What About MY Environment? –
Incorporating Environmental Justice Issues into Environmental Education
Brian Johnson, M.S. and Tina Fields, Ph.D.
Lesley University / Audubon Expedition Institute
Published in Proceedings of the 31st Annual Conference of the
North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), Boston MA, August 2002
Tuesday, 7-9 pm and Wednesday, 9 am – 5 pm
Take a walking tour with local environmental justice activist/educators in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, and viscerally explore how your environmental education practice can be enriched through incorporating perspectives from the environmental justice movement. Faculty from the Audubon Expedition Institute will guide participants through this process using AEI’s experiential education model, which includes reflection through discussion and other interactive activities.
Using the Audubon Expedition Institute’s fourfold experiential education model (preparation, experience, reflection and application), Johnson and Fields guided NAAEE 2002 workshop participants through a 1-1/2 day workshop to investigate ways to enrich their environmental education (EE) practice through incorporating environmental justice (EJ) perspectives and themes.
Part one of the workshop introduced participants to the principles and history of the EJ movement, the connections between socio-cultural inequity and environmentalism, and local EJ efforts in Boston. The next morning, the group traveled to Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood and took part in a walking tour with representatives of a local EJ organization. Participants learned from a team of youth leaders of color about the community’s self-empowerment to make social and environmental change. In the final section, Johnson and Fields facilitated group reflection on the powerful Roxbury experience. Through interactive activities and discussions, participants collaboratively explored the links between EE and EJ, and ways in which EJ issues can be incorporated into their own education practice.
In the United States, communities of color and low-income communities bear the brunt of our toxic culture. In 1998, for example, the average American was subject to ten pounds of toxic chemical releases per year; however, the average resident of Convent, LA, a mostly African-American community, was exposed to 4,517 pounds. (Motivalli, 1998) These communities have been fighting our toxic legacy for decades, but it is only in recent years that mainstream environmental organizations have begun to recognize and involve activists and educators from the environmental justice (EJ) movement. This has been a slow and difficult process, with both sides examining assumptions and beliefs. We believe that it is necessary for environmental educators on all levels to understand the history and principles of the environmental justice movement, and to incorporate EJ themes into individual practice.
Using the Audubon Expedition Institute’s (AEI) fourfold experiential education model (preparation, experience, reflection and application), we guided NAAEE workshop participants as they explored the connections between socio-cultural inequity and environmental issues, the history of the environmental justice movement, local EJ efforts in Boston, and the influences of the EJ movement on environmental education (EE). Significant emphasis was placed on identifying ways to incorporate environmental justice themes into an environmental education practice. The focal point of the workshop was a walking tour of Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood with youth leaders from a local environmental justice education and advocacy organization.
The facilitators’ intentions for the workshop were:
- To challenge common notions and encourage dialogue about what EE is, who it serves, and why
- To bridge the environmental and social justice movements
- To examine not only cultural and institutional forces that create social and environmental inequities, but also our personal roles in perpetuating them
- To build upon inspiring personal and institutional connections to Roxbury activists.
Principles of Environmental Justice
During the first portion of the workshop, we introduced participants to the environmental justice (EJ) movement. This included lecture on, and discussion of, the connections between socio-cultural inequity and environmental issues; a brief history of the EJ movement; and an overview of local EJ efforts in Roxbury. Due to space limitations, most of this content is not included here, but can be found in the references listed at the end of this paper.
Drawing largely on the life work of EJ scholar and activist Robert Bullard, we believe the following to currently be the major principles of EJ:
- EJ holds the principle that all individuals have a right to be protected from environmental degradation.
- EJ adopts a public-health model of prevention as the preferred strategy, i.e. the Precautionary Principle, eliminating threats before harm occurs.
- EJ shifts the burden of proof from the public to polluters and dischargers.
- EJ recognizes that discrimination does not only result from deliberate targeting, but is also the result of unconscious social structures that need to be examined.
