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.
Educating as if Survival Matters
Nancy M Trautmann Michael P Gilmore
BioScience, Volume 68, Issue 5, 1 May 2018, Pages 324–326, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biy026
22 March 2018
ver the past 40 years, environmental educators throughout the world have been aiming to motivate and empower students to work toward a sustainable future, but we are far from having achieved this goal. Urgency is evident in the warning issued by more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries: “to prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual… Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home” (Ripple et al. 2017).
In this tumultuous era of ecocatastrophes, we need every child to grow up caring deeply about how to live sustainably on our planet. We need some to become leaders and all to become environmentally minded citizens and informed voters. Going beyond buying greener products and aiming for energy efficiency, we must find ways to balance human well-being, economic prosperity, and environmental quality. These three overlapping goals form the “triple bottom line,” aiming to protect the natural environment while ensuring economic vitality and the health of human communities. This is the basis for sustainable development, defined by the United Nations as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987). Strong economies of course are vital, but they cannot endure at the expense of vibrant human societies and a healthy environment.
Within the formal K–12 setting, a primary hurdle in teaching for sustainability is the need to meaningfully address environmental issues within the constraints of established courses and curricular mandates. In the United States, for example, the Next Generation Science Standards designate science learning outcomes for grades K–12 (NGSS 2013). These standards misrepresent sustainability challenges by portraying them as affecting all humans equally, overlooking the substantial environmental justice issues evident within the United States and throughout the world. Another oversight is that these standards portray environmental issues as solvable through the application of science and technology, neglecting the potential roles of other sources of knowledge (Feinstein and Kirchgasler 2015).
One might argue that K–12 students are too young to tackle looming environmental issues. However, they are proving up to the challenge, such as through project-based learning in which they explore issues and pose potential solutions. This may involve designing and conducting scientific investigations, with the possibility of participating in citizen science. Case-study research into teen involvement in community-based citizen science both in and out of school settings revealed that the participants developed various degrees of environmental science agency. Reaching beyond understanding of environmental science and inquiry practices, this term’s definition also includes confidence in one’s ability to take positive stewardship actions (Ballard et al. 2017). The study concluded that the development of environmental science agency depended on involving teens in projects that included these three factors: investigating complex social–ecological systems with human dimensions, ensuring rigorous data collection, and disseminating scientific findings to authentic external audiences. Educators interested in undertaking such endeavors can make use of free resources, including an ever-growing compendium of lesson plans for use with citizen-science projects (SciStarter 2018) and a downloadable curriculum that leads students through the processes of designing and conducting their own investigations, especially those inspired by outdoor observations and participation in citizen science (Fee 2015).
We need to provide opportunities for students to investigate environmental issues, collect and analyze data, and understand the role of science in making informed decisions. But sustainability challenges will not be resolved through scientific approaches alone. Students also need opportunities to connect deeply with people from drastically different cultures and think deeply about their own lifestyles, goals, and assumptions. As faculty members of the Educator Academy in the Amazon Rainforest, we have had the privilege of accompanying groups of US teachers through 10-day expeditions in the Peruvian Amazon. Last summer, we asked Sebastián Ríos Ochoa, leader of a small indigenous group living deep in the rainforest, for his view of sustainability. Sebastián responded that he and his community are one with the forest—it is their mother, providing life and wholeness. Reflecting on the changes occurring at an accelerating rate even in remote rainforest communities, Sebastián went on to state that his greatest wish is for his descendants to forever have the opportunity to continue living at one with their natural surroundings (Sebastián Ríos Ochoa, Maijuna Community Leader, Sucusari, Peru, personal communication, 18 July 2017). After decades of struggle during which their rainforest resources were devastated by outside loggers and hunters (Gilmore 2010), this indigenous group has regained control over their ancestral lands and the power to enact community-based conservation practices. Their efforts provide compelling examples of how people (no matter how few in number and how marginalized) can effect positive change.
