Before you get into reading the blog post, here is VEJ's 2019 Report and 2020 Outlook. If you've been part of us in the past or you're thinking about being part of us in the future, please read it to get a good grasp on what VEJ is all about and how we're doing our work.
As you guessed from the headline, this is a blog post about the year we are about to end and the year we are about to start.
By "we" I mean you and me and us and everyone you know and don't know.
We're all in this together.
President John F. Kennedy said: "In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."
He said these words in a speech about the threat of nuclear war. He called upon his listeners to think twice about their attitudes toward America's enemy: The Soviet Union. President Kennedy dismissed those who held the belief that the Russians were immoral people beyond hope of being any good. He reminded his listeners that it would take the people of the Soviet Union--just as much as it would take the people of the United States--to keep the world from destroying itself with nuclear weapons. In the quote above, he reminded his listeners of the humanity common to both Americans and Soviets.
In sum, Kennedy was saying: We're all in this together.
This morning on the walk to school, my seven-year old told me he was going to play a prank on a girl in his first grade class.
I asked him if she is a friend of his and if this is the kind of thing they do as friends.
He said: "No. She's mean to me."
"So, you're going to be mean back? Is that your plan?" I asked.
He paused for a long time. Then he said, sheepishly: "Dad, she's really beautiful."
I asked him if he ever told her she is pretty. To be honest, as a 44-year old male living and working in the #MeToo world, I wasn't sure this was the right thing to say. But, a dad has to grasp for teachable moments where he can get them.
He said: "No."
Then I asked him: "Daniel, who chooses for you whether you're kind or not kind to someone else? Who makes that choice?"
He started in on an excuse.
I backed up and asked: "Daniel, have you ever given this girl a reason to be mean to you? How do you treat her? How do act whenever she's around?"
He admitted that the girl is a good student who pays attention in class. My son has his share of getting in trouble for cutting up. He's a class clown. I asked Daniel if maybe this girl didn't like him because she was trying to do her schoolwork while he and his buddies were trying to get out of doing theirs.
He admitted that could be the case.
Then I said to him: "Daniel, the only person who can choose how you act and feel and think is you. Nobody can make you choose to be mean to them by being mean to you first. You always have the power to choose friendship and kindness. And, you know what? If you choose to be friendly and kind--even when someone is mean to you--I bet you most people will end up being friends with you. They'll want to help you and support you the way you help and support them."
We've been talking a lot about attitudes and choices lately and I think he kind of got it. We made a plan: He should pay this girl a compliment. Maybe he could tell her he likes the way she does her work in class.
It's a start.
Friends, I'm not going to choose to go along with the meanness in our country and in our world right now. I'm not going to choose to see people who disagree with me or who oppose me as bad people or stupid people.
And that goes for VEJ, too, as long as I'm leading us.
We're going to see people as people. We're going to choose to treat them as human beings who are just as frustrated and hopeful and scared as we may be.
Because it's the right thing to do.
And because climate change is at least as big a threat to humanity as nuclear war. And if you believe President Kennedy when he said it would take Americans and Russians working together to avoid a nuclear apocalypse, then you have to believe it will take people from every walk of life to avoid a climate apocalypse.
So, our 2020 theme at VEJ is going to be We're All In This Together.
VEJ is going to work to create common ground and safe spaces for people to come together from all walks of life. We're going to offer information (training) and inspiration (real-life stories) that show how people from different backgrounds can work together for Earth justice. As the year goes on, we hope to have more nitty-gritty conversations that bring together people who, at first might seem like opponents, but may turn out to be allies in the Earth justice movement.
Let's talk about the elephant in the room. Yes, this direction and this theme are our response to the political climate in the United States.
I'm going to put it in black and white for the record: We are not going to be part of the noise pollution coming from the national elections in 2020. For one, as a 501c3, VEJ can neither campaign for, nor endorse, any political figure, party, or platform. We are an apolitical organization by law.
