Dear friend of IRTF,
My name is Pearl Chen, and I am the newest full-time volunteer with IRTF. I joined the team in November of 2020, and my focus is on environmental human rights.
I grew up in the suburbs of Columbus as a child of two Chinese immigrants. My parents did everything they could to make sure I never had to undergo the same struggles they did growing up and instilled in me the importance of hard work and resilience in the face of adversity. They made sure that I grew up with all my basic needs taken care of, and because of this, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to dream of ways I could do something I love while making the world a better place. When I began to learn the many ways that poverty prevents people from reaching their own dreams, I decided that I wanted to direct my career towards alleviating poverty in any way I could.
For college, I attended The Ohio State University and studied environmental and humanitarian engineering, combining my passions for environmental protection and sustainable development. However, in my coursework, I was shocked to learn that many well-intentioned attempts to alleviate poverty actually exacerbated it, often because those in charge of development efforts do not consult with local communities for solutions, or the efforts use a one-size-fits-all approach. This was my first exposure to the concept of solidarity over charity, of meeting peoples and communities where they are.
It was also in college that I dove deep into my spirituality for the first time and developed a daily meditation practice. Through this practice, I have been gifted with opportunities to reflect on the divinity that connects all of humankind, to feel love between myself and those I have never met, and to understand that my struggle and resistance cannot stop while that of my global family continues.
After college, I moved to Cleveland to start working as an environmental engineering consultant. For a number of reasons, I knew by this point that the engineering industry was not where my passions lay. I made plans to work for a year and save money so I could join the Peace Corps and at least use my degree. Once the pandemic began, however, Peace Corps was no longer a viable option, and like everyone, I was feeling anxious about everything that was happening. To address this feeling, I started organizing through Sunrise-Cleveland and IRTF. I loved it and found myself wanting to spend all my time contributing to the movement, which led me to quit my job and start a volunteer fellowship with IRTF.
Since starting at IRTF, I have been volunteering with Utilities For All, a local advocacy group for utility justice; I also started a related campaign for water equity through Sunrise-Cleveland. When the pandemic started, the city instituted a moratorium on shut-offs due to underpayment of utilities, and we have been focused on making resources for utility assistance more widely available. At the beginning of December, however, the city decided to lift this moratorium, putting hundreds of thousands of Cleveland residents at risk of having their water, gas, and electricity shut off right as the winter became especially brutal. So, through a series of meetings and events, we are organizing NE Ohioans to demand a moratorium on utility shut-offs and more transparency in how public utilities are managed. Our current petition campaign came out of an online town hall meeting in February, which highlighted how Cleveland should have done better with its pandemic response and how we need to demand more from our publicly-owned utilities.
Until our demands are met, we will not stop organizing because water is life and utilities are a human right.
This belief also holds for those working to defend water in Latin America. People, in many cases, are putting their entire lives on the line in the struggle for liberation; that is why I have started volunteering with the Honduras Solidarity Network to defend the political prisoners of Guapinol. Since September 2019, eight political prisoners have been held in preventative (pre-trial) detention. These eight are defenders of the Guapinol River, their community’s primary source for drinking water. They were violently removed from and arrested for their peaceful participation in a legitimate protest camp meant to resist the mining of the national park where they reside. There are countless illegalities and acts of corruption related to the granting of licenses for the operation of the iron ore mining project, which is funded by the U.S. company Nucor Steel. The Guapinol case has received national and international attention because it highlights the restrictions that exist in Honduras regarding freedom of association, assembly, and the right to protest against environmentally destructive extractive projects imposed without the consent of affected communities.
These are difficult times we are living in, and I’m afraid that in many ways, things will not be getting easier anytime soon. In my spiritual practice, we use the Sanskrit term sangha, meaning a community rooted in understanding and love to move towards greater truth and purpose. In order to succeed in the struggle for a more beautiful, just world, both for people here at home and for our global family, we need to hold on tight to our sangha. Activist Naima Penniman offers this reflection:
“When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, almost everything lost its footing. Houses were detached from their foundations, trees and shrubbery were uprooted, sign posts and vehicles floated down the rivers that became of the streets. But amidst the whipping winds and surging water, the oak tree held its ground. How? Instead of digging its roots deep and solitary into the earth, the oak tree grows its roots wide and interlocks with other oak trees in the surrounding area. And you can’t bring down a hundred oak trees bound beneath the soil! How do we survive the unnatural disasters of climate change, environmental injustice, over-policing, mass-imprisonment, militarization, economic inequality, corporate globalization, and displacement? We must connect in the underground, my people! In this way, we shall survive.”
IRTF has a mission to meet people where they are and build community and solidarity with people working towards liberation and justice across nations, and we cannot do this work without you, a part of our sangha. Please consider making a gift to IRTF today so we can continue adding strength to this mission.
Pear Chen, Volunteer Fellow
IRTF Board of Trustees:
Rachel Rosen DeGolia, JP Graulty (treasurer), Rev. Ellen Huffman (co-chair), Yolanda King (secretary), Genevieve Mitchell, Diane Pinchot, OSU (co-chair), Joann Rymarczyk-Piotrkowski (Community Shares rep), Akshai Singh, Sarah Sommers
InterReligious Task Force on Central America & Colombia
3606 Bridge Ave., Cleveland OH 44113
(216) 961 0003