Providing opportunities for students of color to explore
the outdoors and science careers
Text and photos by Sprinavasa Brown
recall the high school science teacher who doubted my capacity to succeed in advanced biology, the pre-med advisers who pointed my friend Dr. Kellianne Richardson and me away from their program and discouraged us from considering a career in medicine – biased advice given under the guise of truth and tough love.
I remember only three classes with professors of color in my four years at college, only one of whom was a woman. We needed to see her, to hold faith that as women of color, we were good enough, we were smart enough to be there. We were simply enough, and we had so much to contribute to medicine, eager to learn, to improve and to struggle alongside our mostly White peers at our private liberal arts college.
These are the experiences that led Kellianne and me to see the need for more spaces set aside for future Black scientists, for multi-hued Brown future environmentalists.
The story of Camp ELSO (Experience Life Science Outdoors) started with our vision. We want Black and Brown children to access more and better experiences than we did, experiences that help them see their potential in science, that prepare them for the potentially steep learning curve that comes with declaring a science major. We want Black and Brown kids to feel comfortable in a lab room, navigating a science library, and advocating for themselves with faculty and advisers. We hope to inspire their academic pursuits by laying the foundation with curiosity and critical thinking.
Creating a sense of belonging
Camp ELSO’s Wayfinders program is our main program for youths in kindergarten through sixth grade. What began as a programmatic response to our community needs assessment – filling the visible gap in accessible, affordable, experiential science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs for young Black and Brown children – quickly grew into a refuge space for youth of greater Portland. Wayfinders is all about creating a safe uplifting and affirming space for youth to engage in learning around four key areas: life science, ecology, community and cultural history. While our week-long sessions include field trip sites similar to many mainstream environmental education programs, our approach is sharply focused on grounding the youth experience in environmental justice while elevating the visibility and leadership opportunities for folks of color.
We are creating a special place for Black and Brown youth to have transformative experiences, to create memories that we hope will stick with them until adulthood. Creating such a space comes with difficulties, the type of challenges that force our leadership to make tough decisions that we believe will yield the best outcomes for youth underrepresented in STEM fields. For instance, how to mitigate the undertones of colonization, nationalism, and co-opting of traditional knowledge – harmful practices ingrained in mainstream environmental education.
To do so, we invest in training young adults of color to lead as camp guides. We provide resources to support them in developing the skills necessary to engage youth of diverse ethnicities, backgrounds, socioeconomic status and family structure. Our guides practice taking topics and developing discussion questions and lesson plans that are relevant and engaging. We know that the more our staff represents the communities we serve, the closer we get to ensuring that Camp ELSO programming is responsive to the needs of children of color, authentic to their lived experience, and is a reflection of the values of our organization and community.
In 2019 nearly 100 children of color from greater Portland will participate in Camp ELSO’s Wayfinders program over spring and summer break, spending over 40 hours in a week-long day camp engaging in environmental STEM learning and enjoying the outdoors. We reach more children and families through our community outreach events like “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day: Women of Color Panel” and “Endangered Species Day: Introduction to Youth Activism.”
The most critical aspects of our Wayfinders program happens even before we welcome a single child through our doors. With the intent of purifying the air and spirit, we smudge with cedar and sage to prepare the space. When a child shows up, they are greeted by name. We set the tone for the day with yoga and affirmations to the sounds of Stevie Wonder and Yemi Alade as we strive to expose our kids to global music from diverse cultures.
We have taken the time to ask parents thoughtful questions in the application process to help us prepare to welcome their child to our community. We have painstakingly selected what we feel is a balanced, blended group of eager young minds from diverse ethnic backgrounds: Black, Latinx, the children of immigrants, multi and biracial children of various ethnicities, fuego and magic. Our children come from neighborhoods across Portland and its many suburbs. They come from foster care, single-parent households, affluent homes, homes where they are adopted into loving and beautifully blended families, strong and proud Black families, and intergenerational households with active grandmas and aunties. Consistent with every child and every household is an interest and curiosity around STEM, a love of nature and the outdoors.
The children arrive full of potential and the vitality of youth. Some are shy, and nerves are visible each morning. By the end of the week we’ve built trust and rapport with each of them, we’ve sat in countless circles teaching them our values based in Afrocentric principles, values selected by previous camp guides representing the youth voice that actively shapes the camp’s culture.
