Collaboratory: The Simple Story

What a phenomenal experience the Climate March was! There were 400,000 people and more than 1500 of us were Unitarian Universalists. When I arrived before 9:00, 58th street was empty, but people were arriving by 10 and by 11 the space was very full and the pagans were drumming and the Jews were blowing shofars and the energy was rising. By noon it was crowded and by 1:00 there were so many of us it was getting uncomfortable. Once the gates were open, it felt like a party. Hundreds of thousands of people on the streets chanting and dancing and cheering for climate justice.

I spent months helping to make that moment happen. Months working with GreenFaith and dozens of religious traditions and working within our own UU structures. I was beating my own drums and many, many people were beating them with me. Being on the streets of New York with everyone from Rev. Peter Morales to the youth group from my own congregation was deeply satisfying. 

In March, I’d been invited to something called “Collaboratory” and all I knew going in was that we’d be talking about environmental justice within Unitarian Universalism. I’ve been working in environmental justice communities for many years, so I was happy to see how UUs might want to engage this work but didn’t expect much to come from it. But I marched with 1500 Unitarian Universalists for climate justice largely because of what got started in March. And because of our work at Collaboratory, the national bodies that lead Unitarian Universalism—the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and the UU Ministers Association—were fully behind this march and all the work that was to come next in our shared campaign, Commit2Respond.


I arrived in Detroit in March, 2014 along with more than two dozen other UU leaders for a 5-day gathering focused on environmental justice at the invitation of Ministry for Earth, Starr King School for the Ministry, and Meadville-Lombard Seminary. The diversity of leaders in the room was exciting; there were staff from the Unitarian Universalist Association, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and UU College of Social Justice; district social justice staff; leadership from racial justice groups DRUUMM and ARE; presidents from organizations representing animal justice and food justice; representatives from UU state advocacy networks; GreenFaith Fellows; and faculty from both of our UU seminaries, among others.   

Collaboratory started by making connections among and between these groups from all across our movement. The second day was spent exploring the complexity of Detroit. After learning some of the history of the city, we visited with civil rights activist and luminary Grace Lee Boggs, who inspired and humbled us with her courageous radicalism grounded in hope for the future of her troubled city. We then split into groups to visit a variety of sites that illuminated the multi-faceted problems the people of Detroit are facing and the encouraging and creative solutions they are creating.

For some in our group, this day was an introduction to the intersectionality of race, class, and the environment that environmental justice addresses. For others of us, it was a reminder of the power of environmental racism and the ways it saturates our society. Environmental Justice poses the question, “Who reaps the benefit and who bears the burden of our modern industrial society?” This was a day of confronting the answers to that question. And yet, as overwhelming as the answers are, we couldn’t deny the hope we were encountering in every corner of the city, the sense that the Phoenix is rising again. We ate that evening in a restaurant committed to fair labor practices for restaurant workers, again reinforcing solutions to complex problems.

The third day, we got to work and spent the rest of our time strategizing about how to raise the visibility of environmental justice in the UU world. A few things were clear to us:

  1. environmental degradation is creating a crisis of almost incomprehensible proportions;
  2. the poorest among us are suffering the most;
  3. racism, classism, and sexism are at the core of much distress; and
  4. solutions must be systemic.

Before Collaboratory ended, we had sorted through both logistical and theological quandaries and created an ambitious list of ways we could address the problems we are facing. Included in that list was a rethinking and reworking of the very popular Green Sanctuary Program, which helps UU congregations align their environmental values with their lived practices, reorienting it toward environmental justice. We committed ourselves to the creation of a Green Sanctuary Advisory Committee, which now exists and is helping our Green Sanctuary congregations incorporate environmental justice initiatives. Jennifer Nordstrom and Manish Mishra-Marzetti have submitted a book proposal to Skinner House on behalf of Collaboratory for a book on theologies and ethics of environmental justice called Crossing Lines: Embodying Our Eco-Justice Commitment. And we co-authored an open letter to dozens of UU leaders and organizations calling them to join us in recognizing environmental justice as a critical (maybe the critical) issue of our day.

That letter was a significant part of the motivation for broad institutional backing for the Climate March which brought 1500 UUs to NYC. It was there that we kicked off Commit2Respond, which also came into being in part as a result of the Collaboratory’s call for revitalized support for environmental justice action. Collaboratory, which started as a gathering of UU leaders, is now a codified network providing leadership for Commit2Respond to help make this campaign the powerhouse we all know it can and should become. We believe in this initiative as a primary way for Unitarian Universalists to engage the question of climate justice and we recognize climate justice to be an issue unlike any other.


Only six months after that week in March, we are already seeing significant changes in the ways Unitarian Universalists are engaged in environmental justice. I’ve been working in this field in a variety of ways my entire adult life and have in the past been happy to have UU partners in this work, but when I was invited to Detroit last spring, I had no idea that the result would bring about such broad acceptance of environmental justice. I had no idea that the fight I’ve been engaging with small pockets of people would become a shared fight, a shared vision, a shared work on such a large scale. 

I write this in deep gratitude for the visionaries willing to take the risk to make Collaboratory happen and for all of us who are taking up that torch and carrying it forward through Commit2Respond. 

Rev. Peggy Clarke is the Minister at the First Unitarian Society of Westchester in Hastings on Hudson, NY. She serves the UUA Metro NY District as Racial and Social Justice Consultant, Chairs the UU Food Justice Ministry, and is on the Steering Committee for the Unitarian Universalist Environmental Justice Collaboratory. Rev. Clarke has also been a GreenFaith Fellow since 2009, and grounds her work in the intersections between environmentalism, racism, and classism.


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