- EJ takes action to remedy these inequities through community empowerment, citizen involvement in decision-making, and enforcing or even revising some laws to ensure protection for all. (Bullard, 1997)
Historians trace the EJ movement back for decades, but note a particular event in Houston as a catalyzing moment. In 1967, an 8-year-old African-American girl drowned in a garbage dump, triggering student protests at a nearby university. These protestors questioned why a garbage dump was sited in the middle of their neighborhood. (Bullard, 1997) While this event generated significant attention, this was not an isolated event.
People of color have always resisted actions by government and private industry that threaten the quality of life in their communities. Until recently, this resistance was largely ignored by policymakers. This activism took place before the first Earth Day in 1970; however, many of these struggles went unnoticed or were defined as merely part of the “modern” environmental movement. (Bullard, 1997)
Bullard’s observation challenges the common notion that Earth Day birthed the environmental movement. It also begs the question of why environmentalists and social justice activists so often view their work as belonging to wholly different spheres, and further, why EJ has similarly been seen as an issue somehow separate from other environmental issues. Our challenge, both as environmental educators and as citizens of the world, is to bring these people and their movements together. One crux may be the limited definition commonly ascribed to “environment.”
The mainstream environmental movement has consistently struggled with its homogeneous demographic. Largely seen as middle-class and white, mainstream environmental organizations have faced criticism from inner-city residents, those of low-income, and people of color. These communities have decried the movement as not being for, or about, them. The “environment,” they charge, is equated only with pristine wilderness, not urban neighborhoods—the habitats of bunnies and mountain lions, not people. “What do I care about some spotted owl?” a welfare mother might say. “I’m worried about dealers hooking my children on drugs, and not getting enough to eat. Environmentalists care more about some tree frog than about my family.”
These critiques have been warranted, and indeed the mainstream environmental movement has taken steps to broaden its constituent base and its environmental focus. Yet more can be done. Thus the title of this workshop, “What about MY Environment?”, along with our attendant emphases on the definition of “environment” and on a critical examination of who holds the power to make decisions and change. Bill Shutkin, co-founder of the Boston-based environmental justice organization Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE) and the author of The Land That Could Be: Environmentalism and Democracy in the Twenty-first Century, asserts that “community and the environment are one and the same.” (Shutkin, 2000) The organization that led the Roxbury walking tour on the second day of the workshop was built upon, and lives out, this principle.
The Toxic Tour: Learning from the Real Experts
In part two of the workshop, participants traveled to Roxbury to take part in a walking tour of the neighborhood with representatives of a local environmental justice organization, the Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project (REEP), an educational arm of ACE. Participants learned from a team of youth leaders of color about local residents’ efforts to empower themselves to make social change, revitalize community infrastructure, fight industrial polluters, monitor air quality, and demand quality public transportation services. REEP’s “toxic tour,” as it is dubbed, is a powerful experience. The youth leaders have been working with REEP for as many as four years, and they attribute their newfound eloquence in public speaking and confidence in themselves to this work.
The community’s EJ work has faced considerable odds. Midnight dumping of hazardous wastes frequently occurred in burned-out empty lots. Twenty percent of the neighborhood contains contaminated brownfields from industry. These waste sites, often near day care centers and homes, are poisonous brews of such toxins as lead, chromium, mercury, asbestos, arsenic and benzene. Nearly every street has at least one confirmed case of childhood lead poisoning from contaminated soil or water, or old paint. Fourteen bus and truck depots are located and 1100 diesel vehicles are housed within a one mile radius in Roxbury; most of these public buses do not serve local residents. Additionally, Roxbury boasts the state’s highest rate of asthma hospitalization—five times the Massachusetts average. The area is 90% African-American, Hispanic, and Cape Verdean.
From the REEP teenagers, we learned how the neighborhood has rallied to make environmental change. For example, REEP initiated a campaign to enforce the city’s idling law, which prohibits buses from idling for more than five minutes. The area also now has its own air monitoring station.
Listening to the powerful words of these young people, workshop participants began to understand how working on environmental issues has united the neighborhood’s diverse population. In his book, Shutkin notes that one of the great lessons Roxbury teaches is that this sort of grassroots action is what builds democracy. (Shutkin, 2000) The community-centered aspect is a keystone of this environmental justice work; it cannot be handed down from outside by some “expert” who thinks she or he knows best. Instead, ordinary people must actively participate in decisions that affect their lives.