On our way to more distant Metro sites like Blue Lake and Oxbow regional parks and Quamash Prairie, we play DJ in the van. Each kid who wants to has an opportunity to share their favorite song with the group, and if you know the words, you’d better belt it out. We share food and pass around snacks while some children rest and others catch up with old friends. Many more are deep in conversation forging new friendships.
When we arrive, we remind the kids of what is expected of them. We have no doubts that each and every child will respect the land and respect our leaders. The boundaries are clear, and our expectations for them don’t change when problems arise. We hold them to the highest standards, regardless of their life situation. We respect, listen, and embrace who they are.
We are often greeted by Alice Froehlich, a Metro naturalist. Our kids know Alice, and the mutual trust, respect and accountability we have shared over the last three years has been the foundation to create field trips that cater to the needs of our blended group – and oh, it is a beautiful group.
At Oxbow, we are also greeted by teen leaders from the Oregon Zoo’s ZAP (Zoo Animal Presenters) program. These teens of color join us each year for what always ends up being a highlight of the week: playing in the frigid waters of the Sandy River, our brown skin baking under the hot summer sun, music in the background and so much laughter. Like family, we enjoy one another’s company.
Then we break into smaller groups and head into the ancient forest. Almost immediately the calm of the forest envelopes our youth. The serenity that draws us to nature turns our group of active bodies into quieted beings content to listen, observe, respond and reflect. It doesn’t take much for them to find their rhythm and adjust to nature’s pace. Similarly, when we kayak the Tualatin River or canoe the Columbia Slough, they are keen to show their knowledge of local plants and taking notice as the occasional bird comes into view. We learn as much from them as we do from our guides.
These are the moments that allow Camp ELSO’s participants to feel welcome, not just to fit in but to belong. To feel deeply connected to the earth, to nature and to community.
Encouragement for my community
As a Black environmental educator I’m always navigating two frames of view. One is grounded in my Americanness, the other is grounded in my Blackness, the lineage of my people from where I pull my strength and affirm my birthright. I wear my identities with pride, however difficult it can be to navigate this world as a part of two communities, two identities. One part of me is constantly under attack from the other that is rife with nationalism, anti-Brownness, and opposition toward the people upon whose lives and ancestry this country was built.
I am a descendant of African people and the motherland. I’m deeply connected to the earth as a descendant of strong, free, resilient and resourceful Black people. The land is a part of me, part of who I am. My ancestors toiled, and they survived, they lived off, they cultivated, and they loved the land.
As a black woman, my relationship with the land and its bounty is a part of my heritage. It’s in my backyard garden, where I grow greens from my great-grandmother’s seeds passed down to me from my mother, who taught me how to save, store and harvest them. Greens from the motherland I was taught to cook by my Sierra Leonean, Rwandese and Jamaican family – aunties and uncles I’ve known as my kin since I was a child. It’s in the birds that roam my backyard, short bursts and squawks as my children chase them. The land is in the final jar my mother canned last summer when the harvest was good, and she had more tomatoes than we could eat after sharing with her church, neighbors and family.
Our connection to the land was lost through colonization, through the blanket of whiteness that a culture and set of values instilled upon us all as westerners living on stolen Indigenous land and working in systems influenced by one dominant culture. Our sacred connection with outdoor spaces was lost as laws set aside the “great outdoors” as if it were for White men only. These laws pushed us from our heritage and erased the stories of our forefathers, forgetting that the Buffalo Soldiers were some of the first park rangers, that the movement for justice was first fought by Black and Brown folks.
We grew our own food before our land was stripped away. We lived in harmony with the natural world before our communities were destroyed, displaced or forcibly relocated. We were healthy and thriving when we ate the food of our ancestors, before it was co-opted and appropriated. We must remember and reclaim this relationship for ourselves and for our children.
We are trying to do this with Camp ELSO, starting with our next generation. Children have the capacity to bring so much to environmental professions that desperately need Black and Brown representation. These professions need the ideas, innovations and solutions that can only come from the lived experiences of people of color. Children of color can solve problems that require Indigenous knowledge, cultural knowledge and knowledge of the African Diaspora. We want to give kids learning experiences that are relevant in today’s context, as more people become aware of racial equity and as the mainstream environmental movement starts to recognize historical oppression of people of color.
We need more spaces for Black and Brown children to see STEM professionals who are relatable through shared experiences, ethnicity, culture and history. We need spaces that allow Black children to experience the outdoors in a majority setting with limited influence of Whiteness – not White people but Whiteness – the dominant culture and norms that influence almost every aspect of our lives.
