Environmental Justice: Theory and Practice

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CalRecycle’s Education and the Environmental Initiative (EEI) curriculum defines environmental justice as “respecting and valuing every individual and community by conducting public health and environmental protection programs and policies in a way that promotes equity and fair treatment for all, regardless of race, age, culture, income, or geographic location.”

In California, environmental justice issues are prevalent in rural and in urban communities. The state’s CalEnviroScreen tool helps decision makers, community leaders, and educators explore these issues in California. The tool maps multiple sources of pollution and pairs that information with population data to create a score that reflects environmental and public health issues in a particular area and the vulnerability of the people who live there.

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As an employee of CalRecycle and a graduate student in Urban Sustainability, I had the unique opportunity to develop an environmental justice project. I approached CalRecycle’s Office of Education and the Environment to seek out a fieldwork experience that proved to have many benefits: It offered me an opportunity to explore something I am passionate about, it satisfied my school credits, and it moved the needle in CalRecycle’s environmental justice efforts.

This unfolded as a yearlong effort to explore the nexus between environmental justice and CalRecycle’s Education and Environment Initiative (EEI) curriculum. The EEI is a part of a statewide effort to increase environmental literacy among K-12 students by integrating key environmental concepts into the teaching of traditional science and history-social science standards. The curriculum is provided to California teachers free of charge, and various lessons can be used to address environmental justice issues in the classroom. 

All students, whether or not they are from environmentally impacted communities, can benefit from developing environmental literacy and a foundational understanding of how environmental injustices occur and how they can be addressed and, ideally, prevented in the future. 

One of the first outcomes of this project was an environmental justice teacher training for educators in Los Angeles. We highlighted an 11th-grade U.S. History-Social Science unit titled “The United States and Mexico: Working Together.” We conducted role-play activities to showcase how students can explore different perspectives of the same issues and empathize with others. An outline of this training can be found here: https://goo.gl/8QrG9u

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Another exciting outcome of this project was working with a group of students from an environmental justice organization in Los Angeles, Pacoima Beautiful

This high school club of Pacoima Beautiful, Youth United Towards Environmental Protection (YUTEP), is led by Diego Ortiz and Jazmine Saucedo. Together, we crafted an environmental justice service-learning project that explored environmental justice issues in their community using CalEnviroScreen and the EEI curriculum as tools. The essential question was: How can we combat environmental justice issues within our community in order to keep people safe and healthy?

YUTEP was trained to use the CalEnviroScreen tool as part of Cal/EPA’s Enforcement Initiative in Pacoima. You can read about the outcome of the initiative here

Students used CalEnviroScreen to identify, research, and investigate issues such as illegal dumping, lack of green spaces, air pollution from diesel truck emissions, and Superfund sites in their community.

EEI resources supported participants’ preparation and the reflection. The project culminated with a student-led environmental justice forum as the “action” to share with the community what they had learned and how they can address the issues the explored.

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The next step is to outline this project in a form that teachers can recreate in the classroom.  A group of teachers in Pacoima is embarking on an interdisciplinary environmental justice project modeled on the project.

CalRecycle has embarked  on its environmental justice journey under the leadership of Maria Salinas. 

“At its core, environmental justice is about equity,” Salinas said. “In California, the nation, and the world, low-income people and people of color are most impacted by pollution burdens.  Environmental justice is about improving these conditions for healthier communities.  At CalRecycle, we are continuing genuine efforts to work with disadvantaged communities and respond to their comments and concerns.  Correspondingly, we are making our programs, services, and decision making process more accessible by providing more information to the public and disadvantaged communities and translating materials when needed.  I call EJ ‘the civil rights of the environment.’ After all, the civil rights movement is about equal access to, and opportunities for, basic privileges and rights in America.  There is nothing more basic, important, and deserving than human health and the environment for everyone.”

This project is about making sure all California students receive equal access to the curriculum.  It is also about educating our youth about environmental justice in order to help combat these injustices within our communities. It has been an honor exploring the intersection between environmental justice and the EEI curriculum, and I look forward to establishing CalRecycle’s role in educating our youth to create and sustain healthy communities. 

— Angela Vincent
Posted on Nov 17, 2016

Summary: CalRecycle’s Education and the Environmental Initiative (EEI) curriculum defines environmental justice as “respecting and valuing every individual and community by conducting public health and environmental protection programs and policies in a way that promotes equity and fair treatment for all, regardless of race, age, culture, income, or geographic location.”