living the faith

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

Environmentalist helps people look 'upstream'

by Donald E. Skinner

Jim Price goes to work every day knowing there is hope. And helping to create that hope.

As the Sierra Club's southeast regional staff director, he works on the big issues. He ticks them off: “Protecting the earth, supporting the empowerment of those who are politically and economically weak on public health and environmental issues, confronting the abuse of wealth and power by large corporations, and upholding the use of the democratic process.”

That's a pretty heady to-do list. And Price knows that the best he can hope for is to organize people to chip away at the foundations of these big picture issues rather than solve all of them outright, overnight.

He does his part, he says, by helping people look upstream. He explains: “Rather than just reacting to the problems that come down the stream, we encourage people to also look to the sources of the problems upstream and to invest some of our civic energy in confronting those as well. Otherwise, the ones coming downstream will overwhelm us.”

Price, 59, began his career in the 1970s working for local and regional planning commissions in Alabama. But people weren't being listened to, he says. “All of these people were coming to public meetings voicing values about protecting the earth, but they were not being heard. The forums protected the powerful, propertied, economic, and political elites. But the people who made the most sense were speaking for values that were not being addressed by the dominant culture. I found I identified with those people.”

At about the same time he had a convergence of public and religious values. He and his wife, Nancy, and their three children were Presbyterians. But they had difficulty “believing the stories.” Also, “we felt there were more paths than were being presented to us,” he says. When one of their daughters came home from vacation Bible school “with a big dose of fear,” they began exploring religions.

They found the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, which had the Rev. John Buehrens as its pastor. The same year, 1980, Price joined the staff of the Tennessee Valley Authority public power utility, but grew disillusioned when it failed to support local communities in ways he found responsible. He looked for other work, all the while keeping in mind the things he was hearing at church.

“One of the things that has always impressed me about Unitarian Universalism is that it calls on all of us to walk our talk and to work for all types of justice––economic, social, racial, and environmental. The Fifth Principle, about use of the democratic process in society at large, especially resonates with me. That's very fundamental to building an economically and environmentally just and sustainable society.”

Calling himself “a democrat with a small d,” he says, “I've always wanted to help the South and the planet become a better place for all living things.” He had been a volunteer for a number of environmental organizations in Alabama and Tennessee during the 1970s, and when the opportunity came to join the Sierra Club as a field representative in 1980 —as its first field staff person to be located in the South—he took a pay cut and did it. He served the Southeast and Appalachian areas from Knoxville before moving to Birmingham, Alabama. In 1991, he and Nancy became members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham.

Price sees his job as supporting the empowerment of Sierra Club volunteers. “They're the ones who, in turn, frequently support low-income and people of color communities in their struggles and successes.” For instance, Price worked with a religious group in Columbia, Mississippi, that forced a chemical corporation to clean up its site, provide health monitoring, and compensate for damages to the community. He's currently working with the Sierra Club's Alabama chapter in supporting residents in Anniston against a U.S. Army proposal to incinerate chemical weapons near their urban neighborhoods.

He says he believes more and more local public officials are recognizing the abuses of power in such things as the U.S.A. Patriot Act and the North American Free Trade Agreement. “It's getting easier to get people to recognize the abuses that take away the ability of local communities through their governments to govern themselves. And there is increasing linkage among environmental organizations, labor unions, civil rights, human rights, and women's rights advocates and religious groups. We all share a vision of a just, sustainable economy.”

Price believes that Unitarian Universalists can help by working on “upstream” issues like real electoral reform and tax reform and by educating themselves with books like Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy, published by the Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy (POCLAD). They then need to pass these important ideas and visions on to others.

“Rather than just work on one forest at a time or one chemical at a time,” Price says, “we need to also spend some of our energy going at these structural pillars, such as corporate personhood, that are holding this unsustainable, unjust paradigm in place. We need to allow sustainable agriculture to lead us to healthier diets, shift us to alternative energy systems, and set up alternative forms of local currency that recognize cooperative good neighborliness. If we do these things, we can make a big difference.”

Is it difficult for Price to get a good night's sleep when he's taken on such major world problems? “I try to recognize that we are here to do the best we can to work for a better world and to do it with joy,” he says. “I enjoy my family, I value nature, and I live my life as best I can. The gift to me from the UU tradition is that we are called to be not only of the world, but involved in the world. The fact that we cannot do all things should not stop us from doing what we can to create a more economically and ecologically just and sustainable world.”

 Contents: UU World Back Issue
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