Camp ELSO is working to be that space. We aren’t there yet. We are on our own learning journey, and it comes with constant challenges and a need to continuously question, heal, build and fortify our own space.
Sprinavasa Brown is the co-founder and executive director of Camp ELSO. She also serves on Metro’s Public Engagement Review Committee and the Parks and Nature Equity Advisory Committee.
Advice for White Environmentalists and Nature Educators
by Sprinavasa Brown
I often hear White educators ask “What should I do?” expressing an earnest desire to move beyond talking about equity and inclusion to wanting action steps toward meaningful change.
I will offer you my advice as a fellow educator. It is both a command and a powerful tool for individual and organizational change for those willing to shift their mindset to understand it, invest the time to practice it and hold fast to witness its potential.
The work of this moment is all about environmental justice centered in social justice, led by the communities most impacted by the outcomes of our collective action. It’s time to leverage your platform as a White person to make space for the voice of a person of color. It’s time to connect your resources and wealth to leaders from underrepresented communities so they can make decisions that place their community’s needs first.
If you have participated in any diversity trainings, you are likely familiar with the common process of establishing group agreements. Early on, set the foundation for how you engage colleagues, a circumspect reminder that meaningful interpersonal and intrapersonal discourse has protocols in order to be effective. I appreciate these agreements and the principles they represent because they remind us that this work is not easy. If you are doing it right, you will and should be uncomfortable, challenged and ready to work toward a transformational process that ends in visible change.
I want you to recall one such agreement: step up, step back, step aside.
That last part is where I want to focus. It’s a radical call to action: Step aside! There are leaders of color full of potential and solutions who no doubt hold crucial advice and wisdom that organizations are missing. Think about the ways you can step back and step aside to share power. Step back from a decision, step down from a position or simply step aside. If you currently work for or serve on the board of an organization whose primary stakeholders are from communities of color, then this advice is especially for you.
Stepping aside draws to attention arguably the most important and effective way White people can advance racial equity, especially when working in institutions that serve marginalized communities. To leverage your privilege for marginalized communities means removing yourself from your position and making space for Black and Brown leaders to leave the margins and be brought into the fold of power.
You may find yourself with the opportunity to retire or take another job. Before you depart, commit to making strides to position your organization to hire a person of color to fill the vacancy. Be outspoken, agitate and question the status quo. This requires advocating for equitable hiring policies, addressing bias in the interview process and diversifying the pool with applicants with transferable skills. Recruit applicants from a pipeline supported and led by culturally specific organizations with ties to the communities you want to attract, and perhaps invite those community members to serve on interview panels with direct access to hiring managers.
As an organizational leader responsible for decisions related to hiring, partnerships and board recruitment, I have made uncomfortable, hard choices in the name of racial equity, but these choices yield fruitful outcomes for leaders willing to stay the course. I’ve found myself at crossroads where the best course forward wasn’t always clear. This I have come to accept is part of my equity journey. Be encouraged: Effective change can be made through staying engaged in your personal equity journey. Across our region we have much work ahead at the institutional level, and even more courage is required for hard work at the interpersonal level.
In stepping aside you create an opportunity for a member of a marginalized community who may be your colleague, fellow board member or staff member to access power that you have held.
White people alone will not provide all of the solutions to fix institutional systems of oppression and to shift organizational culture from exclusion to inclusion. These solutions must come from those whose voices have not been heard. Your participation is integral to evolving systems and organizations and carrying out change, but your leadership as a White person in the change process is not.
The best investment we can make for marginalized communities is to actively create and hold space for leaders of color at every level from executives to interns. Invest time and energy into continuous self-reflection and selfevaluation. This is not the path for everyone, but I hope you can see that there are a variety of actions that can shift the paradigm of the environmental movement. If you find yourself unsure of what action steps best align with where you or your organization are at on your equity journey, then reach out to organizations led by people of color, consultants, and leaders and hire them for their leadership and expertise. By placing yourself in the passenger seat, with a person of color as the driver, you can identify areas to leverage your privilege to benefit marginalized communities.
Finally, share an act of gratitude. Be cognizant of opportunities to step back and step aside and actively pursue ways to listen, understand and practice empathy with your colleagues, community members, neighbors and friends.
Camp ELSO is an example of the outcomes of this advice. Our achievements are most notable because it is within the context of an organization led 100 percent by people of color from our Board of Directors to our seasonal staff. This in the context of a city and state with a history of racial oppression and in a field that is historically exclusively White.