In collaboration with leaders of Sebastián’s remote Peruvian community and a nongovernmental organization with a long history of working in the area, US educators are creating educational resources designed to instill this same sense of responsibility in children growing up without such direct connections to nature. Rather than developing a sense of entitlement to ecologically unsustainable ways of life, we need children to build close relationships with the natural world, empathy for people with different ways of life, and a sense of responsibility to build a better tomorrow. Although the Amazon rainforest is a common topic in K–12 and undergraduate curricula, typically it is addressed through textbook readings. Instead, we are working to engage students in grappling with complex real-world issues related to resource use, human rights, and conservation needs. This is accomplished through exploration of questions such as the following: (a) How do indigenous cultures view, interact with, and perceive their role in the natural world, and what can we learn from them? (b) How do our lives influence the sustainability of the rainforest and the livelihoods of the people who live there? (c) Why is the Amazon important to us, no matter where we live? (d) How does this relate to the triple-bottom-line goal of balancing social well-being, economic prosperity, and environmental protection?
Investigating the Amazon’s impacts on global weather patterns, water cycling, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity leads students to see that the triple bottom line transcends cultures and speaks to our global need for a sustainable future for humans and the environment throughout the world. Tracing the origin of popular products such as cocoa and palm oil, they investigate ways to participate in conservation initiatives aiming for ecological sustainability both at home and in the Amazon.
Another way to address global issues is to have students calculate the ecological footprint attributable to their lifestyles, leading into consideration of humankind vastly overshooting Earth’s ability to regenerate the resources and services on which our lives depend. In 2017, August 2 was determined to be the date on which humanity had overshot Earth’s regenerative capacity for the year because of unsustainable levels of fishing, deforestation, and carbon dioxide emissions (Earth Overshoot Day 2017). The fact that this occurs earlier each year is a stark reminder of our ever-diminishing ability to sustain current lifestyles. And as is continually illustrated in news of climate disasters, human societies with small ecological footprints can be tragically vulnerable to such calamities (e.g., Kristof 2018).
Engaged in such activities, students in affluent settings may end up deriving solutions that shake the very tenet of the neoliberal capitalistic societies in which they live. To what extent should students be encouraged to challenge the injustices and entitlements on which world economies currently are based, such as by seeking ways to transform the incentive structures under which business and government decisions currently are made? Should they be asked to envision ways of overturning the unsustainable ways in which modern societies deplete resources, emit carbon dioxide, and destroy the habitats needed to support diverse forms of life on Earth?
Anyone who gives serious consideration to the environmental degradation and social-injustice issues in today’s world faces the risk of sinking into depression at the thought of a hopeless future. What can we possibly accomplish that will not simply be too little, too late? Reflecting on this inherent tension, Jon Foley (2016) stated, “If you’re awake and alive in the twenty-first century, with even an ounce of empathy, your heart and mind are going to be torn asunder. I’m sorry about that, but it’s unavoidable — unless you simply shut down and turn your back on the world. For me, the only solution is found in the space between awe and anguish, and between joy and despair. There, in the tension between two worlds, lies the place we just might find ourselves and our life’s work.”
Education for sustainability must build on this creative tension, capturing students’ attention while inspiring them to become forces for positive change.
Collaboration with the Maijuna is made possible through work of the OnePlanet nonprofit organization (https://www.oneplanet-ngo.org) and Amazon Rainforest Workshops (http://amazonworkshops.com).
Nancy Trautmann was supported through a fellowship with the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich, Germany, to develop curricular resources that highlight the Maijuna to inspire U.S. youth to care about conservation issues at home and abroad.
Ballard HL, Dixon CGH, Harris EM. 2017.
Youth-focused citizen science: Examining the role of environmental science learning and agency for conservation. Biological Conservation 208: 65–75.
Earth Overshoot Day. 2017. Earth Overshoot Day 2017 fell on August 2. Earth Overshoot Day. (1 December 2017; www.overshootday.org)
FeeJM. 2015. BirdSleuth: Investigating Evidence. Cornell Lab of Ornithology . (15 January 2018; http://www.birdsleuth.org/investigation/)
FeinsteinNW, KirchgaslerKL. 2015.
Sustainability in science education? How the Next Generation Science Standards approach sustainability, and why it matters. Science Education 99: 121–144.
Foley J.2016. The space between two worlds. Macroscope . (28 October 2016; https://themacroscope.org/the-space-between-two-worlds-bc75ecc8af57)
Gilmore MP. 2010. The Maijuna: Past, present, and future . 226–233 in Gilmore MP, Vriesendorp C,Alverson WS, del CampoÁ, von MayR, WongCL, OchoaSR, eds. Perú: Maijuna. The Field Museum.
