Intersectionality and Fusion in Faith Communities’ Environmentalism

Folks working in social justice/environmental justice efforts have been hearing a couple of buzz words that have been coming into vogue recently—intersectionality and fusion (or fusion politics). As  people involved in an interfaith movement to protect the environment—God’s Creation— these terms and the concepts they represent are quite relevant and can help us to become more empowered and more effective.

The concept of intersectionality refers to the fact that all the multifarious social justice/environmental justice causes and issues are very much interrelated and impact each other.  

For example, the issues of environment and political empowerment are intertwined.   Big Oil and Gas and their frackers are often attracted to impoverished rural communities because folks there are desperate and relatively powerless. They need the money and will not usually raise objections against an industry that threatens their health and the health of their children as their own desperate economic situation compels them to sacrifice what they may perceive as long-term health for immediate survival.  It's a gamble they feel they must make--gambling that they and their children will not be hit immediately with the toxic effects of oil and gas development.

So if we are trying to protect an economically depressed area from being exploited by frackers, we are addressing both an environmental issue as well as the issue of political empowerment as we help the relatively powerless become empowered to stand up for their families and for their community.  And ultimately, this empowerment will carry on in the future extending to other challenges to thiese families and communities.

It can be more than two issues that intersect in this way, and often it is.  Upon analysis, some situations involve a myriad of issues.  So that is intersectionality.

The other concept is fusion or fusion politics.  I learned about this concept from Rev. William Barber II in his book The Third Reconstruction.  Rev. Barber, leader of the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina, defines fusion politics as the joining together of many different kinds of people to form a morally-based movement to confront injustice of whatever kind.

One of Rev. Barber’s experiences as an organizer involved Blacks and Whites and rich and poor in a North Carolina community joining together to end the exposure of an impoverished neighborhood in this community to toxic wastes that had been stored and even dumped there.  The point was to get a lot of different skins in the game—to form a coalition that was both large and multifarious in many dimensions.  It worked. The exposures were ended.  The people’s health and the health of their children were redeemed.

Why did their movement find success?  Perhaps it was because the larger community began to see the poorer section of town as part of them—part of their town, their community.  It’s not about calling people out: “You’re wrong.  Your doing bad things!”  In stead, it’s about calling people in: “We’re in this together.   This is all our community, and we must take care of everyone.  Let’s clean up the toxic mess and not let it happen again anywhere in our community.”

In our environmental movement to bring folks together from many different religious backgrounds, we too can claim a collective moral grounding.  We have different traditions, but, as we have discovered, all our traditions teach us to care for God’s Creation.  We are to be stewards.  We are to be protectors of the Web of Life of which we are a part.

So far so good.  We have a good start on religious diversity in our movement.  But, when I look around, I notice that we can and should develop more diversity in other dimensions.  We tend to be mainly White and middle class and over 50.  So we need more people of color, people who may not be as economically as advantaged as we are, and we need many more young folks in our ranks.  (I’ll settle for anyone under 40 as my definition of young.)

We have a great foundation in that our movement, like Rev. Barber’s, is a moral movement informed for each of us by our spiritual and our religious traditions.  But we need more diversity in age, economic standing, and racial background.

One way, I think, that we can work toward more diversity is to better understand the intersectionality of our issue—protecting God’s Creation—with other social justice/environmental justice issues.  And actually, the most important aspect of this is to reach out and support folks that are organized around these other issues. Why not occasionally show up for an issue beyond our own?  For example, you might have participated in the Women’s March in Washington or elsewhere.  If you did, I bet you made some connections with some new friends, and I bet you shared with them some of the work you are doing on the environment.  Perhaps you will give your new friends a bit of a hand from time to time as they work on their issue, and likely they will do the same for you.

In my own experience, I recently visited a mosque with some other folks from my church to show solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters.    To my surprise, I ran into my sister’s sister-in-law.  “Esther,” I said, “What are you doing here?” meaning “how did you come to be here” since she is not a member of my church.  She explained that she had been to the Women’s March in Washington and had networked with some people from Northeast Ohio, and together they decided to visit this mosque as an act of solidarity with Muslims.  So her involvement in one cause—women’s rights—led her to an action on religious freedom.

I recently have participated in my local Move to Amend Group (to overturn Citizens United and to reduce the power of money in politics), and I have been involved in some SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) activities in support of Black Lives Matter.  I have met some new people, and I have begun to share with them my work on environmental justice.  This doesn’t mean I am dividing my time evenly among various groups.  I am still focused on our inter-faith environmental mission.  But I am taking some time to show up for other people’s causes.  I am backing them up when I can and hoping that some of them will show up for some of what I am focused on.

My minister keeps emphasizing to me the importance of showing up—just showing up and being fully present when you are there.  It reminds me of what Woody Allen said: “Showing up is 80 percent of life” (Annie Hall).  Makes sense. We are social animals, and we are powered by love—the love of a supportive community, so if you believe in intersectionality and in fusion politics—building more and more beloved communities everywhere to take up causes which protect and defend people and the environment—these communities can and will achieve amazing things.

-Ron Prosek