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Engaging Students To Be Anti-Racist Environmentalists

Last updated on August 1, 2020

This piece is entitled “In Solidarity,” notice, in the birch tree on the left you will see these letters if you turn the image sideways.

An enticing retirement package has been offered to faculty at my institution, and I am hearing about colleagues who are jumping on board, or off board actually, but instead I am immersed in professional development around building quality courses which include modules that can be offered online.  I am excited about incorporating the new knowledge and skills I am learning regarding how to offer effective online courses and am committed to meeting the Quality Matters (QM) design standards.  QM is a non-profit, quality assurance organization that certifies courses that have met their design rubric. I have also been introduced to a new framework – ACE, to ensure I address Accessibility, Connection, and Equity- developed by my colleagues in our Open Learning and Teaching Collaborative (CoLab) at Plymouth State University (PSU). Combined these and other similar experiences will help make my teaching and courses more successful.  From my vantage point, this is a crazy time to be in higher education because of Covid, and, at the same time, an exciting time to rise to the occasion and meet the challenges, by taking advantage of the many resources being offered to higher education instructors.

One of my new foci, for the context of our times, is to create a module to use in my spring 2021 classes to address environmental justice.  I will embed a version of the module in three courses:  “Foundations in Environmental Policy,” “Issues in Sustainability,” and a new course to be co-taught with my social science colleague Sheryl Shirley, “Development Policy and Practice,” this latter course is about sustainable development.

A respected environmental science and policy (ESP) alumnus, now graduate student in a sustainability masters program, urged his former PSU ESP faculty to take on this charge and I intend to do so.  I can apply all I am learning in my summer 2020 professional development courses to accomplish this goal.  As a professional environmental educator, I feel compelled to identify key learning outcomes related to environmental justice and develop activities to engage students in meeting these objectives.

What are my goals for creating a module on environmental justice?  Part of my drive comes from wanting to create “kinder” communities, starting in our home neighborhoods, and ultimately this will be good for the environment. The environmental justice movement was started by individuals who wanted to address the inequity of environmental protection in their community.  These folks had no choice in one sense but to become activists, as their health and lives and those of their families and children depended on them taking action. Now the COVID pandemic has accentuated problems and brought further attention to inequities and injustices in so many systems- political and social which are connected to the environment.  Environmental justice in the US is part of the struggle to improve and maintain a clean and healthful environment, especially for those who live, work, and play near sources of pollution- the poor and people of color, including:  African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, and Pacific Islanders. The pattern of problems stems from the fact that these people: 1) lack connections to decision makers, on zoning boards or city councils, who could protect their interests and health; 2) could not afford to hire technical and legal experts to protect them; 3) lack information about how activities and siting of facilities could affect them, sometimes because the language is in English only and/or not lay friendly; there is too much unclear technical or legal jargon. to address and change the injustices.

Mainstream environmental groups and organizations “fought to protect wilderness, endangered species, clean air and water,” but largely ignored the plight of the marginalized groups just mentioned, until they were challenged.  Finally, in the 90’s, now in 2020, approximately thirty years ago, change started to come about when the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit convened and created the “Principles of Environmental Justice” document along with a call to action.    

The key learning outcomes for the module I am developing on Environmental Justice, include, having students be able to: 1)  Describe the evolution of the movement; 2) Evaluate initiatives and case studies which have attempted to address environmental injustices; 3) Develop a list of strategies and best practices to guide future efforts; 4) Explain what it means to be an anti-racist environmentalist, and 5) demonstrate one’s appreciation and respect for the issue through public sharing and outreach (by a means of one’s choice). (Do I sound like I am requiring students to embrace this topic, I can try.)  

