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Apr 21
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A Slightly Different 99 Percent

Correctional Facility

Commemorating Earth Day
GreenFaith Fellowship: Chapter 2
Reports on an Environmental Justice Retreat
click here to read the first story

by Irene Woodard

Newark International is the airport I generally leave from to go on Shambhala retreats and send my kids to Sun Camp. This past November, I went on a four-day Environmental Justice Retreat, within a mile of this airport. This was the first of three retreats for the 25 GreenFaith fellows and was held in Kearney, New Jersey.

I had no idea there was such massive pollution so very near to where I have come and gone from for so many years.

I stayed in a room that had bunk beds, sharing with a woman from Ohio and another from Massachusetts. (For those of you who didn’t know – women snore too.) After unpacking our bags we went to dinner, where we all met each other for the first time after three months of webinars. We were about to look into the belly of the beast: a toxic puzzle of a place, where 140 tons of waste from New York City is burned each day. And we would come to learn even more…

But first, what is environmental justice? Environmental justice is the right of everyone to a healthy clean environment in which to live, work and play.


This is not the case for the 50,000 people that live in the Iron Bound, which is an area bounded by railroads on three sides and Newark Airport on the fourth. The first morning of the retreat, we boarded a bus for a four-hour tour of the area called the Iron Bound. It is where people live, work and play. The Iron Bound area is part of Essex County, and is where the cancer risk is higher than 99.3 percent of all the counties in the United States.

While that week others occupied Wall Street, this was a 99% that struck a chord in me, which was heart-felt in a different way. It was difficult to comprehend a place in the metropolitan area that had had no new schools built since 1867: 144 years. But a new bright blue correctional facility had just been completed. It was at the moment we passed this building that I remembered Sarah Lipton saying “take pictures.” I had been struck dumb by what we were seeing so much so that I was frozen. I took out the camera, and got the newest building on the block, the blue one, and then the containers piled high, and the incinerator.

Here in this large port, containers are shipped in, loaded onto the land and trucked out across the states. Trucks idle and pollute the air all day long, right next to small apartments and playgrounds. We were shown the largest incinerator in New Jersey, where 2,800 tons of waste is burned each day, half of which is from New York City.


The tour was led by Dr. Ana Baptista from the Iron Bound Community Corporation. Her understanding of the local situation showed her love about her home town. She is not bitter and she expressed without complaint the difficulties in working in this environment, and the step by step changes they have made in the last 20 years.

The site that silenced us was that of an abandoned factory where 60% of the agent orange used in Vietnam was manufactured. Unable to safely move any of it, it is contained within and fenced. We got off the bus to hear more about it, and I did a few breathes of tonglen before we got back on the bus.

Later that day we visited a park that has brought in much-needed greenery and flowers and thereby acted as a community builder, and a refuge. We ate lunch there. It was an emotional day for all of us. I was struck by the power of really seeing a familiar place: I had driven by hundreds of times since I was a little girl, visiting my grandparent’s house, and I had flown over the area numerous times, leaving the New York City area. It hit me that I had never known what went on there.

The rest of the retreat was spent indoors at our retreat center. Hundreds of facts were downloaded and imparted to our multi-faith group. We listened to wonderful speakers and authors of numerous government regulatory bills intended to help clean things up. We heard people speak who labor over figuring out how to bring justice to this piece of land that is home to many immigrants, many of whom have an average income of $16,000 a year.

Luncheon site

When asked on the fourth day for our reflections, most of us remarked about the intensity of the bus tour. We were also asked what teaching from our faith had come up for us. In my small group I spoke about “seeing things as they are.” We were shown the facts without blinders on, and as we do so, we take responsibility and really look, and never give up looking. One of the speakers quoted Rabbi Heschel saying: “Some are guilty. All are responsible.”

We are guardians and protectors of awakening to “things as they are.” The teaching for me was to investigate locally, bring my curiosity to what is in front of me, and ask questions right here at home.

Like many good retreats, we ate well with plentiful salad bars (even having ice cream a few times) and enjoyed social time with wine and chocolates at the end of each night. On the last day, Fletcher Harper, the Director of GreenFaith asked me if he could visit Shambhala. It turns out in GreenFaith, there are lots of Christians, Jews, Unitarian Universalists, and some Muslims, but I am their first Buddhist since they began five years ago.

Abandoned Agent Orange site

So in December Fletcher came to the Shambhala Center in New York and met with the leadership of the three pillars. He asked if we would like to co-sponser the webinar on Buddhism and the Environment, which was led by Stephanie Kaza, who wrote the book Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism, published by Shambhala Press. It includes a chapter by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The Shambhala Center agreed to this, and on March 19th the world wide internet event occurred. Many sangha members were able to participate.

The opportunity to study with others from different faiths is good. Please consider applying for a fellowship next year if any of this interests you, or contact me, if you would like to learn more: [email protected]

Irene Woodard is a member of the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York City and has been named a GreenFaith Fellow, joining the class of 2012 in the GreenFaith Fellowship Program. The Fellowship Program is the only comprehensive education and training program in the United States to prepare lay and ordained leaders from diverse religious traditions for environmental leadership. “We’re thrilled to welcome Irene to the Program,” said Rev. Fletcher Harper, GreenFaith Executive Director. “This program will offer [her] the opportunity to become a well-trained leader in religious environmentalism,” said Harper. “[These leaders] will help create an environmentally just and sustainable world.”

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1 response to “ A Slightly Different 99 Percent ”
  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences in this program and for connecting Shambhala to it. I look forward to reading more updates.

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