Environmental Justice:  Clearing the Air in Pittsburgh

Moving from Despair to Action

On January 8, 2022, members of the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh engaged in a Congregational Conversation about the environment.  It soon became apparent that many were in a state of paralysis — even despair.  Participants understood very well the profound effects of environmental degradation and associated injustices. But the overwhelming scope of the challenges made action seem futile.  And yet — after sharing their deepest fears and learning of realistic opportunities for action – some dedicated congregants stepped forward.

Caring for Ourselves and Others

As we undertook this important work, we confronted our personal doubts and fears by defining what is most important to us, an essential step before effective action.  First Unitarian is doing that in a number of ways.  Early in 2023, members Mary Schinhofen and Alice Carnes led a workshop entitled “Envisioning the Future” where participants envisioned as collages their most precious things to preserve. Subsequently our community minister, Rev. Stephanie Gannon, led a Climate-Healing retreat to nurture our spiritual selves as we seek to heal the world.

“Blue Boat Home”.  Collage by Ebe Emmons, one of 23 created by First Unitarian members during an “Envisioning the Future” workshop.

Our church also facilitated a series of “cottage meetings,” small group conversations where we articulate our visions for a better world, hear the hopes of others, and thereby comfort each other.  Through intentional conversation we identified our highest shared priorities:  racial justice and the environment.


Perhaps the most daunting aspect of environmental/climate injustice is its

intersectionality—those who are already racially and economically oppressed also suffer the worst effects of environmental degradation and climate disruption.  Intersectionality, however, also offers the best opportunity for action, so First Unitarian is focusing on Environmental Justice as an intersectional solution.  

Again we turned to cottage meetings and discovered that our strongest EJ interest is in air quality, followed by food justice, green space, and water quality.  We decided to complement and strengthen our efforts by partnering with a justice organization already doing the work in a frontline community.

Humble, Helpful Partnering

First Unitarian is located just two miles from the Monongahela River, which joins with the Allegheny in downtown Pittsburgh to form the Ohio. The “Mon” Valley has been a steel center for more than a century and three large facilities currently operate there.  These facilities, unfortunately, do not incorporate available technologies to reduce emitted pollutants, opting instead to pay fines.

To support impacted Mon Valley communities, we are partnering with Valley Clean Air Now (VCAN), a grassroots justice organization.  VCAN “seeks to fight for the residents of the Mon Valley who continue to suffer from severe health, economic, climate, and environmental injustice by galvanizing the community to take action through local politics, grassroots organizing, community building, education, and community health initiatives.”

Six members of First Unitarian learned much about steelmaking and its environmental impacts during a recent tour of the Clairton Coke Works organized by Valley Clean Air Now Steering Committee Chair Qiyam Ansari (holding phone), Secretary Tom Bailey and Steering Committee member Germaine Gooden-Patterson.

Our Work Is Ongoing

First Unitarian is promoting public awareness by hosting an online/hybrid lecture on September 14 by Pittsburgh filmmaker and air quality activist Mark Dixon. On September 17 we will host VCAN collaborators from Carnegie Mellon and the Environmental Integrity Project who will explain how to promote new proposed EPA restrictions on coke oven emissions. On October 8th, VCAN Steering Committee Chair Qiyam Ansari will give the message at our Sunday morning service.

We are also working with fifteen partner churches in the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN). This year PIIN formed an EJ task force that is focusing on air quality: organizing meetings of pastors in frontline communities, raising community awareness, and facilitating public advocacy.

And we are “minding our own store” through air filtration and reducing our carbon footprint through a geothermal HVAC system, solar panels, and LED lighting.  Using laser particle counters, we have found that DIY Corsi-Rosenthal filters built from furnace filters and a box fan are effective in removing pollution particles.

First Unitarian middle school RE students construct Corsi-Rosenthal filters of the type we plan to distribute in Mon Valley communities.

Our middle school RE students have built five of these filters, and this Fall we are going to build more to donate to homes and/or churches in the Mon Valley.  We are also planning workshops with PIIN churches where interested congregants can learn how to build their own filters.

We are excited about this ongoing work and hope to share more about it in future posts.