However, we will not act like the election is not happening. My hunch is that most people in this country will be discouraged, disgusted, exhausted, and feeling a loss of hope. I believe that about people on both sides of the political divide.
So, we want to offer another way. A better way. We want to not only show that it is possible for people to come together for Earth justice, but that some of the best Earth justice work can come from allies who used to think of each other as opponents. We want to give people the know-how, the relationships, and the tools they need to put it into practice in their own communities and lives.
This is what I mean when I call VEJ a "pebble in the pond."
Look, we have a choice to react or respond.
React, and we get more of the same. React, and we ensure that Earth justice will be as elusive as ever as we isolate ourselves more and more.
But if we respond--that is, we lead in compassion, grace, humility, kindness, and love for all--we have a chance. We have a chance to gather around us a plurality of people who are able, ready, and willing to work together for Earth justice.
We're all in this together.
I believe this. Do you?
What is your favorite source of sustainable energy?
Biomass? Geothermal? Ocean waves? Solar power? Wind?
These are energy sources we hope will someday (soon) power our economy and the tools we use in our daily lives. Even people I know who vote different from me still seem to agree on this point. Where we disagree tends to be on how to make it happen.
It seems like sustainable energy will be a big talking point in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.
And while this has me thinking about which candidate has the best plan for powering our economy using sustainable energy, it also has me asking a question of myself:
What powers our movement?
Does our walk match our talk about sustainable energy?
I'm not talking about driving electric cars and installing solar panels.
I'm talking about what powers the spirit of our movement.
Is that energy source sustainable?
Anger is a powerful source of energy for a movement. An explosive energy source. Look around at the American political landscape and you cannot deny that anger works.
But fossil fuels work, too. In fact, they still power most of our economy.
And we all agree: They are not good for people or planet in the (not so) longterm. Neither fossil fuels nor the lifestyle they power are sustainable.
And so it is with anger. It burns hot and strong and can move millions of people at a time. But anger poisons and pollutes. It burns those who kindle it as well as those at whom they direct its fire. And it is not sustainable. Anger cannot power a healthful and long-lasting society at peace with itself and prospering for all.
So, we have to ask ourselves the honest question: What is powering our movement? Is it good for people and planet? Is it sustainable?
I believe one of the reasons VEJ exists is to ask questions like these and to call people back to the heart of what environmental justice is all about.
And I believe the heart of environmental justice is love.
Love for people--all people. Love for planet--all of the planet.
Love is the most powerful sustainable energy source in the universe. When we cultivate love, it can go on and on and on. It can keep growing to power a thousand generations to the ends of the cosmos.
Sure, VEJ will speak up for sustainable energy sources like solar, waves, and wind.
But the the sustainable energy source we practice and preach the most has to be love.
Grace and peace,
BT Irwin, primus inter pares
Voices for Earth Justice
Let's start with some housekeeping.
A month or two ago, I posted that our board is working on new mission and vision statements. We got far enough along that the board was looking at a draft. However, after talking over that draft the board decided to put it on the back burner for now.
Well, it's almost spring...and we've got a garden to grow and friends and neighbors to bless, serve, and teach. That's a lot of work for a little organization like Voices for Earth Justice! For now, we are choosing to work with our friends rather than talk about words.
That brings me to the point of this post: The work we're going to do with our friends and why that work matters now.
One thing I'll share with you from the mission and vision draft we put on hold is this little mantra: Everyday Earth Justice.
That little mantra will guide me as I guide Voices for Earth Justice.
What does it mean?
I take Everyday Earth Justice to mean making Earth justice part of our everyday lives. As habitual a practice as brushing our teeth. It means doing Earth justice wherever we are, with whatever we have, and whomever we're with. It means changing our lives just a little more each day to be a little more just.
Truth: Ordinary people changing their everyday lives make a far greater difference than the biggest organizations with the biggest budgets and biggest programs.
So, when I think about Voices for Earth Justice, I don't think about how to make it bigger; I think about how we can help more ordinary people make more small changes that add up to a bigger difference in their lives and in our world.
