Patricia Siemen grew up on a family farm in rural Michigan and is an Adrian Dominican Sister. Since completing her undergraduate degree, she has been involved in social justice issues, including working at Network in Washington, D.C. to change public policy. She has served as a community organizer in the African-American and Hispanic communities.
Pat, it is apparent from the description of your work that your life can be seen as a broad and varied journey. What do you think were the first steps that started you on your way?
Well, my three older siblings and I were the children of small farmers near the “Thumb” area of rural Michigan. We were involved in the life of the farm and spent our summers working in the fields, hoeing and helping with other chores. From the time I was small, something that informed me deeply was my love of the land and my father’s simple way of caring for the soil. One of my earliest memories, when I was about 4, was of all of us hoeing beans. Dad called me over to the navy bean rows, crouched down and said, “Come here, Patty, I want to show you something.” There was this little killdeer’s nest and he showed me the eggs with all the spots on them. I still remember that because the next morning Dad was going out to cultivate, with the blades on the front of the tractor, the rows of beans. I pulled on him and said, “Daddy, Daddy. There’s that bird’s nest there. You can’t hurt it.” He said, “Oh, honey, I know where it is. I will just lift the cultivator when I get there.” That memory is still very vivid.
I didn’t realize what a closed community I grew up in until, after attending the local Catholic high school staffed by Adrian Dominicans in the mid 1960’s, I decided to join their Congregation. In those days I saw myself teaching school and wearing a habit for the rest of my life. Little did I understand that my college courses in government, history, political science as well as Liberation Theology would bring about in me a huge paradigm shift. My world opened up and I began to understand that there were huge social justice issues in the wider world. I served as an intern with Network, a Catholic social justice lobby in Washington the summer after I graduated Working in D.C. showed a much broader picture. It really helped me understand the political processes of what happens locally and nationally and demystified the whole political process for me.
These experiences led me to the Masters Program at the LBJ School at the University of Texas, where I studied public affairs and the formulation of public policy. This was also a very formative time for me because I was, for the first time, away from family, friends and community, making my own way into new territory.
Besides being involved with political and policy issues, you also worked as a community activist in the field. Tell us about the work you did.
I worked as a pastoral minister with the Hispanic community in Adrian, Michigan, which included doing community organizing as well. We were involved in the farm worker issues in California and the grape boycotts. I served as a liaison for the national Farm Worker Ministry and made several trips to Oxnard, then the heart of Farm Worker organizing. Shortly afterwards I moved to rural Tennessee to work directly with people who are poor. I worked with another sister in the African-American community in west Tennessee. We did community organizing around various issues such as getting people elected to the City Council and the school board as well as issues before the State Public Service Commission. Some of those issues involved the pricing of phone and utility rates as well as getting park and community development block grant monies. The issues facing poor people were seemingly endless.
While doing community organizing I received the gift of knowing, for the first time, what it was like to be a minority. It was a profound learning experience to find out what it means to be on the “outside.” While we were well received by the African-American community, we were totally cut off by the Caucasian community because of our work. We would go to Church on Sunday with the all-white community and then spend the rest of the week working with the black community. Many of the people in the small parish didn’t want anything to do with us because they thought that we were troublemakers, trying to get the African-American community organized, which is, of course, what we were doing! So it was for me a very foundational experience of racism and the inequities of the power struggle there.
At some point in your career, you decided to go to law school.
Actually, it was while I was in Tennessee that my Congregation asked me if I would go to law school. At that time the Adrian Dominicans wanted some of our members to minister as lawyers — to represent people who are poor and to work in such areas as civil rights, human rights and immigration. It is part of our commitment to justice. I deliberately selected the Law School at Northeastern University in Boston because it is known for training people to be public interest lawyers.
