Journey to Justice – Ecologists and Faith Communities
by Leanne Jablonski FMI, PhD
My scientist colleagues chose environmental Justice as an official section of the Ecological Society of America this summer! This choice culminated a decade of focused work, and several more decades of hopes and prayers.
Environmental Justice calls us to ensure there is no racism, prejudice or bias toward any group when environmental decisions are made. Moreover, all have voice in the decisions regarding pollutants and other environmental quality issues that impact them. It’s been a movement of raising consciousness, since toxic waste and other environmental burdens tend to fall disproportionately on the poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged.
How did I end up in justice work and in service at the Marianist Environmental Education Center (MEEC)? I have long felt my call to be a bridge-builder as a scientist and faith community member. I have experienced the Sacred in the truth-seekers in both traditions. It’s been a literal wilderness journey, because during my high school and undergrad years of the 70s, there were few models of integration of faith and the environment. Somewhat like Abraham and Sarah, I left my Canadian homeland and dream job as a park-interpreter naturalist with a faint sense of God’s promise that one day I would do this again, and I would be able to include the faith dimension.
I followed my vocation as a Marianist Sister scientist, but often worried that I wasn’t doing what the call to justice required; as long hours of solitude in lab or field study didn’t seem to measure up to the direct service among the poor that engaged others. Inspiring touchstones were the documents on the vital role of laity in the workplace and the encouragement of Marianists like plant biologist Don Geiger, MEEC’s founder, who connect their gospel call with their vocation as a scientist.
I began plant ecology doctoral studies in the early 90s – choosing the field of global climate change for its justice relevance. Simultaneously, I drew hope from Church’s emerging statements – the Pope’s World Day of Peace Ecology message and care for the integrity of creation being explicitly named as a principle of Catholic social teaching. Little did I know then how much my service would be called upon!
In the late nineties, faith communities began to engage in climate change education, and I’ve been called upon as a guest speaker, science educator and facilitator of MEEC’s service to educating faith communities about ecological sustainability.
As a member of the Ecological Society of America (www.esa.org) since 1991, I have proudly watched ecologists increase their engagement in societal issues – as spokespersons of sound science to public policy issues and in communicating findings in more understandable ways to the lay person. New ESA member sections such as Urban Ecology, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Human Ecology and now Environmental Justice, indicate how ecology is being applied to societal concerns.
I served on the Women and Minorities in Ecology task force where we addressed the need to change the culture of how we do science as well as what we study. We now include the perspectives of local communities where we do our research. We also include broader societal issues such as global climate change impacts.
Recognizing the role scientists can play in contributing data that informs pollutant impacts on human health and other injustices and our role in community-based research, Environmental Justice was subsequently named by ESA members as a critical, emerging issue.
I’ve also watched the artificial divide between science and religion being bridged, with ecologists recognizing their service role in the ecology education of community-based and religious organizations. Because the environmental justice movement arose in the faith community, and because for many cultures such as First Nations people, spirituality is intrinsic to the culture, scientists’ horizons are broadening.
With credentials in both arenas, I’ve been able to serve as a bridge as we assess and address the ecology education needs of faith community members, and find a common path to address social justice needs. For example, the term environmental stewardship is a term used by people of faith, nature centers and government agencies alike. Resources available to faith communities can be found through the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change (www.catholicsandclimatechange.org) and other traditions that are part of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (www.nrpe.org).
There have been several joint initiatives between scientists and members of religious organizations. I am grateful to have been part of a joint statement on climate change that was signed by religious leaders and climate change scientists that raised the moral concerns of the scientific evidence of impacts on the vulnerable as well as future generations. (http://www.gwipl.org/documents/nrpe_climate_letter.pdf)
Through the past 10 years, the justice journey has taken me down an exciting and challenging path, as I have dared each little yes. Representing MEEC, I carry our Marianist name throughout the ecological science community and I bring my scientific knowledge to inform ecumenical/interfaith work on environmental issues. I have sensed that my voice at science meetings as both science researcher and educator on justice concerns has allowed others to reflect on the culture of their own faith traditions, and how they can be of service to developing an environmental consciousness. I am inspired by the words of the Earth Charter which calls us each, from all walks of life, to take our part in creating a just, sustainable earth future.
“The arts, sciences, religions, educational institutions, media, business, NGO & governments are called to offer creative leadership. Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of…a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life.” The Earth Charter – March 2000
Marianist Sister Leanne Jablonski FMI, PhD is a scientist, pastoral minister and educator. She directs the Marianist Environmental Education Center (MEEC), is an adjunct faculty at the University of Dayton and serves on the coordinating team of the MSJC steering committee. See the MEEC website, (http://meec.udayton.edu) for resources on faith community engagement in environmental justice and other ecology issues.