Are you with me?
So, the question is: How will Voices for Earth Justice help ordinary people practice Everyday Earth Justice?
Simple: We ourselves have to do Earth justice wherever we are, with whatever we have, and whomever we're with.
Let's look at each of those things:
Wherever we are: Voices for Earth Justice has been in Detroit's Brightmoor neighborhood for almost seven years.
Whatever we have: Since 2011, we've cared for and cultivated Hope House & Gardens at the corner of Greydale and Puritan streets in Brightmoor.
Whomever we're with: We have a small, but passionate core group of donors, friends, neighbors, and volunteers.
So, then, Voices for Earth Justice will do Everyday Earth Justice by helping our donors, friends, neighbors, and volunteers celebrate, discover, and practice Everyday Earth Justice together at Hope House & Gardens in Brightmoor.
How will we know we're doing this well?
To answer that question, I believe we need to find answers to five other questions:
We don't yet have answers to the first two questions. This month, we hired L'Oreal Hawkes-Williams to be our garden program leader. Part of her job will be to help us answer Questions 1 and 2 so we can set some goals for 2018 and 2019.
As for Questions 3, 4, and 5, we set this goal: By June 30, 2019, 2,019 people will come to Hope House & Gardens to celebrate, discover, and practice Everyday Earth Justice. At least half (1,010) will be our Brightmoor neighbors.
So, in summary, we are setting two "mission goals" we want to accomplish by the end of Summer 2019:
Here's our plan to accomplish these goals:
What do you think? Are you with us?
If so, you have an important role to play in all of this. You can join us in practicing and supporting Everyday Earth Justice.
Here are three ways you can help today:
Helping 2,019 people--half of them Brightmoor neighbors--celebrate, discover, and practice Everyday Earth Justice at Hope House & Gardens is what we are all about in 2018 and 2019. Are you all about Everyday Earth Justice, too?
Join us! We are eager to bless and serve you as you work alongside us.
Grace and peace,
BT Irwin, executive director
Our New Year resolutions often seem to have a lot to do with what we want for ourselves. According to Google search statistics, the #1 New Year resolution at the start of 2017 was "Get healthy." The #2 New Year resolution was "Get organized." The next three resolutions had to do with learning new hobbies, living life to the fullest, and saving money.
I wonder if the individualistic and self-centered spirit of most resolutions on January 1 is the reason most of them fail by January 8. For instance, if "self" is at the center of a resolution to "eat better" in 2018, it won't be long until that same "self" falls for the instant gratification of eating poorly.
Most of the time, we set our New Year resolutions in isolation or we barely mention them even once to family and friends. When the self that wants instant gratification confronts the self that set the resolution, nobody else is around to come to the rescue.
So I wonder if it would make a difference to ourselves and to those around us if we made New Year resolutions a community exercise. What if each of us made a resolution to do something for the people and places around us? What if we brought family, friends, and neighbors together to share in it? In short, what if we made our New Year resolutions about us instead of me?
I think that's really the function of Voices for Earth Justice. When we're at our best, we are a community that encourages and supports personal efforts to practice Earth justice. In other words, if you resolve to be a better steward of the Earth and a neighbor to all those who live here, Voices for Earth Justice should be able and ready to help you do it.
Yet another way to put it: If you resolve to use your voice to make a difference, Voices for Earth Justice should be what amplifies and broadcasts it. How? By joining your voice to the harmony of thousands of other voices calling for Earth justice.
I think you can now see my New Year resolution for Voices for Earth Justice.
As executive director, I resolve that Voices for Earth Justice will move our society closer to Earth justice by giving you information, a support network, and tools to amplify your own voice. If you resolve to practice "everyday Earth justice" in 2018, Voices for Earth Justice will help you do it with people who lift their voices with yours in shared resolution.
To that end, my focus in 2018 will be on making our programs as practical and useful to you as possible. I want to make it easy and enjoyable for you to discover and learn about Earth justice--and then put it into practice and share it with the people and places around you. I want to make it simple for you to make the difference you want to make.