While I was in law school, I also had the opportunity to be out in the field. My experiences as an intern included working for the Department of Justice in the Voting Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division. Because of my background with undoing racism while working in rural Tennessee, I was very interested in seeing that the Voting Rights Act was really being enforced. Because of my work there during the summer, the Voting Rights Section offered me a permanent position. I stayed for two years but left because I felt constrained in accomplishing my professional goals.
Where did you go from there?
I moved to southwest rural Florida as a staff attorney with Florida Rural Legal Services While there I worked with migrant farm workers and did farm labor relations, low-income housing, landlord/tenant issues and other related matters. I was becoming very disenchanted with how little justice the law could actually provide and the slowness of the legal processes. I came to the realization that in my heart I’m a true community organizer. In my heart I want changes in justice made much more quickly than the legal system fosters.
Your journey seemed to make another jog when you became a part of your religious community’s leadership group.
Yes, while I was in Florida the members of the Congregation elected me to the leadership group, first in a regional role and then as a member of the leadership team at our Motherhouse in Adrian, Michigan. During this period, 1988 to 1998, I continued to work on mobilizing and supporting justice while also being exposed to many other areas in which our sisters work, such as the governance of healthcare systems.
It was during these leadership years that I first encountered Thomas Berry. I had known Miriam MacGillis of Genesis Farm for a number of years. She was the one who introduced me to his work. I remember being on vacation and driving to a beach in North Carolina with a set of his tapes, saying, “Let’s listen to this.” The tapes were a direct connection to why I’m working with Earth Jurisprudence. In those tapes Thomas Berry discussed the reality that our governance structures are focused on human perspectives, on human needs and wants, while the rest of the natural world is ignored completely in public policy. Thomas said, “I suspect that if the other species had a vote, they’d vote the human off the Earth.” That was SO profoundly pivotal for me. I was stunned. I had just spent the last 20 plus years working on human injustice issues and I had never, ever, paid attention to what we were doing to the rest of the natural world. I know for a fact that was when the seed was planted.
Were you able to integrate this insight into your work?
I didn’t know at that time what I was going to do with it. However, when I track why I’m doing my present work, it goes back to that moment in 1989. During the time I was involved with congregational leadership, my plate was so full that there really wasn’t time to develop an environmental consciousness. However, I was becoming more ecologically sensitive. For example, I initiated our Congregation’s doing an ecological audit of our properties. As a Congregation, we were starting to take steps to figure out how to live more sustainably.
Is this new awareness what brought you to Sophia Center?
Yes. When I finished up my leadership term in 1998, I was given a year’s sabbatical during which I spent the first three or four months at Rockhaven. I was looking for integration and a shift in consciousness. It was then I applied to the Sophia Center.
How did you first learn about Sophia Center?
I heard about it from Miriam MacGillis but I know we had sisters living in Oakland and several had graduated from the Sophia Center. What I liked about Sophia was that you could do either a sabbatical or degree. As an overachiever,I thought that, if I’m going to be there, I’m going to go for the degree as well. My Congregation approved a year’s study and I found myself in the semester program at Sophia Center. I was seeking mind/body/soul integration. I liked the fact that it took a very embodied approach. By now I was hungry to study more of Thomas Berry and to take courses with Brian Swimme. That was a real plus for me.
At the time you enrolled in the Sophia Program, did you have any idea what you planned to do when you graduated?
Although I knew that I was going to be starting a new path in life, I didn’t know where that path would lead me. I wanted to make sure that, whatever I did, I honored my inner sense and was true to my deepest self. I needed some time to pay attention and figure out what that was. Being at Sophia provided a lot of healing for me, not just personally but it helped me get in touch with the kind of planetary healing that is needed as well. When I was at Sophia Center I experienced a shift in paradigm and consciousness that was a deepening of my ecological consciousness. I started claiming myself as an ecological being. While being a woman is foundational to who I am, I realized that a more primary identity was that I am an ecological being first. This sense of identity profoundly shapes my spirituality, theology and sense of ministry and relationships.