In the “Foundations in Environmental Policy” course we will review legislation and related events; in the “Issues in Sustainability” and “Development Policy and Practice,” courses we will review connections around the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) that collectively address environmental justice, focusing in particular on:  #10 Reduced Inequalities, #11 Sustainable Cities and Communities, #12 Responsible Consumption and Production, and #16 Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions.  In the past, as an environmental educator, I have directed my students to focus on UN SDG #14, Life Below Water and #15 Life on Land, the two goals that directly speak to the natural environment.  Like the traditional environmental organizations, I too was focused, first and foremost on the environment. No longer! Going forward, I let not let students leave out SDG’s #’s 10, 11, 12, and 16, for there is synergy in thinking about systems.

I participated in a number of webinars , in July 2020, addressing the need for transformational partnerships to build back better together after Covid to make the UN SDG’s a reality and galvanize action for the decade remaining to meet the 2030 target deadline, set back in 2015, when the UN SDG’s were created. The SDG’s Learning, Training & Practice workshops aimed to advance the participants:

  • Knowledge and skills acquisition
  • Networking
  • Peer to peer collaboration through the sharing of experiences
  • Learning about practical actions and best practices
  • Capacity building
  • Practical policy integration and coherence

Other key takeaways for me, in addition to the need to think about the SDG’s in a systematic way, was hope, as I heard about so many efforts, actions, and accomplishments launched in other countries to address the UN SDG’s (in contrast, the news in the US is so bleak ). Still a third takeaway was, the importance of sharing, communicating and building partnerships, no need to work in isolation. Hearing about other’s efforts can have a buoying effect.

An educational activity my students and I can start with is creation of an annotated list of open educational resources on the topic of environmental justice. Teams of students will be assigned to develop presentations and lead discussions on meaningful resources they find. I will provide guidelines for learners to identify relevant, seminal, accessible, and readable scholarly materials with diverse perspectives. Teams of students will pose questions for classmates to address related to how science and policy are connected as well as how environmental racism is reflected in resources.

I will model by sharing my assessment of the two resources. The first document is about the environmental justice movement and is found on the Natural Resources Development Council’s (NRDC) website.  The NRDC’s mission is to “safeguard the earth- its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends.” (I notice they put people first, not the flora and fauna.) The organization works to ensure the rights and access of all people to clean air, water, and wildplaces. The NRDC combines the power of its three million plus members and with the expertise of some scientists, lawyers, and policy advocates. The second “document” is a powerful image and explanatory post that caught my attention; the title is, “It’s not enough to be an environmentalist.  We must be anti-racist environmentalists,” with a subheading, “Why intersectional environmentalism is crucial in the effort to save the planet,” by Nicole Anasis, cited and posted by Elena Pollen on, June 2020.  Pollen endorses Anasis’ recommendation to live a more sustainable lifestyle that lessens the damage to natural resource systems. Pollen reminds us that social justice is a high priority and quotes Aana Elizabeth Johnson’s article on how, “Racism derails our efforts to save the planet.”  The resources- one on the NRDC website and the other on the permaculture site are diverse, one focuses on a mainstream environmental organization and the other reflects the intersection of social justice and environmental issues. 

The second educational activity that I can introduce to my students is to ask them to create or find an an image that relates to environmental justice. Students will have to explain/defend their choice in 300 plus or minus 50 words. These images and essays will be shared in a forum where students will be asked to respond to at least one other classmate’s post. The presentation of resources and sharing of a creative image related to environmental justice provides students with choice and links multiple kinds of learning. 

The third activity is to ask students to survey faculty, clubs and organizations, and interdisciplinary studies majors on who is doing what with the UN SDG’s so we can create an institutional map and repository of our collective efforts in this regard. Such an accomplishment will serve many purposes and primarily help build synergy.

To end, I will share with my students a favorite galvanizing quote by Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize winning author, feminist and social activist and woman of color, noted for her insightful treatment of African Americans, who said, “Activism is my rent for living on the planet.” This idea begins to encapsulate what it means to be an anti-racist environmentalist.

Note:  This is the second in a series of posts about environmental justice, here is the link to my first post:


About the UN Sustainable Development Goals,

Skelton, Renee and Miller, Vernice, The Environmental Justice Movement, March 17, 2016;

For two inspiring images that prompted my watercolor,


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