KristofN.2018. Swallowed by the sea. New York Times. (23 January 2018 ; www.nytimes.com/2018/01/19/opinion/sunday/climate-change-bangladesh.html)
[NGSS] Next Generation Science Standards. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. NGSS. (10 October 2017; www.nextgenscience.org)
Ripple WJ et al. 2017. World scientists’ warning to humanity: A second notice. BioScience
SciStarter. 2018. SciStarter for Educators. SciStarter . (12 February 2018; https://scistarter.com/educators)
[WCED] World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our Common Future . Oxford University Press.
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.
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An Interview with Rus Higley
2016 Marine Education Classroom Educator of the Year
Rus Higley has worked as Manager at the Marine Science and Technology Center at Highline College since its opening in 2003. He was born in Alaska, but grew up in Des Moines and graduated from Western Washington University with a B.S. in Marine Biology. He then went on to get his M.S. in Curriculum & Instruction from Old Dominion, and Master of Marine Affairs from the University of Washington. Besides managing the MaST Center, Rus teaches classes at Highline College in Marine Biology, Environmental Sciences and Oceanography, and teaches Environmental Sciences at the University of Washington, Tacoma.
Rus Higley was recently named the 2016 Marine Educator of the Year by the Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators (NAME).
Congratulations on being named the 2016 Outstanding Classroom Educator by NAME. So what led you to becoming an environmental educator in the first place?
After college, I joined Peace Corps where I taught science to high school students and worked at a catfish hatchery. While doing that I learned that I enjoyed teaching and so have continued to develop opportunities. When I returned to the Northwest, I had a non-teaching position with Highline College. Shortly, after I started, I got a call from the VP for instruction who knew my background and had an oceanography class without an instructor…the catch was it started in 3 days. 17 years later I’m still teaching!
Did you have a specific experience as a child that connected you to the natural world?
I’m originally from Sitka, Alaska and spent most of my childhood summers up there. My friends and I always played on the beach looking for animals, getting stuck in the mud, and fishing. It always seemed like the only choice.
What are you working on right now?
In addition to everything else, I’m working with Washington SCUBA Alliance on the creation of an artificial reef for divers here in Redondo, WA. A recent meeting with Senator Karen Kaiser gave us a lot of hope for this to move forward. Part of the motivation for this is that the state is removing toxic materials, such as pilings and tires, from the Puget Sound. Although a long term gain for the health of the Puget Sound, it is a short term loss of some beautiful habitat and dive sites. This reef would use natural materials to build appropriate structures for local marine life. One big aspect we are working on is the research that is needed to show that this in truly a “good” idea, so we are working to develop a suitable research program to look at the diversity of life both before and after it is built.
What is your favorite part of your job?
If you’d asked me 10-15 years ago to describe my perfect job, except for the warm and tropical part, I’ve got it. Not only do I get to teach oceanography and marine biology to college students, I get to run an amazing community sized marine aquarium. The MaST Center is a 3,000 gallon aquarium facility for Highline College that not only has college classes but brings in thousands of school kids and thousands of visitors every year. Our small crew of staff and volunteers have done so many amazing things and continue to push the limits.
Can you share a story about a project that worked really well, or a particular student you remember?
Over this fall quarter, as the technical advisor, I am working with the Foss Waterway Seaport and Tacoma Public Schools to articulate a 23 foot gray whale skeleton. We started this project last Christmas, when it was found dead on the beach. Since then, we’ve conducted a necropsy, flensed the meat off, composted the bones, and are now articulating the skeleton. The work is being done by 15 Stadium High School students who during the quarter have talked to an engineer about the structural limitations including a proposed “pose” for the animals, an ethical conversation on whether it should or should not be named, a naturopathic doctor to compare human and whale bones, the lead scientist for the necropsy to help determine why it died. While all of that has been going on, the students are literally putting the whale together.
[Note: Check out The Tacoma News Tribune article on this project]
What are your biggest concerns about the state of marine/aquatic education today?
Most kids have a passion for the ocean but it is limited to whales, sea turtles, and Nemo. My biggest concern and goal is taking that passion and using it to grow them into educated citizens and maybe even a scientist.
You’re a strong advocate for environmental justice. How do you incorporate that into the work you’re currently doing?