We began as a community-supported project and are growing into a thriving community-based organization successfully providing a vital service for Black and Brown youths across the Portland metro area. The support we have received has crossed cultures, bridged the racial divide and united partners around our vision. It is built from the financial investments of allies – public agencies, foundations, corporations and individuals. I see this as an act of solidarity with our work and our mission, and more importantly, an act of solidarity and support for our unwavering commitment to racial equity.
Brave with Braids
Empowering young female voices
By Jennifer Allen
uthor Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words have been echoing in my head recently; “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller, we say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much.’ ‘You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you would threaten the man.’” Up until five years ago, I was that small girl. I strongly believed that I could not learn. I went through school without faith in my abilities in math or science, and history and language felt irrelevant. Fortunately, when I attended college, I met a few professors who provided me with life altering experiences, and my attitude towards learning completely changed. My new love of learning fueled my way through my undergraduate degree in education. After graduation, I spent three years teaching fifth grade science, hoping to inspire the same love of learning. Today, I am working towards my Masters in Science Education, somewhere I never dreamed I would be academically. I am a part of a unique program through the University of Washington called Education for Environment and Community at IslandWood, an outdoor school on Bainbridge Island, WA. I take classes and teach students who come from the Seattle area and stay for nearly a week to learn about science, stewardship, and teamwork.
There is a stark difference between classroom teaching and where I am now. Breaking down the classroom walls and teaching in the natural world means that I get to spend my days exploring the forest, wetlands, and shoreline with students, looking for magical teaching moments and providing lessons in the context of the content. What I didn’t anticipate is how much I would miss building strong relationships with students over the course of a year. I miss watching their growth, coaching them through arguments they would get in with friends, and being a shoulder for them to cry on when things didn’t feel safe at home. During my first few weeks teaching at IslandWood, I contemplated if I was making any lasting impact in such a short time spent with the students. Just when I had decided that I could make a bigger difference elsewhere, I met a girl who changed my mind.
In my group that week were four girls, most of whom were incredibly soft-spoken, and five boys, most of whom were loud and opinionated. Where the boys scribbled down answers to reflection questions and quickly returned to exploring or joking around with each other, the girls took their time, answering thoughtfully and with perfect, petite handwriting. When a question was posed to the group, the boys were quick to raise their hands or shout out answers, while the girls either avoided eye contact or hesitantly put their hands in the air. It was troubling how quick the girls were to step back and let the spotlight shine on the boys of the group, and how happy the boys were to bask in it. This confidence gap became most apparent with Maddie*, a small girl in a bright pink raincoat with her hair pulled back in two neat braids.
The first time her confidence, or lack thereof, was brought to my attention was on our way down to Blakely Harbor, about a mile and a half away from IslandWood’s main campus. Each team member had a role to fill on our way down the hill. Maddie was a “Navigator” along with Nate*, a highly eloquent and confident boy. Maddie had communicated with me early on that she did not like to speak in front of groups of her peers, so when she volunteered to be a Navigator, I was delightfully surprised. Armed with their maps and a compass, they started to lead the way, as I walked a few strides behind them with the rest of the group. Nate’s friend Mateo*, an equally confident and even more outspoken boy, decided he would help the pair in finding their way to the harbor. We reached a split in the trail, the trio paused, and the two boys loudly proclaimed we needed to go to the left. Maddie disagreed quietly as the boys took off. She had an idea of which way to go with evidence to back it up, but did not have the confidence to share it with her male peers.
I was once a lot like Maddie. I lacked confidence in my ideas and in my ability to contribute them to a group. As I read Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap by Peggy Orenstein, I was frequently faced with memories of my past; my development as a young woman was reflected in the stories of many of the 8th grade girls with whom Orenstein spent time over the course of a year. I was reminded of my lack of confidence, my need to be well-liked, and my fear of making mistakes, especially in public. I was also reminded of many students from my three years in the classroom. Daily, it was made clear that there was a discrepancy between the boys and girls when it comes to academic self confidence. Orenstein described this accurately when she states, “For a girl, the passage into adolescence is not just marked by a menarche or a few new curves. It is marked by a loss of confidence in herself and her abilities, especially in math and science.” (1994, p. xx)
Troubled by the evidence of the confidence gap in my personal and professional experience as well as in my research, I reflected on how I got myself to graduate school coming from the days of making myself small and believing that I could not learn. I started to wonder where I gained my current, sometimes-wavering, but much higher sense of confidence. Slowly, I began to realize that my most influential moments were those spent outdoors. I found confidence deep on the rainforest floor, high up in the misty cloud forest, on the tops of frigid mountains, in the eyes of bats, and the flippers of sea turtles. It took until college for me to experience science in a way that was accessible, in a place we can all feel a connection: the natural world.
