Reflections on the UU@UN Spring Seminar

The process is just as important as the product. This concept was the thread that ran through the entire UU@UN Spring Seminar. If we were to create a fulfilling, grounding, connective, and generative seminar, then we had to practice that in the planning stages as well. As adrienne maree brown, Deepak Chopra, and many other wise people have said, “what we pay attention to grows.”

“Environmental Justice” by Ricardo Levins Morales

I joined the Spring Seminar planning committee as part of my role as UUYACJ Network Coordinator. The theme this year continued the previous seminar’s “All In for Climate Justice” focus, this time turning our attention to climate-forced displacement. All justice work is intersectional, but climate justice makes the connections explicitly visible. Climate justice is racial, economic, gender, disability, and migrant justice. We can talk about the temporary displacement that happens when forest fires, hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes tear through communities. And we can also talk about how rising sea levels, changing temperatures, and erosion are making some places unlivable, often in already oppressed and under-resourced communities. Coming into the planning committee, I brought my own knowledge around climate justice but continued learning and exploring these convergences.

In the first few months, the planning committee paid attention to our own relationships, intentions, and shared vision. Our first meeting was spent getting to know each other and understanding what brought us into this work. There was a concerted effort to build trust so that we could work effectively as a team. We spent the next few monthly meetings clarifying what our goals were for the seminar. What did we want people to learn? What skills did we want to equip people with? What did we want people to feel? The decision to hold the seminar across two weekends emerged from those conversations. We wanted people to feel connected to the space, but not overwhelmed by more Zoom meetings. That was also when we decided that we wanted to offer local gatherings. It felt important to have a space where people could connect with other UUs and also start dreaming about what local, community actions could look like.

During our early meetings, we would spend time learning about migration and climate-forced displacement. The idea that stuck with me the most in our discussion was that people have both the right to stay and the right to leave. The right to stay means more than just people can choose to stay in their homelands, even as it is threatened by the climate crisis. To the planning committee, the right to stay meant that people should have the knowledge, resources, and empowerment to keep their homes livable. Often, doing climate justice work feels purely reactive. But the right to stay asks us to envision what proactive measures are needed to protect endangered homelands. The right to leave focused more on the migration aspect of climate-forced displacement. People are already leaving their homes in the current state of the climate crisis. And based on current projections, it will only get worse. Our responsibility as UUs and global activists is to respect the choice to migrate, hold the grief that comes with leaving, and welcome people into our communities. We must also demand that migration policy in our countries be more compassionate and open. This was what stayed with me throughout planning the seminar, we should all have the right to stay and the right to leave.

All of these conversations and thoughtfully planned meetings (shout-out to Allison Hess, Rob Kipp, and Stevie Carmody for leading said meetings) allowed us to create a really beautiful seminar. For those of you that attended, you might have noticed that it felt different than past seminars. It felt slower and more spread out. I appreciated this approach as I think that we need rest now more than ever. It also gave us time to sit with new ideas and process our own feelings around climate-forced displacement.

My favorite event that I attended was the theme panel, “There’s No Place Like Home.” The speakers were: Amali Tower, founder & Executive Director of Climate Refugees; Salote Soqo, Advocacy and Global Displacement Director at the UU Service Committee; and Noella Prescod, the Senior Youth Dean of the Spring Seminar. The conversation was moderated by Bruce Knotts, director of the UU Office at the UN. (You can find the full recorded panel here). The panel covered a wide variety of topics, such as how climate change is already affecting the speakers’ communities and the lack of action that has been taken by nations and intergovernmental agencies. However, I think what makes the panel worth watching is when the speakers answer what gives them hope in this work. It is so difficult to have hope in the face of climate-forced displacement, but the panel reminded me that being in a community gives me hope.

The planning committee created the Spring Seminar as a foundation where community-building could happen. That foundation was strong because of the work that we did to build relations, clarify our shared vision, and move with intention. Community-building was fostered during the Seminar through local gatherings, small group sessions, and a pre-worship coffee hour. I want to fully recognize how important it is that the planning committee focused on community, both in our own meetings and throughout the seminar. By working at the community scale, we magnify the impact of our actions beyond the individual. Being in a community also creates space for us to properly mourn and lament what we are losing to climate change.  And a community network may be one of the most important resources we can have if/when we have to deal with our own climate-forced displacement. We must take care of each other. We are all we have.

It was such a joy to be a part of the UU@UN Spring Seminar planning committee this year. I’m sending lots of love to everyone else on the team. And a huge thank you to everyone who attended!! If you’re interested in the Spring Seminar (and maybe attending next year), you can find more information here.

Zoë Johnston
Zoë Johnston
Zoë Johnston is the Network Coordinator for UU Young Adults for Climate Justice. She is currently a grad student in a program for International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Zoë is passionate about community building and sustainable leadership -- as well as taking care of her house plants and making good food!