In January, I'm going to share an outlook and plans for how Voices for Earth Justice will amplify your voice and support your Earth justice resolutions in 2018.
As I write this on December 28, we are less than $1,500 from our year-end fundraising goal of $10,000. Our philosophy at Voices for Earth Justice is to "operate small, impact big." We believe we can make a big difference without growing a big organization. In dollar terms, that means that our $10,000 year-end campaign will fully fund one-fifth of our entire operation and programs for one year.
What does that means to you? It means that just as Voices for Earth Justice exists to amplify your voice, we also amplify your dollar. The dollar you give to Voices for Earth Justice does far more because it is a bigger part of our small budget.
Since we've already raised more than $8,500 in December, we only have about $1,500 to go before January 1. Your year-end gift today will make a huge difference.
So, make a resolution to use your voice for Earth justice in 2018. Then, make a gift to Voices for Earth Justice today. We'll amplify your dollar and your voice in the New Year.
Onward and upward!
BT Irwin, executive director
Voices for Earth Justice started interviewing me for the executive director position back in the summer. I started the job on September 11.
Almost every day since I submitted my application letter, I've been contemplating the name of our organization: "Voices for Earth Justice."
That's a big name. A REALLY big name!
As big as Earth!
As big as justice!
The more I contemplate that big name, the smaller I feel:
"Irwin, who are you to presume that you should be 'executive director' of 'Earth Justice?'"
"Irwin, who are you to believe you can make any difference to Earth justice?"
"Irwin, what do you even know about Earth justice?"
Do you ever question yourself that way? Do you ever feel that same small feeling?
Over the three months since I started my new role at Voices for Earth Justice, I've come to the conclusion that being/feeling "small" is not a bad thing.
In fact, it may be the thing we need to take on something as big as Earth justice.
Three things I've come to believe (see if you believe them, too):
As we go forward together, let's celebrate, embrace, and make the best use of our smallness.
Let's believe in the power of the little things we choose to do each day and let's find practical ways to be a little better today than we were yesterday.
Let's believe that even the people we don't like or don't understand have as much a role to play in the world we're growing as we do. Let's seek to listen big and talk small in order to make room for mutual respect and understanding.
Let's delight and glory more in what we don't know than stagnate in what we do know.
Being small and doing small are often the excuses we use to do nothing at all.
In truth, being small and doing small are exactly what we need to be and do to start making a real difference.
Let's embrace being small. It's a big deal!
You're one of about 2,400 people around the world who support Voices for Earth Justice through your interest, money, prayers, or time.
You are the "voice" in Voices for Earth Justice.
It is easy to say "thank-you" to you for what you do for our organization. In 2017, we helped more than 1,000 people learn how to be more grateful and responsible for Earth. We continued to transform vacant buildings and land into a demonstration site for loving neighbors and Earth-friendly sustainable agriculture. Indeed, none of that would be possible with you. We are thankful to you for all of that.
What nonprofit organizations like us often forget, however, is to say "thank-you" for what you do when you're not giving money or volunteering time to us.
Knowing what we know about you, you are doing good things for the Earth every day and in more ways than we'll ever know. You're loving your neighbors in little ways that nobody will ever see. You're a voice for Earth justice even when you're not working with Voices for Earth Justice.
Accomplishing the mission of Voices for Earth Justice is so much bigger than Voices for Earth Justice. In fact, the mission itself cannot and does not belong to us. It a mission as big as the Earth itself and as widespread as every inch of ground where something lives.
The only chance we have of accomplishing that mission is not through the efforts of one little nonprofit organization in Detroit; it is through the little things you do each day as you learn to live your life better.
You're doing that and for that, we thank you!
And for all you do for us, we give thanks this Thanksgiving.
Blessings and peace on you and all the people and places you hold dear.
Onward and upward,
BT Irwin, executive director
Voices for Earth Justice
How are you at doing things you know are good for you?
Things like eating five fruits and vegetables a day, flossing, putting money into savings, and working out?