According to the Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation survey done in 2009, only 24% of the STEM careers in the United States are filled by women (2011). Women are underrepresented in these fields because we, as teachers and parents, fail to provide girls with an accessible science and math education. Giving girls a meaningful, natural, scientific experience at the prime time for their coming into womanhood will plant a seed that, with the right amount of nurturing, can grow into a gloriorious bloom of self love, determination, and confidence in science.
This started to become clear to me during my week with Maddie and her classmates. After several minutes of reluctance, she eventually spoke up about which way the harbor was. The boys finally listened to her and decided to try it out. When it was clear that they were leading us the correct way, Maddie beamed. I watched her closely throughout the week as she began to participate, get her hands dirty, and shamelessly and aggressively participate in science.
Her new confidence began to leak into other areas. When the boys were loudly playing the piano in the art studio the next day, I saw her staring longingly in their direction. “Can you play?” I asked. She nodded shyly, as if she knew what I was going to say next; “Let’s hear it!” After many shakes of her head and encouragement from me, including a reminder of the navigation event the day before, she agreed to play a song and blew us all away with the beautiful tune. The climax of the entire week came on the last night, when she sang a song all by herself in front of over 100 other students at community campfire. She was extraordinarily nervous and insistent that she wouldn’t end up performing. When she got on stage and started to sing, tears filled my eyes. Here was a young girl that came to IslandWood on Monday, reluctant to talk in front of her eight other group members, putting herself in one of the most vulnerable positions a fifth grader can be in. I watched Maddie steadily feel more comfortable with science as she engaged in hands-on, approachable activities and team building.
At IslandWood and in similar programs, there is a focus not only on the sciences, but on building a safe community. Between countless team building opportunities and honest and explicit discussions on kindness, empathy, and emotional and physical safety we create an environment that allows students to feel comfortable to take risks and make mistakes. This space allows girls to begin to engage scientifically, and Maddie is not the only girl in whom I have seen this growth.
More recently, I had a group of five girls and seven boys. Like Maddie’s group, most of the girls were timid to participate in discussions, and most of the boys had more to say than we had time to hear. On Tuesday morning, we had a discussion to debrief an activity called Each One Teach One, where each student takes turns teaching the other students about a plant found on IslandWood property. The students had a chance to reflect on the discussion questions beforehand by answering them in their field journals. The first question was, “What was it like to be a teacher?” The students were encouraged to call on each other and they did so by whose hand was up. Every student with their hand up had the chance to share. Five of the twelve students responded, with 100% of the responses coming from males. Not a single female raised her hand to contribute.
We focused a lot that week on team building and productive discussions, and it paid off. I watched as the girls gradually opened up more to each other, the group, and me. Our two navigators for our Wednesday Harbor trip were both females who started the week off not at all friends, but had their arms around each other’s shoulders by the time we go to the harbor. When we were exploring the nutrient cycle, it was mostly the girls who dug their hands deep into the compost and fearlessly breathed in the scent of decomposition. On Thursday morning before the students left, we had one last group discussion. I posed the question, “What can you do after IslandWood to continue practicing stewardship?” This time, there were 22 total student responses, 64% of which were from males (who made up 58% of the group) and 36% from females (who made up 42% of the group.) Every student responded verbally, and four students responded in writing. After they had left, I sat down to read the feedback the group had left for me. One of the questions was, “What was one thing I taught you?” Atari*, the most quiet of the girls, the one who needed the most encouragement to share her ideas, wrote, “You taught me that my voice matters.”
I have only been teaching at IslandWood for a short amount of time, but I have learned that I can make a difference in students’ lives in just four short days. I’ve seen many girls, and even some boys, go from keeping their eyes on the ground and standing aside to getting their hands dirty. I’ve seen them go from speaking in near whispers to getting excited about science. Seeing these incredible changes take place never fails to fill my heart. We need to teach boys to share the spotlight and encourage girls to shine. We need to provide an accessible science education for girls if we want to live in a society where all genders share the responsibility of caring for the environment and moving forward through the STEM fields.
Adichie, C.N. (2012, November). We should all be feminists [Video file]. Retrieved from
Beede, D. N., Julian, T. A., Langdon, D., McKittrick, G., Khan, B., & Doms, M. E. (2011). Women in STEM: A gender gap to innovation.
