Young adults learn social justice leadership skills.
Ask Lauren Eaton anything about how water is used in California and where it comes from. Ask her, for instance, where San Francisco gets its water. Or how many parts per billion of contaminants are allowable in drinking water. Or which part of the state has the strongest conservation ethic.
Eaton and nine other Unitarian Universalist young adults participated in a Water Justice Tour, June 12–20, sponsored by the UU Legislative Ministry of California, a statewide justice ministry supported by California UU congregations. The tour was designed to educate participants about ecological and social justice issues regarding water—how to conserve it, what to do with run-off, whether clean water is available to everyone, and how to equitably distribute water. The group included the Rev. Lindi Ramsden, UULM-CA’s executive director, and the Rev. Sonya Sukalski, a community minister who is also consulting minister to the UULM-CA’s Young Leaders Project, which seeks to develop young adult leadership skills around different California social justice issues.
The tours are limited to people aged 18 to 35, living in the UUA’s Pacific Southwest District or the Pacific Central District.
This was UULM-CA’s second water tour; the first was in 2008.
The 1,280-mile tour included stops in Long Beach, where participants experienced wetlands and water reclamation projects; Yosemite National Park, where they saw the top of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, flooded in the 1920s to create a lake to provide water for San Francisco; and California’s Central and San Joaquin valleys, where pollution from intensive agriculture and irrigation threatens residents’ water supply. The group also went rafting on the Kern River, canoed on Mono Lake, and hiked in Yosemite. At the end of the trip the group led a worship service about water at the Emerson UU Church in Canoga Park, Calif.
Eaton, who grew up at Neighborhood UU Church in Pasadena and is now religious education coordinator at the UU Church of the Verdugo Hills in Glendale, Calif., said the trip was “epic,” adding, “It made me a different person. I knew something about water before, because my father directs a water quality lab, but this trip took things to a whole different level.”
“Up and down the state we talked to community leaders who are working hard on water issues,” she said. “This all fits with our First Principle [the inherent worth and dignity of every person], for everyone to have clean water. And the Seventh [respect for the interdependent web of all existence]. Water is part of the web of all existence.”
She said that when she begins teaching this fall at her church the lessons will include references to water. She is also planning a water workshop at the district’s young adult camp in early September. “I plan on doing a lot of educating on this topic,” she said.
For Glenn Farley, the trip came a month after his graduation from Starr King School for the Ministry. His spiritual home is the Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Md., and he recently moved to Kaneohe, Hawaii, for a chaplaincy program. He participated in the first water trip two years ago as well as the one this year.
"Going on these trips, studying the issues, hearing the stories, seeing the beauty of the natural world and the devastation wrought by humans controlling nature, cemented in my mind the need to relate to our Mother Earth in a new way,” he said. “I will take that with me for the rest of my life."
Some of what he learned in 2008 found its way into sermons at Starr King, he said. He added, "I am embarrassed to say it now, but before these trips, I thought problems with access to safe and affordable drinking water only happened in so-called third world countries. I did not know thousands of Americans don't have access to safe drinking water. I know better now."
Sierra Sukalski, Sonya Sukalski’s daughter, who will be studying environmental science at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., this fall, said she hopes to use what she learned on the trip this year to help people live more in tune with nature. “Water has become a much larger issue to me,” she said. “Now I’m interested in how we build houses so that they fit the environment. I’d like to eventually help people find ways to live more sustainably.”
“A lot of what I saw surprised me,” she added. “We seem to be just starting to implement what we know about how to capture storm water runoff, for example. And there are so many things we could do to conserve water, including xeriscape plantings. If everyone does them they’re not small things.”
The Rev. Sukalski said the water trips grew out of UULM-CA’s Young Leaders Project. “We researched the ways that Unitarian Universalism and other faiths keep young adults involved in social justice and this is one of the things we came up with. I thought the trip was wildly successful and a lot of fun.”
She said that other intensive learning experiences might be developed, based on the interests of young adults. “We recognize that we develop a lot of amazing leadership in our youth and young adult programs and we want to build on that so our UU young adults feel confident pursuing their justice-making goals in the world. We are working to learn about the issues young adults want to work on because we realize that no justice movement that has ever made a difference has managed to do it without the energy and vision of young adults.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.