In the fall of 2013, I received an unusual invitation from the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth (UUMFE). It was an invitation to attend something the organizers were billing as a “Collaboratory” (a collaborative laboratory) in Detroit the following March. I was a bit perplexed. While I have always cared about the environment, I would not have called myself an environmentalist. Within Unitarian Universalism, I have been a leader in our people of color community and a proponent of issues related to racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity. None of my work within Unitarian Universalism to date had been related to environmentalism, and so I was left wondering why UUMFE was extending this invitation to me.
As it was explained to me, UUMFE had recognized that it wanted to build bridges with activists from other communities and explore how we might all come together in ways that are collaborative and mutually supportive. This sounded fine to me. In all honesty, it helped that I had extended family in the Detroit metro area. I wasn’t sure about this Collaboratory business, but if it was just another think-tank session at least I had relatives that I could look forward to catching up with afterward. So I accepted the invitation.
There are times when we experience unexpected grace in our lives, and those months of early 2014 stand out as such a time for me, for multiple reasons. As an adoptive parent, you never know when the timing of a potential adoption might work out, and in February of that year our newborn daughter joined our family. Both she and her older brother are African American. Just weeks after she became a part of my life, I journeyed to Detroit, which I came to discover is a city that starkly highlights the difficulties and challenges facing many minorities living in our urban centers. I thought I was traveling to Detroit to participate in a think tank, but it was so much deeper and more profound than that: it was an experiential learning, justice-oriented, innovative, and intentionally bridge-building journey that left an indelible imprint on my soul.
That experience in Detroit was, for me, a primer on America’s troubled and complicated history with urban minority populations. Like many cities across the American landscape, Detroit lost well-paying manufacturing jobs in the 1960s and 1970s. Simultaneously, with civil rights groups pressing for racial integration in schools, housing, and other settings, many white Americans began moving to the suburbs. With the economic collapse came the crash of residential housing markets in Detroit and many other cities; middle-class housing suddenly became “affordable housing,” thereby attracting populations with more limited financial means—typically African-American and Latinx communities. Several other developments occurred at the same time. Because funding for public schools is typically tied to residential housing prices, the financial base for many urban school districts also collapsed. And, as these once middle- to upper-middle-class communities became lower-income, non-white communities, they also lost economic and political influence.
Across the United States, this phenomenon has taken place in other major urban centers over and over again, with the exact same results: as white middle-class populations abandoned the urban setting, minority and poorer populations became the dominant groups. But, as the Collaboratory helped bring alive, the story didn’t end there. As these urban centers became impoverished communities with relatively less political clout, policy decisions were made in ensuing decades that led to poor and non-white communities becoming the destination for the waste and pollution of more affluent, typically white, communities. Locating power plants, waste facilities, and pollution-generating industries in minority and lower-income settings became the national norm. This further depressed housing prices in those areas, creating a whole new set of additional problems: illnesses related to pollutants, troubles with water quality, and a rise in cancer and childhood asthma rates, among others. In the decades since the collapse of urban manufacturing, we, as a nation, have taken an already difficult socioeconomic situation and made it worse.
I knew about all of this on some unspoken, subconscious level. As Americans, we’re not supposed to talk about the fact that our middle class may be built on the backs of our poor and brown and black folks. But to experience this reality firsthand—to be in Detroit, standing on the sidewalk as a garbage truck from Grosse Pointe, an affluent community approximately fifteen miles away, pulls in to drop off its trash in an African-American and Latinx neighborhood—left my heart in deep pain. As a society, we have learned to turn a blind eye to the racialized, highly oppressive, and reinforcing cycles of poverty in these urban zones. Standing in the parking lot of a public elementary school, the student body of which is 90 percent African American, smelling the fumes from the incinerator situated next door, is enough to bring tears to one’s eyes.
This is what made the UUMFE’s Collaboratory so effective; it was experiential learning at its best. Not only did it bring us physically into the urban context of Detroit, but it also placed us in direct dialogue with local residents and leaders. This was not academic, textbook learning, but rather face-to-face social learning in a context that we were studying and experiencing firsthand. What became increasingly clear over the course of our experience in Detroit is that the issues we were encountering were all profoundly linked: lack of economic opportunity is tied to the quality of local schools and the health impacts of pollution; the inability to access clean water and healthy food directly impacts one’s ability to function in school or at work; the intentional siting of power plants and waste facilities away from wealthier and whiter communities impacts local housing prices, affects health, and points toward endemic, structural racism. It is all linked; no single piece stands in isolation. Just as importantly, these insights are not only about Detroit—they are about how we understand and work toward justice, wherever we are.
The value of bringing an intersectional lens to justice-making work was a profound realization for me, and it was exactly the point that the UUMFE was trying to make via the Collaboratory and by inviting me, a self-proclaimed non-environmentalist, into their circle. The work of the UUMFE is about environmental justice, yes, but it is also much more than that. It is also a prayer for greater unity, collaboration, and mutual support in all the justice work we do. I hope you may reflect on how an intersectional approach toward justice making might be unifying, impactful, and spiritually transformative.
Adapted with permission from Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class, and the Environment,ed. by Manish Mishra-Marzetti and Jennifer Nordstrom (Skinner House, 2018).