Orenstein, P., & American Association of University Women (1994). Schoolgirls: Young women, self-esteem, and the confidence gap.
Urban Schools and Environment Education
by Alison Swain
IslandWood Graduate Student/ Field Instructor
his past fall, an IslandWood instructor gave me the
advice that a teacher can only take her students from the
place they are coming from. Through weeks of teaching environmental education to students from public and private elementary schools across the Seattle area and Washington peninsula, I thought little about this statement. Instead, I focused on the prescribed curriculum. Perhaps I did more team building with one group and in-depth water quality with another; but ultimately, the curriculum and content was on par for each group. This past week, teaching seven students from an under-resurced, urban elementary school, environmental education as I had practiced it stopped dead in its tracks. Or so I thought.
After receiving the Friday morning briefing establishing the elementary school’s lack of organization, structure for students, and underserved background, I acquiesced that I may not hit “Nature’s ABC’s” the first day. I did not anticipate one student planting himself outside the Gear Room, head buried in his knees, refusing to move or even voice his concerns for a half an hour. I did not anticipate the ingrained reaction of five of my seven students to shut down (no movement, no verbal communication, no eye contact) when they experienced emotional, physical, or personal discomfort. I did not anticipate the silence of a solo hike to be a poignant teachable moment or the game of camouflage to be a revolutionary way to experience nature. I certainly did not anticipate the impact of a single salamander.
At the end of a week characterized by the challenge of melding my teaching to situations previously unanticipated, I was left with several questions for reflection. The first: “Is the game of camouflage environmental education?” In terms of meeting my students where they were coming from, the answer is most certainly, yes. Seeing all seven of my students run without hesitation into the woods, which were previously full of bugs, discomfort, dirt, and fear, to hide became my most effective means of encouraging my students to get into the nature. When I tried to relate the game to animal adaptations, a student immediately chimed in, “Like what?” As we discussed and they discovered and named several adaptations of local animals, I knew I had them engaged and thinking about the natural world.
At one point in the week, I thought to myself, “It is a good thing that community is part of our mission statement because I do not know how much my students are learning about the environment.” Reconsidering the definition of environment and the successful movements that are changing the ways Americans and industries use resources, I realized that creating community is a necessary component of environmental education. The interconnectedness of the community of our team and the natural world became clear when we stumbled upon a salamander while hiking along the side of the Marsh. Some of my students stared, surprised and awed by the creature. Others pushed and reached to pick it up. The reachers and pushers calmed as we quietly observed the salamander’s behaviors and discussed its habitat. Finally, we talked about whether we should pick up the salamander. My students came to a group consensus that we should not. It was my turn to stand by, awed by the deep sense of care and blooming connection to the natural world as my students watched, unmoving, the salamander slowly lope off the trail to find cover. The last boy to pass the spot where the salamander had hidden delicately poured water from his water bottle near the spot, so that, as he told me, the salamander could find water to keep his skin moist. Our team’s salamander moment is just one example of the profound power of a community committed to caring for each other and the environment.
As the week continued, I encouraged each of my students to look outside of herself and take into account the greater whole by teaching my students through natural consequences about the choices they have and how those choices affect the entire group. At different times that greater whole was the salamander at the Marsh, ecosystems we studied, and our team. Empowering my students with the idea that they had choices and asking them to use these choices throughout the week taught them an extremely important element of environmental education: each person possesses the power to choose his path and that path effects the natural world and human communities.
For the final activity of our week together, I revisited a blindfold walk as a lead-in to a short solo hike. At the end of the solo hike, students were to write a letter to themselves recounting what they had felt, learned, and loved about their week at IslandWood. As each student walked down the path silently stopping at each solo hike card to consider the statement or question, I knew that these students had connected to the environment around them. Simply by being comfortable walking alone on the trail, they had absorbed many of the lessons of the week. At the end of the solo hike, as students went off-trail to find their own space to write their letter, I witnessed yet another success. These students had attained a level of comfort with their natural surroundings. At the beginning of the week, my students were afraid, uncomfortable and seemingly out of their element. Today, they had learned that moving silently was often rewarded by an awe-inspiring moment of witnessing an animal in its environment. On the final day, this moment entailed observations of a pileated woodpecker at work on a snag and for over half my group, a mention of the salamander as something they will always remember.
