” he said. “We looked at the fact that we had a large facility and said, ‘Why can’t we make a match here?’”

With the crowd already favorable toward the Green New Deal and other climate justice efforts, the community conversation was less informational and more of a call to action.

“Recognize your own power,” Houska forcefully reminded the audience as she described her own experience participating in the ongoing Ginew Collective Unist’ot’en encampment against the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline.

Such encampments are a reminder that when it comes to environmental justice, the way people occupy space matters. This is true not only for pipeline pathways but for movement-building as well.

Organizers and community conveners must occupy space to do their work. With houses of worship holding some of the largest community real estate capacity around Minneapolis, religious organizations like First Universalist are ideally situated to provide just that.