“I know that it’s possible to change the world,” asserts Stanley Wiggins, a young African-American man and REEP intern, “because I already have.”
Community Plus Environment; Advocacy Plus Education
Bullard defines EJ as embracing “the principle that all people and communities are entitled to equal protection of our environmental, health, employment, housing, transportation, and civil rights laws.” (Bullard, 1997) Indeed, much of the EJ movement has been largely rooted in legal action. REEP itself is an offshoot of ACE (Alternatives for Community and Environment), an organization focusing on legal advocacy work.
Yet the movement has not stopped there. REEP, for example, has worked to incorporate EJ into both advocacy and education. Workshop participants, as well, began exploring the implications of environmental justice on their EE practice.
In the workshop’s final section, we facilitated group reflection on the Roxbury experience, engaged participants in discussion about the links between environmental education and environmental justice, and discussed initial ideas for incorporating environmental justice issues into EE practice. A sampling of these emerging ideas includes engaging long-term neighborhood residents as local environmental experts to bring into their classrooms; asking students to critically reflect on the health of their own environments, both outside and inside; and examining our own patterns of consumption, which may be adding to environmental and social degradation.
In all of these examples, several key questions were raised: How does my definition of “environment” affect how I teach environmental education? How do I assess the needs of and include the local community in my environmental education practice? What structural forces inhibit the environmental justice movement and subtly limit my EE practice? How can I use EJ issues to help students connect to their home place?
We feel these questions, inspired by participant comments, are excellent focal points for any educator beginning to incorporate EJ issues into EE.
Defining Environmental Justice: A Systems Question
In designing this workshop, the facilitators grappled with the question of scope. In other words, should the definition of EJ be expanded beyond its current focus on human beings and environmental health, and attendant inequality in our laws? Or is EJ fundamentally an expansion of deep ecology, with social justice as its historical roots?
In this workshop, we focused almost exclusively on EJ as a human-centered phenomenon, realizing that the connection between threats to our own health and the presence of unnecessary environmental toxins can be one of the most powerful motivators for social/environmental activism and change. Expanding the definition of EJ to include equal rights for all beings to a toxic-free life could threaten the movement’s immediate power to affect people emotionally.
However, the question still remains, as many other species are also feeling the brunt of our actions. Beluga whales are developing cancerous tumors just as people are; sea turtles are being blinded by horrific growths near their eyes; jokes about “three-eyed fish” near nuclear reactors have become part of our watercooler culture. In a closed system of air, earth and water, how limited should our thinking about environmental justice be?
So we leave the reader (and our workshop participants) with the following questions for further reflection, and our hope that the dialogue about environmental justice and environmental education continues to grow, helping us to challenge our own perspectives as well as our own actions that contribute to environmental threats and injustice.
For Further Reflection
- If we were to think systemically about environmental justice and toxins, how far should we go? Should the EJ movement encompass all beings?
- How can EJ be a vital part of multicultural education?
- How does my own pattern of consumption contribute to the problem of environmental toxins? What are some ways in which I can change these patterns?
- Where should the EJ movement go from here?
Workshop Readings & Reference List
Bullard, Robert D, and Beverly Wright (Eds.). Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. Boston: South End Press, 1993.
Bullard, Robert D. (Ed.). Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1997.
Hofrichter, Richard (Ed.). Toxic Struggles: The Theory and Practice of Environmental Justice. Philadelphia: New Society, 1993.
McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Peace and Freedom, July/August 1989:10-12.
Motavalli, Jim. “Toxic Targets.” E Magazine, July/August 1998:28-43.
Riley, Kathleen C. “Surviving ‘Survivor’ in the Marquesas.” Anthropology News, May 2002:6.
Shutkin, William A. The Land That Could Be: Environmentalism and Democracy in the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.
United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. “Principles of Environmental Justice (EJ).” First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, 1991. Available on web: http://www.ejnet.org/ej/platform.html