Besides studying Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, what other teachers or classes had a profound impact on you?
One of my favorite teachers was Mary Schmitt. I took two of her courses. One course was called “Mysticism and Science.” It was Mary who introduced me to holistic systems. We also had a course called “Art as Soulwork” with Bernadette Hotze. As an artist Bernadette led us into a process where we each did our own inner work and then expressed it through various artistic media. One of the reasons I wanted to go to Sophia was because I’m very left-brained and I wanted to reach my right brain. The program provided opportunities to do this and I totally loved that.
I also studied with Brian Swimme, taking his “Universe Story” and then his “Earth Story” classes at CIIS. Jim Conlon’s arrangement of the Sophia syllabus as well as the choice of readings for his course provided a great way of learning. If you wanted to really get into and pursue intellectual engagement you could; the program offered a very holistic approach. My year at Sophia prepared me for my future work and influenced the way I approach my teaching, program organizing and way of being with myself.
You said that you didn’t know where your path would lead you when you graduated from Holy Names University.
That’s right, I had no idea. I spent some time with Miriam MacGillis at Genesis Farm that summer exploring my next step. Brainstorming over lunch one day, she put her hand to her forehead and said, “Oh, you’d be perfect!” And I asked, “Be perfect for what?” She repeated, “Oh, you’d be perfect! – as the Director of the Earth Ethics Institute in Miami!” I knew nothing about it. She simply replied, “You look into this. I’m going to call Mac Smith.” That led to an interview. Lo and behold, a couple of months later, I was hired as the Director of the Earth Ethics Institute (EEI) of Miami Dade College, living in Miami!
How long were you there?
Four years and what a great learning experience for me. MacGregor Smith was the founder of the program; like Thomas Berry he is an elder and very visionary man. He believed that, even more than learning the skills to live sustainably, it is necessary to learn to think differently and that was the heart of this program. At the EEI our goal was to infuse an environmental ethic, environmental care, into the multiple areas of study available at the college. We held sessions with the faculty from all disciplines – math, science, English literature, Spanish, ESL, health sciences and other fields. The teachers would write lesson plans, teaching the content of the course through the lens of an environmental ethic. Miami Dade College has eight campuses, a huge operation. My role was to coordinate these educational programs, assist faculty and provide administrative oversight.
What triggered your desire to get more involved with Earth Jurisprudence?
After four years I shifted to work at the Healing the Earth Center at St. Thomas University. As I was working there the Adrian Dominican Sisters had been given a bequest for furthering Catholic education and was requesting submission of proposals.
When I shared this news with Miriam MacGillis, she suggested that I consider moving forward in studying the potential of Earth Jurisprudence. I gathered a small group to explore creating a center that would promote creating legal rights for Earth. Basically, we designed the proposal to create a Center for Earth Jurisprudence that would operate within the then two Catholic law schools in the State of Florida – St. Thomas and Barry Universities. Then the Center was funded!
Did you know Thomas Berry and did you work with him directly on this project?
I’ve had the great privilege of working with Thomas. He became a personal mentor as I established the Center. Once we received funding to start the Center for Earth Jurisprudence (CEJ), I made contact with Thomas and I met with him several times a year until his death in 2009. I loved visiting with him and his sister Margaret. Thomas was very supportive and proud that there actually was an established Center for Earth Jurisprudence in the U.S The fact that he included the Ten Principles for Earth Jurisprudence in one of his last books, Evening Thoughts (2006), was both exciting and reaffirming of the value he placed on these Principles.
“Earth Jurisprudence” is a term that is not familiar to most of us. Could you please give us a basic idea of what it means?
The literal translation of “jurisprudence” is the “wisdom of law.” It is a philosophy of law. Students in law school have the opportunity to take courses in jurisprudence which focus on the different understandings of law, whether it be natural law or other types of law. The term Earth Jurisprudence is meant to identify and promote those laws that Earth evidences through its natural processes. The laws of Nature, i.e. the way Nature operates, need to become the paradigm for how we create the laws of how we self-regulate as a species.