Or how are you at not doing things that are not good for you?
Things like eating too much junk food, hanging out on social media for hours at a time, procrastinating, and watching too much TV?
Give yourself an honest assessment. How do you do?
Being a human being is funny. We like to think that we’re rational creatures, but our behavior says otherwise.
We know what is good for us, but we don’t do it--at least not consistently and often enough.
We know what is bad for us, but we persist in doing it (all while we tell ourselves we’ll get around to stopping the bad behavior tomorrow).
A group of luminary scientists recently gathered at the University of Pennsylvania to begin looking for a way to solve this problem. They ask the question: Why are human beings so bad at doing the things that are good for them? And why are we so good at doing the things that are bad for us?
These scientists are looking at the obvious stuff: The things that, if we do them, will make us happier (getting enough sleep and spending time with family and friends), healthier (eating right and exercising), and wealthier (saving more and spending less). The length and quality of our lives depends on doing things like these--and we know it!--yet we don’t do them or we keep putting them off.
If that’s how we are with the very simple life habits that most affect our personal happiness, health, and wealth, how will we be with something that seems more abstract and impersonal? Something like climate change?
I recently read an article about how Americans overwhelmingly believe in climate change.
It’s just that we Americans--human beings that we are--never get around to actually doing anything about it.
Why should we expect ourselves to do anything? We can’t even order a salad, save a dollar, or stop looking cat videos on Facebook!
The real challenge of a mission like ours at Voices for Earth Justice is not ecological; it’s human. We don’t have to get people to agree with climate change, environmental responsibility, or social justice in theory. Most of them already do. Most of them already believe that something needs to be done.
How does believing or knowing something turn into changing personal behavior? That is the real challenge of our mission. How do we make it so people are more likely to choose to act differently?
Let’s be honest: The odds are against us. Human behavior is what it is and if the brightest scientists and great religions of the world can’t seem to change it, let’s not presume we can do much better here.
If we’re serious about this mission, we need to be deliberate, gracious, kind, patient, and thoughtful about it. At all times, we need to keep in mind that we’re dealing with human beings--and human beings are highly irrational creatures.
So what about change? What kind of change can we hope to make against such human irrationality?
We can change ourselves. Each one of us can work hard to change the way we see each other, see our environment, and see ourselves in the world. This takes a lot of energy, but I believe it is the only way to change our behavior toward each other, our environment, and ourselves. Small changes in our personal behavior, taken together with changes our neighbors are making in their own behaviors, may be exactly what adds up to the global change we all seek.
That last statement is the reason Voices for Earth Justice could never be anything other than a faith-based mission. When we focus on changing ourselves, we take it on faith that those personal changes can and will become global change farther downstream than we can see.
Educating, equipping, and empowering more people to change themselves. That’s the big challenge before Voices for Earth Justice. It is a very big challenge.
As primus inter pares of the Voices for Earth Justice community, I take it as my personal challenge.
I’m ready and willing to take on the challenge. Will you, too?
Please join a conversation about this subject at the Voices for Earth Justice Facebook page. I posted a question there with this blog post and I’m eager to read your answer. Please take a few minutes to share your perspectives with the Voices for Earth Justice community. Thank-you!
Onward and upward!
BT Irwin, executive director
Voices for Earth Justice
Yes, voices can change things. When enough of our voices pray, shout, sing, speak, and weep in harmony, mountains move or stop in their tracks.
Let’s keep the faith that this is true and let’s not assume that someone else will speak up if we are silent.
Let us encourage one another to join our voices to speak truth to power.
After all, power only speaks one language: Power.
Power comes in many forms, love being supreme (if you believe it).
Those who prefer a baser, meaner, more immature kind of power--a coercive kind of power that relies on patronizing and tranquilizing or, when those don’t work, force and violence--enjoy an opponent much like themselves. They know what to do in combat and politics. Might makes right and that’s how they like it.
They want bullets, fists, and shouting because they know their budgets, guns, and strings to pull are always better and bigger than ours.
