In February 2020, Sloan Award for Excellence winning high school teacher Dr. Jared Fox reached out to WE ACT for Environmental Justice (WE ACT) to plan our annual Youth Environmental Health and Justice Leadership Training (EHJLT) with his students at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS). WE ACT has worked with Jared for the past six years to provide this modular educational program to students at WHEELS, a public school in Washington Heights, a multicultural working-class neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan. Youth EHJLT is designed to teach participants about environmental justice and environmental health issues and provide them with the skills necessary to address these issues as advocates for their own community.
“One thing that the Youth EHJLT allows me to do in the classroom is to make sure that my environmental science students are out in field and working with experts and learning about impacts in their own neighborhoods related to environmental justice, and creating some type of project or application to better themselves and the students around them,” said Fox.
But things changed, in ways we could never have imagined. After being informed that schools were closing and transitioning to remote learning due to the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City, Jared had to reimagine both the end of his school year and the programs that he has with local partners like WE ACT. For many folks across New York State, it seems like the beginning of this year was only a dream, that we could meet up with friends, learn, or even travel without fear of spreading a virus that would eventually impact our entire society. Fortunately, for both Fox and WE ACT, the Youth EHJLT program will continue, though in the form of interactive webinars instead of the program’s normal face-to-face format
In the age of COVID-19, advocates, educators and community organizers of all backgrounds are creating new ways to improve the lives of communities of color and low-income communities digitally. Even before the impacts of COVID-19 were felt, environmental educators across the country have been working on ways to incorporate climate and environmental justice into school curricula.
Understanding environmental justice and environmental health is critical to understanding and formulating responses to COVID-19 that center and recognize the disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. Mainstream responses to COVID-19 have revolved around access to resources, including healthcare resources such as testing and personal protective equipment as well as disease-mitigating resources such as cleaning and household supplies.
These themes are familiar for those in the environmental justice movement who are fighting for the right to testing for lead and mold, access to green spaces, cleaner energy, and more. At its core, the concept and history of environmental justice highlights the fight for meaningful involvement, fair policies and resource distribution that centers communities of color and those who are most vulnerable even in the best of times, much less during a global pandemic.
Understanding these sub-concepts is critical to demanding justice and equality during the COVID-19 crisis for healthcare and supply chain workers, disabled communities, communities of color, low-income workers and more. Those at risk also include those with pre-existing health conditions, including cancers, heart diseases, lung diseases and more. Some conditions, such as asthma, have been caused by decades of disproportionate air pollution that has contributed to a higher incidence of underlying conditions that make coronavirus more dangerous for systematically marginalized communities.
Understanding concepts of environmental justice and environmental health have been key to understanding gaps around wealth, social status, and health conditions in marginalized communities in relation to environmental resources. Due to school closures, many young people are working with educators and parents on digital educational resources at home. Listed below are resources that parents and educators can use to teach students about environmental justice and environmental health at home. Some of these lessons are printable, others will require adult supervision for young children, and others are virtual simulations. Topics in these mini-modules can be connected to New York State education standards on Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems, Weather and Climate, Human Impacts, and Human Sustainability in middle and high school.
1) Teaching Tolerance provides free resources to educators—teachers, administrators, counselors and other practitioners—who work with children from kindergarten through high school.
Teaching Tolerance – Analyzing Environmental Justice (grades 6 – 12)
2) THIRTEEN and PBS have curated, free, standards-aligned videos, and interactives, plans and more for New York teachers.
PBS Learning Media – Environmental Justice: Opposing a Toxic Waste Incinerator (grades 6 – 12)
PBS Learning Media – How to Reduce Lead Exposure (grades 6 – 12)
PBS Learning Media – Epidemiologists: Disease Detectives (grades 9 – 12)
3) The Environmental Protection Agency provides many educational resources for educators and parents. This game, EPA Generate, is centered around understanding access to clean energy, and the environmental burdens that different communities bear.
EPA Generate: The Game of Energy Choices (grades 9 – 12)
4) National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
5) Zinn Education Project: Teaching People’s History – Articles
The Zinn Education Project promotes and supports the teaching of people’s history in classrooms across the country. For more than ten years, the Zinn Education Project has introduced students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. These articles are related to environmental justice and environmental health, and provide more context on the topics.
Because Our Islands Are Our Life (grades 7 – 12)
An article by Moé Yonamine in Rethinking Schools, Summer 2019.
A high school ethnic studies teacher describes how students in the Pacific Island Club used poetry to refocus the narrative surrounding climate justice onto frontline communities.
Our House Is on Fire – Time to Teach Climate Justice (grades 7 – 12)
An article by Bill Bigelow in Rethinking Schools, Spring 2019.
For too long, the fossil fuel industry has tried to buy teachers’ and students’ silence. But teaching climate justice has never been more urgent.
Students “Warrior Up” for Climate Justice (grades 7 – 12)
An article by Bill Bigelow in Rethinking Schools, Fall 2018.
Teaching hope instead of despair, teachers invite students to research “climate warriors,” those who “know the truth” and yet are not defeated by it.
WE ACT’s Environmental Education Resources
WE ACT has both created and facilitated curricula and consulted on creating more inclusive programming with public, charter, and private schools, nonprofit institutions, and other environmental groups. While traditional understandings of environmental education include studying ecology, food chains and other natural topics, our educational curricula and programming offer explorations at the intersection of traditional education and environmental health and justice.
Currently, WE ACT is offering mini-lessons on environmental justice and environmental health free of charge (though we gladly accept donations). These lessons are based on our existing curricula centered around our work in the greater New York City area. Each 15-minute video is paired with worksheets for students in grades 6 – 12. At the end of each sheet, discussion questions are paired with each topic for further exploration of these concepts.
For access to these mini-lessons, email me at email@example.com. As you and your family shelter in place, take this opportunity to learn more about environmental justice and environmental health, so that we will all be better equipped to address these challenges in the future. We hope that you, your loved ones, and your communities remain safe and well during these turbulent times.
Taylor Morton is the Environmental Health and Education Manager at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. Her work has included co-facilitating and creating curricula for the organization’s educational programs. She recognizes the importance of exposing minority, urban, and low-income youth to natural elements, and actively supports this mission.