There are many approaches to Earth Jurisprudence. One primary example is the way of the traditional Indigenous Peoples — because they don’t have to write laws to self-regulate themselves. They understand their integral relationship with Earth or Pachamama. They don’t consider the natural world as property but see themselves in relationship with Nature. However, there can be a tendency to romanticize Indigenous Peoples. What Earth jurisprudence teaches is that we in the Western world have to adjust our relationship with Nature so that it reflects our interdependence and interconnectedness with Nature. Our laws reflect the values that societies want to enforce. Today Western laws support the primacy of economics that stress short-term, human-centered values. They are woefully inadequate in protecting the rights of Nature to exist, to flourish and to fulfill its inherent purposes. Rather our environmental laws condone and enforce legal regimes that continue to pollute and extract limitless amounts of resources for short-term profits. We need to regulate ourselves so that we do not burden Earth beyond its carrying capacity. Ideally, we will see the natural world as a sacred reality. We will set norms and laws that protect Nature’s integrity and health for future generations. We need to make sure our understanding of the “public welfare” includes the welfare of the wider Earth community and local eco-systems.
Under our current legal system, we have no appreciation for the long-term impact of our actions. It is all short-term gain. Law and business come out of this model where there’s absolutely no recognition of the relationship that we humans have with the larger whole. There’s no recognition that the rest of the natural world has an inherent right to exist as well as to flourish. Our laws are primarily based on a totally utilitarian way — everything, including other humans with less power, are seen as a resource for ME or for US. Thomas Berry liked to say that the worst thing anyone could ever say is, “You used me!” Well, our current laws primarily reinforce a “use” economy; use for humans without consideration of the needs of other species and eco-systems as well.
How would you define the primary goal for the Center for Earth Jurisprudence?
The Center has a number of goals and platforms. The primary objective is to bring about laws that legally protect the right of Nature to exist and flourish. That means expanding the sense of duty and obligation that humanity owes to the larger Earth community.
Please tell me more about the program at the Center.
In addition to our classes in Earth Jurisprudence, we collaborate with a number of ecological and legal organizations. There is a larger global movement called the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. I just returned from a three day consultation with other thought leaders from across the world who are working on the Rights of Nature movement. The Global Alliance is working to incorporate the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth into various commissions and bodies of the United Nations as well as the Conference on Climate Change (COP17). Others involved in this work are Vandana Shiva (India), Cormac Cullinan (South Africa), Maude Barlow (Canada), the Pachamama Alliance who works with the Indigenous leaders of Bolivia and Ecuador, Thomas Linzey and Mari Margill of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) out of Pennsylvania, and Global Exchange. We support the work of others doing litigation but CEJ does not do litigation at the Barry Law School. The role of CEJ is to educate the next generation of to provide wider legal representation for the natural world. Currently CELDF is the leading organization in the United States actually drafting ordinances and litigating on behalf of Nature’s rights.
Do you feel that the Center for Earth Jurisprudence is making a positive contribution to this shift in consciousness? Does it make a difference with the students?
We have anecdotal stories that would confirm we are making a difference but it is really difficult to know. We are talking about major changes in legal structures, assumptions, premises and values. The breadth of work at the Center is still new. Law students take our courses as electives; their required courses often occupy their first two years. While we may not reach large numbers of people every year, I do think that, just in the coursework alone, we’ve touched the lives of some wonderful people who are going to be great leaders.
I recently interviewed two second-year law students to be a research assistant with me. The student I selected is very bright, skilled and passionate about environmental sustainability. He loves Nature and understands our relationship with it. I love working with him because people like him will take this movement to the next stage of implementations. That’s what gives me hope: the students. One of the biggest challenges is how will they be able to support themselves when they are doing this kind of work. Who pays for it? Who pays to legally protect Earth? Earth is a client who cannot pay in money.