As for myself, I was finally forced to consider the advice others had given me. I learned to meet my students where they were coming from and find a balance, an understanding, where we all could engage in our environment for the week.
Allison Swain is a field instructor and graduate student living and teaching environmental education at IslandWood’s campus on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
How Environmental Education Can Address Issues of Environmental Justice in Urban Settings
by Anjelique Hjarding, Alicia King and Belinda Chin
• Environmental injustice occurs when the most vulnerable, poor, minority or underserved populations carry the greatest burden of environmental risk by living in “undesirable” areas.
• Environmental education can provide an opportunity to connect people to nature even in urban areas, and help empower people to mitigate environmental issues.
• Addressing the challenges of environmental justice through the support of environmental education programs can help engage people in actions to improve their environment.
• As citizens engage in environmental education and action bringing positive changes in their communities, they become more empowered to take future actions to further improve their environment.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) environmental justice is defined as, “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”Environmental injustice occurs when the most vulnerable populations carry the greatest burden of environmental risk. Environmental justice seeks to create environmental equity and address issues of environmental racism and inequalities that are the result of human settlement and industrial development. Scholars have explored the topic of environmental justice on both applied and theoretical levels. From examining the geographic distribution of toxins (Lewis & Bennett, 2013) to equitable allocation of green space (Boone et al., 2009) to the debate over how to define environmental racism, there tends to be a pattern of environmental injustice suggesting that minorities and poor people are those that live in areas considered “undesirable.”
Many of the urban communities we work with are touched daily by environmental injustices. Landfills, interstates and train lines are most often located in close proximity to low-income minority neighborhoods. These areas often have reduced access to natural amenities and green space is often distributed by socio-economic lines (Agyeman & Evans, 2003). As educators, how can we work to bring environmental justice education to the forefront?
Environmental justice issues have a history of being excluded from environmental education study (Haluza-Delay, 2012). This can occur because educators lack an understanding of environmental justice or the politics of the education system dissuades teaching on controversial topics related to race and injustice. Environmental education can provide an opportunity to connect people to nature and can help empower them to actively address environmental issues. In fact, the North American Association for Environmental Education suggests that diversity and justice should be a top priority in environmental education, and that more progress should be done in this area.
Students in the urban environment can often experience a disconnect between themselves and the natural world and may not notice their direct impacts on the environment. Lessons focused on issues such as the carbon footprint allow students to visualize their impact on the environment and will help make the issue relevant.
Seattle: Race and social justice initiative
In 2002, the City of Seattle launched its Race and Social Justice initiative, and Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation (Parks) began an Environmental Stewardship Initiative. The Race and Social Justice is Seattle’s effort to focus on the roots of problems – to change the underlying system that creates and preserves inequities – rather than attempt to treat the symptoms (Seattle, 2008). Seattle City Hall acknowledged the need to expose institutionalized racism and expunge discriminatory municipal policies, procedures and practices overall; and Parks wanted to equitably serve more people, more often in the public green spaces where people live, work and play.
In 2014, residents of a historically diverse, working class Seattle neighborhood applied for a grant from the Department of Neighborhoods to pay for an environmental assessment and design for a bike trail in a public green space imbedded within a residential area. The Parks Board of Commissioners approved the project early in the year. No one had proposed a recreational use in a public green space before. In fact, there were no policies to refer to regarding uses of public green spaces. By summer, advocates and opponents of the mountain bike trail were vying for time to speak to city council members about their points of view.
The story, as reported by the local newspaper, The Seattle Times, presented points of view that, intentionally or not, perpetuated historic social constructs (Shellenberger & Nordhaus, 2007). These included: conflicts between whites and people of color concerning uses of parklands, “people are not a part of nature,” and people of color not having access to nature unless they are working in it. Those interviewed for the article were all white residents of the area. A photograph with the story showed a white male leading a work group in the green space consisting only of youth of color (Photo 1). However, there were no direct quotes given by youth of color in the article. Imagine the empowering potential of environmental education if used in this situation as a tool to facilitate discussion for better understanding and clarity of the issues among the various stakeholders.
Both opponents and advocates of the project used environmental justice to make their arguments to City Council. Opponents claimed the mountain bike trail would “exclude all but the able-bodied,” with a neighbor quoted as saying (Seattle Times, July 28, 2014): “We’re talking about young, white male energy. This is public land. This is a social justice issue.” Advocates for the bike trail said, “…[it] would give youths who aren’t able to get out of the city an opportunity to
experience the joy of riding their bikes in the woods. And in the process… the kids
Photo 1. Volunteer work party at site of proposed bike trail.
would gain an appreciation of nature and a sense of ownership for the greenspace.”
