Indigenous Activists Answer the Call of Climate Justice

The sun rises over the Oceti Sakowin Camp on  the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on November 26, 2016.

BIPOC communities hit hardest by environmental racism.

Image: The sun rises over the Oceti Sakowin Camp on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on November 26, 2016.

© 2016 Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty Images


Growing up in Northern New Mexico, Elena Perez, a member of the Picuris Pueblo, always had a strong sense of water as a precious resource.

But it wasn’t until she heard the call from the Sioux Nation to join them at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota to try to protect their water from the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that Perez became a climate activist.

“I thought, I have to go. I don’t know for how long or what I’ll do but I feel compelled,” recalls Perez, who became a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, Arizona, at the behest of her wife, Katie Resendiz, a lifelong UU. (“I heard a sermon by Susan Frederick-Gray and I’ve been a UU ever since,” says Perez.) In the fall of 2016, Perez packed up her dog, headed north, and spent ten weeks at Standing Rock among thousands of protesters from 200 Native American Tribes and Nations. With allies in solidarity, they protested the pipeline as a striking example of environmental racism: DAPL was originally routed near Bismarck, a city that is about 95 percent white, but was deemed too close to the municipal water supply and rerouted to the reservation.

More than 500 ministers from twenty faith traditions gathered to bear witness, with one of the largest contingents the fifty UU ministers, seminarians, and other religious leaders, including Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales.

“It was amazing to be in a completely Indigenous-led space with the majority Indigenous people,” says Perez. “It was understood that we were there for the water, and you didn’t need any other explanation beyond that.” Though the pipeline was ultimately built, it is the subject of ongoing legal action. The protest was a major effort but there is so much more to do, she adds.

For Perez, the next big effort came last May, when she joined her Indigenous siblings to stop Line 3, which would carry a million barrels of tar sands oil per day through Indigenous lands, endangering hunting, fishing, and other rights that are also protected by federal treaties. With UU Justice Arizona (UUJAZ) and the Phoenix congregation supporting her trip, Perez again headed north, this time with Kia Bordner, an Indigenous UU from California. While Standing Rock was “very rich in Indigenous people,” Line 3 had “lots and lots of allies, and concentrated groups of Indigenous folks who were mostly the organizers,” Perez says. Perez, Bordner, and many others were arrested for trespassing and other alleged crimes and spent two nights in jail. Perez’s cellmates included four white UUs, and the Rev. Wendy Von Courter was on their cellblock. The UUs sang songs to pass the time, including “Meditation on Breathing,” by Sarah Dan Jones, director of music at Starr King UU Fellowship in Plymouth, New Hampshire.

“At no point did anyone share regret,” says Perez. “I think that being together, that connectedness, really was and still is key.” As she mounts a response to her pending criminal charges, many people ask her why she went.

“I went because the People invited me to come,” says Perez. “They said we need help, and that’s what I held onto the most, because there are so many instances of small Tribes getting overrun by corporations for natural resources, or small Tribes getting overrun by government entities over issues of land and water. I hope that in the future, when the Picuris potentially have a similar situation, that I can put out a call in a similar way to say, ‘You are invited to come here to help us the same way,’ and have people answer.” [On August 30, 2021, the Minnesota Court of Appeals dealt a blow to pipeline opponents when it upheld a water quality and wetland permit for Line 3.]

As the global climate crisis accelerates, UU organizations are increasingly engaged in the issue of climate justice and addressing environmental racism.

BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities are far more likely to suffer from a wide variety of health and economic ills related to pollution and climate change (see sidebar); for one thing, toxic waste sites, chemical plants, and other serious health hazards are more likely to be sited near marginalized communities. Meanwhile, climate change is having a disparate effect on low-income populations around the world, which are often BIPOC communities, with rising sea levels and land loss causing a rapidly growing number of climate refugees.

The issue of climate-forced displacement (CFD) is a top priority for the UU Service Committee (UUSC), which works to advance human rights together with an international community of grassroots partners and advocates. The UUSC, which has a long legacy of working with refugees, has twelve partners in CFD work, including two global coalitions working at the international and regional levels. The UUSC has eight partners in the Pacific, including a regional organization working in fifteen Pacific Island countries. Its partner in Alaska works directly with fifteen Alaska Native Tribes. In Louisiana, its partner supports several Black communities and the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians of Louisiana, Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe, and the Atakapa-Ishak Chawasha Tribe of the Grand Bayou Indian Village. The UUSC, which organized a conference on climate-forced displacement in October 2020, is providing modest grants to these partners as they do community organizing and advocacy and develop legal strategies. It is also assisting with thought leadership on a global level, including supporting a report to the United Nations on climate displacement.

