A conversation with Pablo DeJesus,                                                          Executive Director, Unitarian Universalists for Social Justice 

1. Who are you and what is your role in Unitarian Universalist Climate Justice work?

My name is Pablo DeJesus. I serve as the Executive Director of Unitarian Universalists for Social Justice (UUSJ), headquartered in Washington DC. The mission of UUSJ is to advance equitable national policies and actions aligned with Unitarian Universalist values through engagement, education, and advocacy. One of our four policy priority areas is environment and climate justice. 

We do not work in isolation. We endeavor to do our work as an accountable partner, in coalition, and in service to our moral owners: Unitarian Universalists, UU congregations, impacted communities, and the organizations that support them.

My role in UU Climate Justice work, UUSJ’s role, is to be a reliable, strategic, and productive partner for federal engagement. We collaborate to sharpen our denominational presence and ensure that UUs have an unremitting presence in DC so that we are lifting our voices in favor of climate justice before federal decision-makers.

2. Unitarian Universalists for Social Justice is actively advocating for a climate-smart Farm Bill in the US Congress. What exactly is the Farm Bill?

The farm bill touches everyone: it impacts the food we eat, the people who produce our food, and the way we use our natural resources to grow and cultivate the sustenance we all need to live and thrive. Yet, the farm bill is not leveraging the forward-looking incentives we need to yield healthy foods produced in sustainable ways. We must fix that! Beginning with this farm bill cycle, we are advocating for that change.

Every five years, the farm bill must be negotiated and authorized. The current 2018 Farm Bill expires at the end of September 2023. We expect Congress to pass a Continuing Resolution, or perhaps even a one-year extension, to give themselves more time to draft a new farm bill. We want to impact that proposal and inform its articulation with UU values. 

Every community in the U.S. and many across the globe are impacted by the farm bill because agricultural activity connects us across rural, suburban, and metropolitan divides, regardless of the nation. Farming connects all human beings to our planetary ecology. It is one of our oldest organized collective human activities. We cannot exist without the food that we produce, but how we farm is impacting our environment. The ways the agriculture sector is using fossil fuels are furthering the climate crisis. Our failure to share the food bounty is perpetuating hunger.

The farm bill sets the funding and rules for a considerable portion of our agricultural activity and food systems.  It informs what we eat, what our animals eat, and how we produce and distribute all foodstuffs. It frames our approach to anti-hunger programs as well as the science and financing behind the farming upon which we all depend.

It is a big deal because it is a very large federal expenditure. “The official baseline for the farm bill this year is $1.5 trillion over 10 years. Farm bill leaders in Congress think of the baseline as the minimum pot of money they can carve up and handout.”

We are demanding strong support for climate provisions. We agree we must adequately fund vital nutrition programs. We urge a bill that promotes fairness for all farmers, ranchers, and workers. These advocacy interests align with UU values.

3. During a time of extreme weather, why should Unitarian Universalists be involved with advocacy for the Farm Bill?

The agriculture sector is a big contributor to greenhouse gases (GHG), and greenhouse gasses are a big contributor to our climate crisis. Along with phasing out fossil fuels, improving our approach to agriculture is one of the best ways we can make a real and tangible impact, in both the short and long term. 

I have yet to meet anyone who yearns for a future of violent severe weather or mass human displacement. Nor a desire for polluted air, fouled waterways, and ruined soil ecosystems. Nobody wants an environment unable to sustain us. We can farm better to help change our current trajectory. A better, faithful, farm bill can help do that.

Our UUSJ volunteers have found that the U.S. agriculture sector contributes 11% of total U.S. GHGs. Agriculture fertilizer runoff and animal waste are the leading causes of water pollution. Three-quarters of natural area loss in the U.S. occurs on private lands. That is a lot of farmland and land adjacent to farm properties. Including climate-smart provisions in the farm bill can protect local farming communities and improve the environment for all.

If we do not get the agriculture sector to control its GHG, and therefore its contributions to the climate crisis, we are missing one of the big areas where we can make a difference. If we do not get farmers to farm in sustainable and regenerative ways, we are missing a huge opportunity to use natural systems to confront the climate crisis.

Sustainable and regenerative practices can help. Combined with halting what we are putting into the atmosphere, such practices are probably key to solving the climate crisis. They may even allow us to achieve “a pre-industrial level sufficient to actually reverse the warming trend.”  That offers hope. However, we must diligently tilt the structural incentives of the farm bill toward these purposes.

No silver bullet exists to reverse the compounded damage done or to mitigate what effects are still to come. But we have to pursue the big areas of the work possible, with bold ideas grounded in the known facts. As my collaborator Rachel Mislivy says, we must reform, resist, re-imagine, and re-create, where we can.

Improving the farm bill is something we can do. We can reform the current system and resist harmful practices.  We can re-imagine the needed new ways of being, and re-create what has not been serving us. We have to do other things as well, but we need to do this for sure.

Advocating for a better farm bill, with support for strong climate provisions, is a meaningful and important way to take on the climate crisis challenge. We can build power for transformation by doing what is feasible. We need to push the boundaries of what is possible and dream of what is needed. 

4. What are ways to get involved in this campaign?

The most important involvement starts in your head and your heart. 

Amend your thinking. Change the frame. Align with the science. Embrace compassion. Accept the mutuality of our situation. Permit your faith to move you to action, to sustain you in hardship, and to buoy you in joyful moments. 

Understand that the farm bill is a climate bill. We must feed hungry people in healthy ways without undue harm to our ecology or our communities. 

Help make this happen by:

Feel in your bones that no matter where you live, or how you are making your way in the world, the farm bill touches you, and impacts your life. It does so every day when you select your sustenance.

Transforming the practices of the agriculture sector is a viable way to implement climate crisis solutions, but it is up to us to make those solutions a reality. It is up to us to demand the best, most forward-looking, farm bill we can get. We must build the coalitions that will make the change we need.

We are in this climate crisis together with the farmers and the ranchers, the farm workers, the distributors, the scientists, the financiers, the tool manufacturers, and the consumers. We are part of the farm bill ecosystem, and it is time we demand the changes we need. 

To get where we want to go, we need all of us. It represents a lot of kitchen table conversations, sidewalk chats, and plenty of advocacy interactions. Join in that blessed and needed work.

5. If you could have lunch with any Climate Justice leader, who would you want to spend time with, and why?

I wouldn’t mind lunching with Professor David Orr. I missed the opportunity to take a class with him during college. That was unfortunate. Or perhaps Dr. Rattan Lal

It’d be sweet to brunch with Robin Wall Kimmerer. Some of what she writes, and how she frames it, reminds me of my elders and their wisdom.

Several other folks are doing their thing, making their moves, helping to advance the work in ways big and small, and I’d be keen to chill and break bread with any of them. People like Gladys Delgadillo, Climate Organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity, JL Andrepont, Senior Policy Analyst for 350.org, and Anthony Rogers-Wright, Director of Environmental Justice, for the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. 

It is long past time for me to meet Rachel Myslivy, Climate Justice Organizer, Organizing Strategy Team, UUA. And, it would be nice to spend some slower time with Salote Soqo, Director of Advocacy, Global Displacement, UUSC. Both do great work.

During General Assembly 2023, I was blessed to meet Antoinette Scully, National Organizer, Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation as well as UUMFE’s Rev. Daniel Lawlor, Co-Director of Development, and Rev. Dr. Leonisa Ardizzone, Ministerial Programs Consultant. Just recently I also met their colleague, Rev. Kelly Dignan, Co-Director of programs, otherwise, I’d name these UU folks also, among other non-UUs, I’d want to “do lunch” with.