In 1988, not long after Dominican Sr. Patricia Siemen graduated from law school, she worked for a nonprofit that was preparing to build affordable housing for farmworkers in south Florida.
She opened a TEDxJacksonville talk in 2013 with the story of how environmental activists fought the project's development in defense of the Florida scrub-jay. Siemen's employer hoped to purchase land that was apparently an occasional habitat of the bird.
"I kept walking that land and saying, 'Over my dead body is some bird going to stop our building housing for people in need,' " Siemen recounts for her TEDxJacksonville audience.
Siemen's sense of social justice has since expanded. Several years after that project — which did, in the end, build farmworker housing on the desired property — Siemen got into environmental ethics, and in 1994, she co-founded the Center for Earth Jurisprudence at Barry University School of Law in Orlando, Florida, where she still serves as executive director.
"There has been this oftentimes divide between social and human justice issues and environmental justice, and sometimes a fear that if we're concerned about environmental justice, we're not worried about human justice," Siemen said.
That is a false dichotomy that the environmental movement too often fails to correct, according to Franciscan Sr. Joan Brown,executive director of New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light, an affiliate of the 40-state "religious response to global warming."
While the Catholic church's role in caring for the earth has gotten more attention in recent months following the publication of Pope Francis' encyclical, Laudato Si', a dedicated group of women religious has occupied a special place in the Earth justice movement for decades, working to bridge these various social justice silos that operate as though progress were a zero-sum game.