For many people, the serious health crisis of lead-polluted drinking water in Flint, Michigan, a city that is over 50 percent Black, may be the most prominent example of environmental racism, but it is by no means the only one. As just two examples:

  • Because Black/Indigenous/People of Color populations are more likely than whites to live in “heat islands”—dense areas with more pavement than trees—they are exposed to urban heat stress, a major risk to health, at higher rates than whites in nearly every major American city, according to a study published in 2021 in Nature Communications.
  • A majority of the residents of Cancer Alley, an area of southern Louisiana filled with 150 petrochemical plants, are Black. Cancer risks there for Black residents are substantially higher than for whites in other areas, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. In May, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights called for an end to environmental racism in Cancer Alley.

“There are entire communities disappearing under water, being completely overwhelmed by climate change,” says Mike Givens, UUSC’s director of strategic communications.

Climate-forced displacement “is the gravest risk that our generation has to grapple with, combining the issue of human mobility and climate change.” This issue has not been historically well-funded by philanthropists, he notes. “We saw a need to come deferentially and humbly into this space and build relationships from the ground up and partner to do advocacy on the state and national level as well as really call attention” to the issue.

The UU Ministry for Earth, which focuses on climate justice, is launching a new group, BIPOC Communities for Climate Justice, as a place for UU people of color to gather virtually twice a month to discuss how they are affected by climate change and environmental racism.

“In the last two or three years a number of organizations from communities of color have become very active and well known in this area, and there is a great deal of need for UUs to find appropriate ways to collaborate and work with others,” says Rashid Shaikh, a Muslim and UU scientist who for 35 years has studied the health effects of air pollution (see page 38 for related Q&A). A member of First Parish UU in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Shaikh is working to organize the group with Paula Cole Jones, a Black woman who is a leader of the 8th Principle Project, which seeks to de-center whiteness in UU circles and recommit the faith to fighting racism. “My hope is that Unitarian Universalists can be on the map of working on climate justice like we are on the map for working on racial justice,” Shaikh says.

For UUs interested in supporting BIPOC communities and leaders in their liberation movements to end environmental racism, Sam Beltram (Ute Nation), a member of Palomar UU Fellowship in Vista, California, has several concrete suggestions. First, she urges UUs to contact their senators to urge them to vote against H.R. 1374, “Enhancing State Energy Security Planning and Emergency Preparedness Act of 2021.” Opponents believe that the proposed law can be interpreted to give license to increase state-supported confrontations that can lead to more violence against Water Protectors.

Second, Beltram urges every individual UU and congregation to stop choosing investments and using financial institutions that are funding Line 3 and supporting the fossil fuel industry. At General Assembly 2021, the Young Adults sponsored a Responsive Resolution (PDF) calling on the UU Common Endowment Fund (Google Doc) (UUCEF) to immediately and completely divest its holdings from financial institutions funding Line 3, including Chase, Bank of America, and JP Morgan. “The UUA shares the deep commitment to climate justice that was expressed formally by the Young Adults at GA, and we are committed to addressing their concerns,” said Andrew McGeorge, UUA treasurer and chief financial officer. “We are prioritizing the work needed to divest from institutions funding Line 3.” Beltram hopes UUs will contact the UUCEF and attend its meetings to push for divestment. Beltram’s congregation stopped using Chase Bank, she notes, and Beltram herself has visited a number of Chase branches to speak with local management about passing on the divestment message to corporate leaders.

“These corporations aren’t changing their tune,” says Beltram. “It’s critical at this point that this faith and the different components of this faith move from talk to action.”


Editor’s Note: At the September 2 UUCEF meeting, Kathy Mulvey, chair of the UUA’s Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, said a focused meeting with Young Adults about divestment will be scheduled for mid-October, and in the meantime, she and other fiduciaries will continue to gather information that will allow them to make informed decisions about divestment.