When Mustafa Ali, the decades-long advisor for the Environmental Protection Agency who elevated social justice and industry accountability into the government’s environmental protection agenda, was asked why oversight is needed to ensure the protection and health of lands inhabited by communities of color, Ali did not mince words.
“That’s what happens when you are disconnected from a large swath of America, when you don’t go to these communities and spend any time actually seeing what’s happening…That has always been the challenge of the green movement…The beauty of the work that I’ve been associated with is helping folks understand how these impacts are taking away from them, and lots of times that will get people engaged in the process, when they think they’re losing something… But you have to meet people where they are, and you also have to honor the cultures that exist.” (Lynch, Adam. Yes! Magazine, August 9, 2017.)
It’s that simple. Ali gets straight to the root of why some communities often feel alienated from an obscure environmental movement, or from engaging comfortably with nature. If organizations do not take the time to meet community members where they live, listen to their needs, and offer relevant environmental education that shines light on the interdependence of human society and natural ecosystems, then they’ll have little reason to suddenly invest in critical issues like climate change. The integration of cultural relevance and environmental literacy are key to encouraging all communities to claim a space in the environmental movement, before issues of science have a chance to become a choice of personal politics.
Bridging the Gap
Environmental literacy has the potential to become the bridge between the environmental movement and equitable representation, by leveraging one of the biggest, most diverse institutions in our state: the public school system. According to California’s Blueprint for Environmental Literacy, “An environmentally literate person has the capacity to act individually and with others to support ecologically sound, economically prosperous, and equitable communities for present and future generations. Through lived experiences and education programs that include classroom-based lessons, experiential education, and outdoor learning, students will become environmentally literate, developing the knowledge, skills, and understanding of environmental principles to analyze environmental issues and make informed decisions.”
Sounds ideal—but does that encompass the lived experiences available to all of California’s diverse 6.2 million students? I’m happy to say, it’s entirely possible, and I can personally vouch for the long-term successes of teaching students through an environmentally-influenced curriculum.
I am a proud Bay Area native, and grew up in the Pacifica School District in San Mateo County, which places basic knowledge of and physical immersion into Bay Area ecosystems as high a priority as math, science, and reading. In Pacifica, every elementary school student was familiar with regular beach cleanups, where teachers taught us to recognize and protect native biodiversity as part of our home. By the third grade, we had learned about fish cycles by visiting local hatcheries (baby fish!); we had explored tide pools at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, daring each other to press our fingers into the spidery, suction-like anemones, but also learning that the pools teemed with life in an ecosystem that included us, both as influencers and beneficiaries; we had learned about the massive Hetch Hetchy desalination plant in neighboring San Francisco, and how sewage runoff flows directly into our beloved ocean, so that harmful toxins like microplastics get ingested by fish. California history included lessons on Native American cultures, enhanced by trips to Pacifica’s Sanchez Adobe and exercises in nature-centered entrepreneurship. K–3 students yearned for the fourth grade, when we would embark on a weeklong camping trip to Camp Jones Gulch in the Santa Cruz Mountains. To this day, students stay in cabins, explore the forest, and learn about California’s unparalleled natural resources through environment-based activities. Beyond that, it is a rite of passage where students learn how to cooperate with people of different backgrounds in a strange situation. Through high school, Pacifica’s towering ridges and beautiful beaches played a significant role in my education; but since this curriculum was embedded from elementary school, I didn’t learn that it was not a universal experience for all California students until I was an adult.
Let me drive home the opportunity that environmental literacy presents to connect cultures: By teaching my classmates through an environmentally-conscious approach, Mexican and Native American history were treated as inherent aspects of American history; the internment of Japanese prisoners of war during World War II was directly connected to the landscapes we visited daily; by partnering with local businesses and regional nature reserves, the students were ingrained with a sense of community pride and environmental connectivity that felt completely in sync with our daily lifestyles. There was never a sense that learning about each student’s culture through environmental connections was somehow “extra,” because it was organically related to nearly every subject.
Years later, the choices I make as an adult are radically informed by my environmentally literate upbringing. Voting in my first municipal elections in Berkeley, I and other locals tended to favor candidates and initiatives with environmental endorsements. Living even a minorly sustainable lifestyle doesn’t feel like a compromise, because recycling (and with newer generations, composting) was an easy habit to develop thanks to ubiquitous public receptacles. Those lessons on sewage runoff have influenced my buying behavior, the products I choose to buy and how I dispose of toxic waste. Environmental literacy also shaped me into an advocate for stewardship within my own community, enhancing my identity as an African American woman living fully connected to nature in California. Nature is where I go to retreat from devastating national news and social unrest, to regain a sense of safety and rootedness in the outdoors in a healthy, balanced way. This is what environmental literacy helps to create: a pathway to social, economic, academic, and civic engagement that strengthens individual students, and overall community health.
In an increasingly polarized world, voting age is too late to begin adopting sustainable consumer behavior or to invest in environmental issues, if a person has not been raised to assign intrinsic value to the natural world in her or his community. When we make environmental literacy a core part of formative education, we prevent environmental issues from becoming a partisan choice later in life; instead, it sets up the environment to be a holistic background grid for how a student understands and interacts with her or his world.