The green space was an urban mix of invasive plant species and native flora. Neighborhood volunteers, including many youth groups, spent hours restoring the forest and installing public trails. The area attracted wildlife as well as illegal dumping, homeless encampments, and drug use. At the end, City Council voted to award the grant in favor of the bike trail, with a caveat that Parks develop policies for use of green spaces (Seattle Times, August 13, 2014).
A lot of progress has been made regarding Seattle’s institutional commitment in 2002 to expose and scrub itself of discriminatory practices, policies and procedures. That said, there is still a lot of work to be done to reach equity and social justice.
Washington,DC: Urban Bird Treaty
Urban Bird Treaty program in Washington, DC engaged with several organizations that focus on the Anacostia River. One such organization, Anacostia Watershed Society, works to engage teachers and students in public policy and advocacy actions through targeted programs.
The Anacostia has a long history as a working port and industrial river, leaving a legacy of toxic pollution that impacts the health of aquatic life and humans that fish, swim, or otherwise recreate on the river. Stormwater runoff collects trash, bacteria, and toxins, and flows into storm drains, and straight into the Anacostia River and its tributaries. With a watershed that is 70 percent developed, the Anacostia is impacted by a huge amount of impervious surface. The Anacostia River is so severely impacted by trash that in 2007 it was declared “impaired by trash” under the provisions of the Clean Water Act. Additionally, the developed areas near this river serve a primarily low-income minority population.
There are many efforts to pick up trash manually or catch it with trash traps, but ultimately trash use needs to be reduced from the source. Reducing this impact one of the biggest challenges. The Anacostia Watershed Society has several programs available for teachers and students to help engage citizens in actions that will not only teach them about the watershed environment, but also how to take actions to improve the environment and to become part of the solution.
As part of the Urban Bird Treaty program, Anacostia Watershed Society was awarded grant monies to work on several projected related to engaging diverse and minority audiences in areas that are demographically considered underserved minority neighborhoods. Sixteen teachers were mentored and equipped for the Rice Rangers program (wetland plant growing in elementary school classrooms), including 11 grow light systems set up in schools. About 300 Washington, DC students participated in a lesson on wetlands and planted native wetland seeds in classrooms, engaged in field studies on the Anacostia River by pontoon boat and participated in wetland planting events. Elementary school students grew 2200 wetland seeds in classrooms and planted the grasses in restoration plots at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Kenilworth is a National Park in the inner city of Washington, DC surrounded by areas where communities are mostly underserved.
While there are not yet any statistics to show that engaging citizens in this area resulted in actions independent of the organized efforts presented to students and citizens, environmental justice actions are being shared with citizens and continued efforts are being monitored.
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Haluza-Delay, R. (2012). Educating for environmental justice. In Wals, A.E.J., Stevenson R.B., Brody, M., & Dillon J. (Ed.), International handbook of research on environmental education (pp. 394–403). Routledge.
Lewis, T., & Bennett, S. (2013). The juxtaposition and spatial disconnect of environmental justice declarations and actual risk: A new method and its application to New York State. Applied geography, 39, 57–66.
Seattle Forestry Commission. (2014). Revised letter to Seattle Parks Commission – Mountain bike trail at Cheasty Greenspace. April 1, 2014.
Seattle Office for Civil Rights. (2008). Race and social justice initiative: Looking back, moving forward. City of Seattle.
Seattle Times. (2014). Council clears way for bike-trail work. Seattle Times, August 13.
Shellenberger, M. & Nordhaus, T. (2007). The Death of environmentalism: Global climate politics in a post-environmental world. Break through: From the death of environmentalism to the politics of possibility. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Thompson, L. (2014). Residents split on parkland bike trails. Seattle Times, July 28.
Tucker, T. An Environmental justice (EJ) teaching resource: Inventory and analysis of current practices in College EJ Education. Seattle University.
Article reprinted from Urban Environmental Education, an e-book published by the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). Downloadable at http://www.naaee.net/publications.
Reaching out with Respect: Environmental Education with Underserved Communities
Thinking about environmental education and underserved communities is an opportunity to challenge our assumptions about nature, culture and science, and, our assumptions about the life experiences of people of different backgrounds and cultures.
by Bonnie Sachetello-Sawyer and Shamu Fenyvesi
(from The Best of CLEARING)
Read article here.