Do you think there’s hope for changing our legal system to reflect the principles of Earth Jurisprudence?
One of my greatest challenges comes from working with the law school faculties at the two schools. Many faculty members are not interested in having the structure of law change. They do not see the cosmological context of the law and how Nature’s destruction affects all areas of the law. They are content to continue to teach the way they always have or to see us as some kind of fringe group. Some can be dismissive of an Earth jurisprudence approach because it seems so theoretical and not practical. They come from a very different paradigm than I do about what has to happen with economics, constitutional law and how we understand property law.
Law is the field that reinforces the tradition — that’s why lawyers are generally known as conservative. Lawyers generally protect the tradition. However, lawyers are also the ones to bring about legal change. We know that law is important, as we have learned from the slavery/Civil Rights and Women’s Right to Vote movements. But change doesn’t happen without huge costs. People and society pay for social and structural change. Yet, law is important. Cormac Cullinan, a white South African, tells the story that the day after the end to legal apartheid there were still as many racists in the country. The difference was that now the pendulum had swung so that racial discrimination was now illegal. That’s the power of law at work in a society.
Those of us working on Earth jurisprudence and furthering the legal consideration of Nature are trying to shift the way of doing law. We are in the belly of the beast. Most of us do not have many illusions about how easily or how quickly this is going to happen, other than the fact that the Universe brings forth its own agenda and its own timing.
So, you believe there is hope?
Honestly, I believe there is hope. I see the growth of the Rights of Nature movement in South Africa, Ecuador, India, Bolivia, Australia, and even in some rural communities in our own U.S. Even if it isn’t realistic, I still have to keep doing what I’m doing, for its time has come. I have to keep doing what I’m doing. I have to keep finding ways to tell the story and especially to engage the younger generations about what they’re facing, to encourage others to be a part of bringing about change. Whether we’re successful or not, I don’t know but we can’t really let that deter us as there is too much at stake.
How do you see your work as part of the continuing, ongoing evolution of Earth? Of the Universe?
I see it probably in the way that Thomas approached it: that the expansion of human consciousness and awareness is certainly a part of the ongoing process of the Co-evolution of the Universe. The more conscious, aware and loving we are as humans, the more it allows the Universe to achieve its goals. This can be seen in the fact that there are pockets of people around the world calling for some kind of legal protection for the rights of Nature. It is very organic and grassroots; it is tied to a deep time understanding of the evolution of the Universe. We in the West, especially in the United States, seem to be the slowest to catch on to this but, to me, that’s a part of Earth’s evolution. I’m also aware that evolutionary processes don’t take place without huge transitions, huge shifts and huge losses of species, life forms and energy. It is the cycle of deconstruction, necessary before there can be the next cycle of creation. That is why, in the end, each of us is an embodied form of evolution and it is each of us who will carry it forward. I believe that it is only when each of us has done our own work to integrate our awareness and unique abilities and has made the personal choice to live with integrity and compassion that Earth has any hope.
If people are interested in your work, what do you suggest they do?
They can go to the website (www.earthjuris.org) and they can contact me at email@example.com, 321-206-5779.
The Center for Earth Jurisprudence has a great new website! It offers some wonderful resources!
Thank you! We’ve just finished creating a new website that just went up. We revamped our prior site, gave it a fresh look and made it a bit more provocative. We’re proud of it.
Any closing thoughts?
My time at Sophia has had a tremendous impact on me both personally and professionally and I’m forever grateful for the ideas we shared and the wonderful, creative people I met there. I see our Center here as another hub of creativity. We’re doing work that no one else is doing in a law school setting. That’s our uniqueness – teaching, speaking, networking, and publishing plus asking the right questions in an effort to shift human consciousness into an ever deeper recognition of our relationship and interdependency with the natural world.
Interview by Mary Alice Dooley