Understanding Environmental Justice with Craig Strang

In Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts portrays a real-life activist who fights a legal battle against a utility on groundwater contamination in Hinkley, in the Mojave Desert. The movie brings alive a classic environmental justice problem: a powerful company contaminates the eco-resources of an underprivileged community that has little capacity to fight back.

Craig Strang, Associate Director of the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the leaders of the environmental literacy movement in California. In 1985, he founded the award-winning Marine Activities, Resource & Education Program, and since 2002 he has co-led the nationwide Ocean Literacy Campaign. Craig was also the co-chair of the task force that wrote California’s Blueprint for Environmental Literacy, and since 2016 he has been the co-chair of the California Environmental Literacy Initiative—the public-private partnership that is implementing the ideas in the state’s Blueprint.

Craig wants to make sure that we place environmental justice at the heart of the emerging discipline of environmental literacy.

One objective is that all learners acquire a palpable understanding that environmental degradation typically also incubates a problem of social justice. Whether we consider the location of polluting industries, or the marketing of unhealthy foods, or the ravages of fires and floods, the fallout disproportionately impacts historically marginalized groups, particularly people of color and people from low-income families.

Another objective for Craig is that environmental literacy is rolled out across California and nationally in an equitable manner.

One dimension of this equity goal relates to access. In California and other leading states, environmental literacy is being developed as a multi-disciplinary, project-based learning domain, ideally linked to programs offered by a wide range of community-based partners. Craig notes: “Access includes making sure that underserved schools have access to teaching and curricular resources and subsidies that cover the cost of school projects, enrolling in community programs, and materials and transport.”

The second dimension of this equity goal relates to design. Craig observes that environmental literacy programs and projects are typically designed for a white, English-speaking, and middle-class audience, and then shoehorned to serve more marginalized groups. This approach is particularly inappropriate for environmental literacy, which is centered around addressing local challenges in ways both practical and academic.

To remedy this failure, Craig promotes design at the margins. He notes how California pioneered curb ramps in the 1970s that replaced curbs with perpendicular edges. Initially, people in wheelchairs in Berkeley started a protest to bring this about, but it turned out that curb ramps also helped deliverymen with trolleys, parents with strollers, people using canes and joggers. Craig observes: “The lesson is that when you design at the margins you can often address the needs of marginal populations while also serving the mainstream.”

To design at the margins, he suggests, we need to identify marginalized communities and work with their representatives to design locally relevant environmental literacy programs and projects.

For example, the East Bay Academy for Young Scientists, a Lawrence Hall of Science initiative, works with teachers and students in low-income communities in the Bay Area to develop critical thinking skills through scientific research and exploration. Students from these communities have researched and presented to city councils the data on air pollution and toxins in their neighborhoods.

Another challenge Craig has highlighted is that people often regard underfunded school districts as being populated by low-achieving students. “The solution is perceived as hiring more basic literacy coaches, not inspiring students to exercise higher-order skills involving research, analysis, presentation, and advocacy. But engaging students to address the environmental problems and opportunities in their neighborhoods helps students develop higher-order skills.”

The pandemic has fostered a dramatic rise in the appreciation of outdoor activities for students. But opportunities to develop outdoor school spaces are very limited in inner-city schools. Early-mover school districts are beginning to address this discrepancy. San Francisco USD has approved funding for the development of outdoor learning spaces in 25 underserved schools and Berkeley USD has funded such spaces in 4 elementary schools. Craig’s team at the Hall are founding partners of the recently launched National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative. This new initiative is creating resources that support district and school leaders in using the outdoors for learning during the pandemic and beyond.

Community-based partners involved in outdoor learning activities across the country have also been devastated by the pandemic through funding and job losses. Craig fears that many such organizations may disappear: “Years of efforts to increase access to the benefits of learning and thriving in the outdoors could be undone, even if environmental and outdoor science education programs manage to reopen. Resource-strapped organizations tell us they will need to forego initiatives to promote equitable and inclusive workplaces, and even perhaps to halt subsidized programming, scholarships, fee waivers, transportation grants, and community partnerships in favor of paying customers, which could lead, once again, to the exclusion of low-income students and students of color. There are things we can do now to prevent that.”

Despite the challenges, that have intensified during the pandemic, Craig is confident about the future: “Our task is to bring together partners with different expertise – local educators, curriculum designers, community-based partners, and even utilities and others that don’t self-identify as “environmental organizations” – establish environmental justice and literacy as shared values and unlock some funding. Wonderful things can happen when you make such connections.”

Relevant Links

California Environmental Literacy Initiative: Thinking through Environmental Justice in K-12 Education

A 2020 publication of the California History-Social Science Project, the California Global Education Project, the California Science Project, and the California Subject Matter Project that explores issues and opportunities to address environmental justice through professional learning for K-12 educators in California.

Racial Equity in Outdoor Science and Environmental Education

A note on practices to address racial equity in outdoor science and environmental education during the pandemic and beyond.

A Field at Risk: The Impact of COVID-19 on Environmental and Outdoor Science Education

In April 2020, the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a survey to learn about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the environmental and outdoor science education field nationwide. This policy brief describes the findings of the survey and makes recommendations for mitigating the potentially devastating threats facing this field.

Examining equitable and inclusive work environments in environmental education: Perspectives from the field and implications for organizations

An examination of equitable and inclusive work environments in environmental education with perspectives from the field and analysis of implications for organizations.

Connecting Environmental Justice and Environmental Literacy to Education

A report by Ten Strands on a workshop held in 2020 on linking environmental justice and environmental literacy.

School’s Out(side): Can California teach an understanding of the natural world to every K-12 schoolkid in the state?

 A 2019 Bay Nature Magazine report on scaling environmental literacy to all K-12 students in California.

The Environmental Justice Movement

A 2016 overview by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on the environmental justice movement in the United States.

Social Justice Resources for Sustainability-Minded Educators

A selection of social justice resources compiled by Green Schools National Network that educators can apply to their sustainability curriculum, as well as their teaching practice.

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