How Justice and Equity are Shaping Environmental Literacy for a Better Future

Social impact and equity are no longer on the sidelines of public discourse. The convergence of crises around COVID-19, a reckoning with racism, and the intensifying effects of climate change has revealed the deep biases rooted in many institutions and emphasized the need for change.

Equity has proven to be a critical component of how leadership should be guided toward justice. This lens is especially important for environmental education, as we equip students with the knowledge to build a more sustainable future, and to fill the gaps where people of color and low-income populations bear the brunt of climate consequences. Candice Dickens-Russell says drawing from a diverse range of perspectives can help us create solutions that serve the most vulnerable.

Candice Dickens-Russell

Candice serves as the justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion manager and director of social & environmental justice at DoGoodery. This social impact agency provides strategic planning, program management, design, development, and content distribution for organizations committed to making change. As a member of CAELI, Candice is passionate about increasing inclusivity in environmental education.

In this interview, Candice shares how her work advocating for equitable practices inspires her vision for the future.


Please share a little about your background in environmental education and environmental justice.

My formal education is in sustainability and social justice. As for background, I’ve always been an eco geek. I was pushing my family to recycle before curbside recycling existed. I was in the junior optimist club in middle school, starting recycling initiatives and that sort of thing.

I remember being young and asking my dad about how solar energy works. That’s when my dad took us to the library, and the whole family got library cards. I ended up with this book on photovoltaics that I couldn’t really read, but I was still so happy because people were talking about things I cared about.

From there I majored in environmental science and went on to work over a decade as the regional coordinator of environmental education for LA County for the California Environmental Education Community Network (CREEC), where it was my responsibility to connect teachers with environmental education organizations to create partnerships that provide environmental education. The last 15 years of my career has been as a director of environmental education for a nonprofit and the Los Angeles Department of Public Works.


As the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion leader at DoGoodery, what kind of support are you providing to organizations to be more equitable and culturally relevant?

DoGoodery is a social impact agency with a variety of clients who all want to practice social responsibility and create and implement programs to improve their communities; for example, one of our clients wants to help women in engineering to persist and continue in a male-dominated field. DoGoodery specializes in the Corporate Social Responsibility and storytelling side. But it became clear to us that our clients wanted to look at their policies, procedures, and practices to determine if they were equitable or not. We can provide a workshop on working with diverse communities, or we can do a complete equity audit of what an organization offers by examining their policies and procedures. We help organizations refine their recruitment processes to better practice diversity, equity, and inclusion.

We have great partners at The Avarna Group and Youth Outside, who also partners with Ten Strands. We love to partner with all of these people because there is no sense in competing when it comes to helping people have more equitable practices. We’re not a talk-and-drop workshop. There’s always a relationship that continues throughout. People we did workshops with four months ago are still texting, calling, and asking for advice.


What is the symbiotic relationship between justice and environmental literacy?

I don’t know if I would say it’s a symbiosis per se, but I would definitely say there is a strong relationship between justice and environmental literacy. Students who learn about environmental justice have an opportunity to examine the world from a real-world, problem/solution perspective, which makes it more relevant.

Students get to see the unequal burden that communities of Black, Indigenous, and people of color bear, which makes environmental justice relevant to their lives. Students that learn about environmental issues through the environmental justice lens are more empowered and more engaged, especially when they are learning about young people in the movement.

I think students can relate to environmental justice even if they’re not thinking about it from the perspective of Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities. They can relate to being in a position where decisions they didn’t make are going to affect their lives.


How does your dedication to justice factor into your work with CAELI and with your leadership in the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative? What does equity look like when getting kids to return to school?

For students, they really can only return to school when equity’s been considered holistically. Transportation, if their parents are essential workers, youth experiencing homelessness. These sorts of things have to be taken into consideration. They are all equity issues.

I try not to talk about people as marginalized people or minorities, but rather people who are seeking opportunities to be included, deserving of those opportunities, and deserving of people thinking about them critically in a way that makes it clear that we are prioritizing their needs. That’s really I think what the outdoor learning initiative is all about.

This all started in thinking about how inequitable distance learning can be. I’ve heard stories of a nurse who takes her children to work with her and leaves them in the car, and they do school on the phone. This is the best solution she has. She can’t send them to daycare. She can’t send them to a sitter. She can’t have some stranger in her house. She takes her kids to school in her car, and they sit in the backseat and do school on her phone.

It’s incredible that people are having to make those kinds of decisions in order to just get their children to school every day. The digital divide and the inequities surrounding distance learning were really the impetus for putting that equity team together.


How have you seen this field evolve over time, and what is your vision for the future of environmental literacy in California?

Nature is my personal vision as a teacher, which is why I always talk about place-based education that doesn’t teach students that nature is somewhere you have to get in the car and drive to. It’s everywhere we are. It’s in our lives, and we all have the right to enjoy and benefit from it.

From the time I spent working alongside classroom teachers, it’s really clear to me that you can use the environment to teach just about anything. I would love to see that happening more. I envision a future where the environment is the vehicle by which all sorts of things are taught.

The work Dr. Gerald Lieberman‘s done with Ten Strands to get environmental principles and concepts into all the different frameworks—the health framework, the math framework, the social science framework—that’s exactly what we’re talking about. I think that is the future, and that’s the vision that I have: that social science can be taught through an environmental lens, a place-based lens, a lens where people think about where they are, who they are, and who was here before. Then you get into justice issues. It can be so holistically, beautifully tied together.