And if they lose, they will make sure they take down everyone and everything with them.
So what do they fear? What will work against them?
They fear us. Specifically, they fear us together. Their power relies on cynicism, division, paranoia, and suspicion among people like you and me. As long as we’re using our voices to shout at each other, we will never join our voices in harmony. Why do they fear that? Because when we join our voices in harmony, we find something in each other that is better than what they’ve been selling us.
And when we’re no longer buying what they are selling, they no longer have power.
So while we must use our voices to speak to power, we must be even more diligent about using our ears to listen to each other. While those in power need our open mouths, our neighbors need our open ears.
Let’s resolve as a fellowship to listen 80 percent of the time and speak 20 percent of the time. Let our speaking arise from the empathy and understanding we cultivate among ourselves.
Let us be Ears for Earth Justice as much as we are Voices for Earth Justice.
What changed me from a climate change denier and opponent of those who speak for the environment?
Was it alarming facts and the latest research on climate change? No.
Was it a persuasive politician, scientist, or theologian? No.
Was it a preacher or prophet who triggered my guilt? No.
What changed my mind about earth justice was...my heart.
And what changed my heart was gratitude that came from wonder.
A blog post is too small a space to tell the whole story. That may come over the weeks, months, and years ahead of us.
Here and now, I’ll share one scene from the story of how gratitude and wonder changed my heart.
It was Thanksgiving Day 1998. I was 22 years old and spending Thanksgiving away from my family for the first time. They were gathered in my hometown of Ashland, Ohio. I was 800 miles away in Searcy (pronounced “sir see”), Arkansas. Searcy is home to Harding University, where I was a fifth-year senior that fall. That year, I moved off campus and into my own apartment. To buy groceries and pay the rent, I got a job as the night shift DJ at KWCK 99.9 FM, a country music radio station.
As the DJ with the least seniority, the station manager asked me to cover a shift or two on Thanksgiving Day. It would mean being away from my family, but time-and-a-half pay for two shifts of work. I took it.
What was supposed to be two shifts turned into 21 straight hours on the air as two other DJs never showed up. I worked from 11 p.m. the night before Thanksgiving until 8 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. When I finally left the station, I stepped out into a ghost town. Everyone in Searcy was inside a home, celebrating the day with family and friends. The streets were empty and still. I was alone. And lonely.
As I walked the two miles back to my apartment, something mysterious and wonderful came over me. The air was calm and chilly. The night was perfectly silent. Something made me look up at the sky. I gasped and then sighed at the sight: I’d never seen so many stars shining so bright and clear.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel alone or lonely anymore. In the absence of family and friends, I felt the earth and sky themselves were keeping me company, saying “I love you” in a way that touched every one of my senses. The beauty of the moment overwhelmed me inside and out. I’d never felt so close to God. I’d never felt such love. I’d never felt such wonder. All I could do was whisper “thank-you” again and again and again.
When people ask me to share my conversion story, this is the story I most often share.
Years of Bible study didn’t do it. Political arguments and scientific research didn’t do it. Facts couldn’t change my heart, nor could guilt.
But that night in the cold air under the stars filled me with a wonder that overwhelmed my old ways of thinking. The love washing over me was too much for my old stubbornness. All I could do was succumb to the gratitude pouring out of my heart like an artesian spring.
I’ve never been the same.
That’s what drew me to Voices for Earth Justice. Look at our mission:
Voices for Earth Justice is an interfaith network of people committed to prayer, education, and actions that deepen our sense of wonder, responsibility, and gratitude for all creation.
The truth is, we won’t change too many minds with arguments, facts, or even guilt. That’s not how people change. People change from the heart and that change always starts with what Christians call an epiphany. What I like about our mission is that it rightly identifies wonder and gratitude as the catalysts for that heart-changing epiphany.
I’m living proof.
Now I’d like to hear from you. Please tell me in the comment section or in a personal email (firstname.lastname@example.org):
Onward and upward,