A Look at Environmental Literacy and Equitable Access
Here at Green Guardians, we wanted to take a look back at our previous interviews we have had with environmental education knowledge leaders and revisit the need for equitable access to environmental literacy tools. Our first interview was with Dr. Gerald Lieberman, Director of the State Education and Environmental Roundtable (SEER) where he has been instrumental in the development of California’s initiatives around environment-based education (EBE). In his role with SEER, Dr. Lieberman developed a strategy for implementing EBE called the EIC Model ™ or Environment as an Integrating Context for learning which focuses on developing localized instructional programs at the school or district level.
As Dr. Lieberman noted in his book Education and the Environment (2014):
“The major educational and environmental challenges that our society is currently facing are inextricably connected to the ways humans interact with the world around them… changing the way teachers teach and students learn is the only way to develop an educated citizenry capable of resolving these challenges.”Dr. Gerald Lieberman
In other words, in order for our community to have an impact on the environment around us, we need to start educating students on culturally and environmentally relevant topics, as well as on actionable tasks that can be taken beyond the classroom. One of the main challenges that educators face when implementing environmental literacy is equitable access to resources, programs, and relevant lessons. This issue is especially prevalent in low-income and underrepresented communities.
To address relevancy in environmental literacy implementation, Craig Strang, the Associate Director of the UC Berkeley Lawrence Hall of Science, advocates for designing at the margins. To design at the margins, we need to identify marginalized communities and work with their representatives to design locally relevant environmental literacy programs and projects. “The lesson is that when you design at the margins you can often address the needs of marginal populations while also serving the mainstream,” expressed Craig.
We spoke with Craig Strang about the issue of environmental justice and equity in the space, and he believes that we should place environmental justice at the heart of the emerging discipline of environmental literacy. He suggests we start by recognizing 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.
In relation to environmental literacy and environmental justice, we are seeing youth leaders emerge where education has been insufficient and environmental challenges have greatly impacted communities. We spoke with Isha Clarke, a youth activist and one of the founding members of Youth vs. Apocalypse, and she emphasized that environmental literacy is environmental justice due to the fact that they are inseparable for many underserved communities who disproportionately suffer the impact of many environmental issues. Isha explained how environmental literacy can advance “collective liberation from systems of oppression” by helping people see the interdependence between natural and human systems. It also addresses the fact that while educators may understand the importance of learning about the environment, the environment is core to the identity of many youths today. Using the environment as a multi-disciplinary lens to highlight and provide context around injustices facing students’ communities will reach students and inspire action.
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. It is important for schools across the nation to roll out environmental literacy initiatives in an equitable manner to make the greatest impact on our society’s relationship with the environmental challenges prevalent today. 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.”
As we look forward to the future of environmental education, environmental literacy must be at the forefront of school curriculums. Through interdisciplinary lessons, educators and students can connect with environmental topics in non-traditional and exciting ways. Working with community-based partners is a great way for counties and school districts to get a jump-start on introducing environmental literacy into their curriculums as CBPs provide a wealth of knowledge and resources for educators.
Our upcoming CAELI Community-Based Partner Hub, in association with CAELI and Ten Strands, aims to provide equitable access for County Offices of Education, school districts, and educators to environmental education resources and programs provided by community-based partners.
See the K-12 Environmental Literacy timeline here.