Breathing Safely

Photos © Kathy Barnhart

“I can’t breathe.” My first thought is that these words, spoken by George Floyd, had also been spoken by countless Black people while they were being murdered by police. My second thought is that I can say this as I write from my comfortable middle-class, privileged home in California, though the air quality is too unhealthy to go outside: raging fires and smoke fill the West Coast, the result of global warming and drought.

Spirit wants us all to breathe.

Environmental justice is an emerging witness for Quakers. As our testimonies of simplicity, peace, equality, integrity, community, and sustainability flow one into another and overlap, so do antiracism and earthcare. We cannot separate clean air, clean water, toxic waste, and so many other issues from White supremacy when People of Color, both at home and around the world, suffer disproportionately. We’ve all heard the statistics: higher rates of asthma and respiratory illness, including COVID-19; higher rates of diabetes and infant mortality; and increasing numbers of climate refugees due to drought, flood, hurricanes, and extreme weather.


At Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley, California, White supremacy has been on our minds and hearts. We are having adult education sessions, book discussions, and ministry about racism. Our Pacific Yearly Meeting virtual gathering this summer had the theme of “Radical Inclusivity.” We are looking at our own racism and trying to become more aware of it. Our antiracism minute, approved in February 2020, includes this sentence: “We utterly reject the racial status quo.” Here is another powerful line from the minute: “Systemic racism creates a barrier to living fully into our deepest Quaker values as reflected in all of our testimonies.” While not diminishing the importance of the word “racism” in this minute, we could create another minute (substituting the word “environmental”) to read: “We reject the environmental status quo,” and add, “Environmental degradation creates a barrier to living fully into our deepest Quaker values.”

Throughout the summer, those of us on the West Coast were inundated with fires and smoke. One week northern Californians woke up to darkness that lasted until noon. While the inside of our house remained dark, there was an eerie orange and yellow glow to the sky, which was a mixture of fog and an overlying layer of smoke. The sun was blocked in what seemed like a solar eclipse. Many of us used the word “apocalypse” that day, as it did feel like the earth was trying to get our attention in a dramatic way. Similarly, the videos of George Floyd under Derek Chauvin’s knee got our attention in a dramatic way.

As Quakers, we cannot turn away and pretend we haven’t seen racial and environmental injustice. We need to confront and embrace these two issues, as they will keep arising. Let us have the courage to look squarely at our racism and environmental crises; let us grieve together; share our struggles to become more aware; and find ways to act, despite the discomfort we may feel in acknowledging our part in it. There are no easy answers, but we know that inaction is a form of action.


As Quakers, we cannot turn away and pretend we haven’t seen racial and environmental injustice. We need to confront and embrace these two issues, as they will keep arising. Let us have the courage to look squarely at our racism and environmental crises; let us grieve together; share our struggles to become more aware; and find ways to act, despite the discomfort we may feel in acknowledging our part in it. 


One hundred years ago, women got the right to vote in this country, but they weren’t just given that right; they fought hard for it for decades. We won’t be given the changes we would like to see regarding racism and the environment. It will take pressure, organization, civil disobedience, perseverance, and effort to move ahead. Change has to be demanded by millions of people before it will happen.

As a privileged White woman, I feel fearful, sad, and angry. I don’t feel safe because of fires and unhealthy air. As I look to the future for my newborn grandson, I grieve because I know that climate disruption will only get worse. Right now, my other two grandchildren in California can’t play outside because the air is too hazardous. What will the earth be like when they are grandparents?

I also feel sad and angry because my Black and Brown friends and neighbors don’t feel safe because of White supremacy, in addition to the climate crisis. When their children and grandchildren go out into the community, they aren’t sure they will return alive. Their urban homes are more likely to be in places near toxic waste, water contamination, and air quality that is always bad. Collectively, they can’t breathe, not even taking into account the recent fires.

As a Quaker, I want my family and community, neighbors, and friends to have their basic needs met for safety and security, for housing, food, clean air, and water. These are at the bottom of the hierarchy of needs listed in Abraham Maslow’s theory, and we cannot hope to get to the next phase of love and belonging unless our basic needs are met first. Healthcare must be included in these basic needs.

In Pacific Yearly Meeting’s last version of Faith and Practice (2001), the advices and queries on harmony with creation ask us:

In our witness for the global environment, are we careful to consider justice and the well-being of the world’s poorest people?

The nation’s and the “world’s poorest people” have a disproportionate number of people with brown and black skin. Let us merge our concerns for racism and the environment to build a healthy, beloved community. Inequality, broken communities, poor health, injustice that leads to violence, all violate our deeply held Quaker values. How are we witnessing to environmental justice?

Spirit wants us all to breathe.

Kathy Barnhart

Kathy Barnhart is a retired teacher and counselor, a grandmother, wife, and photographer. She is a member of Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley, Calif. Contact: [email protected].

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