Highline College is one of the most diverse colleges in America and serves in South King County one of the most diverse populations. Helping people realize that they are a part of the environment and need to take ownership for their choices is really important. Much of our outreach is focusing on the non-traditional “student”. As a teacher, working with students to explore ideas like internal and external cost. For example last year, one of my classes dug really deeply into a proposed methanol plant in Tacoma which was eventually cancelled before being built.
Do you have any advice for someone starting out in this field?
Build your résumé. My daughter is a sophomore in college where it is easy to get lost especially at the larger schools. Being in the top 10% of a class of 500 students does not stand out. What else have you done? Referring back to the whale, imagine the resume of the Stadium High School students who took all these great classes AND BUILT A WHALE! Get connected with your teachers and professionals as they often know of opportunities that you may not have heard of. Also, find your dream job(s). If you don’t know where you want to be in 10 years, it’s hard to work for that. Even though I’m not looking for a new job and in fact love my job, I have literally over a hundred job descriptions of possible jobs for me in the future. Every time I see a job description that sounds interesting, I save it in my file. Also get on professional organizations and look for their job boards. For example, if you want to work in an aquarium, the Association of Zoos and Aquarium job/internship board has opportunities from all over.
Where do you find inspiration for the work you do?
The students are an obvious answer and are some of my biggest inspiration. Seeing them make the connections, seeing them open their eyes to a new thing or way of thinking, is amazing. Also, I try to keep current in the field to help motivate me to continue to push myself.
What is your favorite resource or tool for teaching marine science?
The web has so many real time, global sized resources. One of my new favorite visualizations for the planet is earth.nullschool.net which has a nearly real time model of wind, temperature, ocean currents, etc.
What’s your favorite marine creature?
Like a lot of divers in the Pacific Northwest, I love the octopuses. Any dive that finds an octopus is a good dive. At my marine center, we have the opportunity to work with several animals for long periods of time. Watching them grow, learn how to recognize people, and play is amazing. Last year, I even took an octopus to prison for a talk on octopus intelligence. I also generally dive with our octopus during our Octopus Graduation event where we release them back into the Puget Sound and follow them with a streaming camera so the audience can watch real time on the surface. Google “octopus graduation” and you can find some of the old videos.
Where do you go when you want to recharge your batteries?
I’m a river rafter and have been guiding for over 20 years. Getting on the river feeds me. This past August, my wife and I, along with a group of friends, spent 18 days rafting the Grand Canyon. Although a challenging experience, living on “river time” changes the way I look at things.
Do you have a favorite place to visit in the Pacific Northwest?
We love to go camping and two of my favorites are Cape Disappointment which is down by the mouth of the Columbia River and Salt Creek Recreation Area up by Port Angeles. Both feature the ocean but are significantly different environments.
Are you reading any great books at the moment?
I’m currently working on Energy for Future Presidents by Muller. Although I don’t agree with everything he says, he really works to try to make honest comparisons and has me reevaluating some of my opinions. For example, how does solar power compare to nuclear to natural gas. I’d really love to have a follow up conversation with him because I think he glosses over some of those external costs.
Another favorite is Shell Games by Craig Welch who explores the illegal trade of geoducks here in the Puget Sound area. It’s a factual book that reads like a crime fiction novel.
And finally, who do you consider your environmental heroes?
Rachel Carson whose work Silent Spring played a role in the start of the modern environmental movement. Her science was amazing and her strength to stand up to all the people who thought women can’t be scientists continues to inspire me.
Nowadays, Elon Musk and his push for game changing improvements in alternative energies. We need people to think big.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
Thanks for including me in your great publication. Being recognized for doing the stuff I love is a true honor.
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Open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to the public, the MaST Center, mast.highline.edu, is located at 28203 Redondo Beach Drive S.—halfway between Seattle and Tacoma and about 5 minutes south of the main Highline Campus.
Ear to the Ground is a regular feature of CLEARING. Check the website for previous interviews.
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.
Agyeman, J., & Evans, T. (2003). Toward just sustainability in urban communities: Building equity rights with sustainable solutions. The annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 590(1), 35–53.
Boone, C.G., Buckley, G.L., Grove, J.M., & Sister, C. (2009). Parks and people: An environmental justice inquiry in Baltimore, Maryland. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 4, 767–787.
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.