Engaging with Environmental Justice Part 1: Starting the Conversation
I am always working toward a way that encourages joy with action for my students. I want to expose the truth of the climate crisis, and specifically the reality that it disproportionately affects communities of color, while also showing the heart and power these communities have. This is why well-done materials on the issue of climate justice can be such a gift, for if a material is carefully and creatively done, it shows exactly how joy can be used with action, which gets students invested in the topic.
Students also need an engaging piece to "hook" them into the topic, and that's what this list is meant to do. All of these materials quickly get to the heart of what environmental justice is, while piquing students' interests in becoming activists. These materials are just the beginning, and could very well lead into a larger unit on environmental justice (more on that later).
In this list I offer a variety of media options and levels of difficulty for students, so they can see an issue in a format that makes sense to them. Some students may respond better to a picture book, others to a video online, while others reading an article is the best avenue to knowledge. All of these options have a strong visual component.
We Are Water Protectors (Roaring Brook Press) by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade
Premise: This book begins by establishing the sacredness of water, followed by the threat of the Dakota Access Pipeline (referred to as the Black Snake), and finishes with the strength of the people protesting this line.
Why it’s great: One of the major strengths of this book is how empowering it is. The people are strong against the act of injustice, and the bold colors within the artwork along with well-chosen words reflect this power accurately.
Emile and the Field (Make Me a World) by Kevin Young, illustrated by Chioma Ebinama
Premise: Emile watches a field through the seasons as it changes and offers him solace. The book is not one with a plotline that preaches environmental justice, but rather speaks to the importance of green space for all human kind.
Why it’s great: This book takes a field that could be defined as insignificant and gives it a voice. You could use this as a springboard for how some individuals do not have access to such space. Beautifully written by poet Kevin Young, this story could also be used as a way to expose young readers to abstract language and imagery.
Illustrated Guide for Watershed by the University of Michigan Museum of Modern Art
Used with permission from UMMA
Premise: This is an excellent resource meant to go along with a temporary exhibit currently at the UMMA, Watershed. The exhibit contains artwork that reflects on different past and future relationships with the Great Lakes, and the workbook provides thoughtful analysis of this contemporary art. There are images from the exhibit within the book, so students can complete the activities as a stand-alone, if need be.
Why it’s great: Critical thinking! The guide is not just “busy work”as it actually has students respond creatively to contemporary, purposeful artwork. The workbook, geared towards middle and high schoolers, is also available as an elementary worksheet here.
What Is Environmental Justice? by the Center for Earth Education and Democracy
Premise: This is a short animation that illustrates without words what environmental justice is. Students may need guidance as they watch, as there is some explanation needed when it shows a bit of policy power-play.
Why it’s great: The animation is a good conversation starter, and could be open-ended as far as how deep you want to go. Also, it ends on a hopeful note with action on the part of an individual affected by environmental injustice.
Premise: The article reviews the exhibit "Water Memories" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was curated to show just how intricately connected water is to the lives of First Peoples, and how much they have done to preserve this resource, especially through creativity.
Why it’s great: This piece can be read or listened to as an audio file, and also includes a stunning video of a performance art piece in the exhibit called "The Mirror Shield Project". This article could also strongly encourage students in how something they enjoy, like art, could be used for good.
“I’m a black climate expert: Racism derails our efforts to save the planet” by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Washington Post
Premise: Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson writes an op-ed on why Black individuals and people of color are specifically important to solving the climate crisis, and sets a case for why we all need to become active anti-racists in order to solve climate change.
Why it’s great: This piece is an exception to many of the others, as it does not have a multimedia option, nor does it have many uplifting moments, but it is extremely powerful, and may offer encouragement for you as a teacher, if not shared with the class. When considering this op-ed as an elementary teacher, you could easily frame some climate justice with books like Anti-Racist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi or use Emmy Kastner’s Nerdy Babies
series to start conversations about representation.
Hopefully these pieces give you some spark on how you can incorporate just a little more environmental justice into your classroom or home.