Environmental Justice and Education Part One: An Introduction

Written by Teri Hatch

Environmentalism is the crusade of our generation, and communities have an obligation to advance it. There is currently a gap between what we ought to teach our children in order to foster responsible, global citizens and what is actually being taught in public schools […]

*This article is Part One in a series of articles about environmental justice and education:

Environmentalism is the crusade of our generation, and communities have an obligation to advance it. There is currently a gap between what we ought to teach our children in order to foster responsible, global citizens and what is actually being taught in public schools around the country. As a student of education and of environmental education in particular, I have come to realize that this is especially true in low-income, urban neighborhoods, where recycling bins are scarce and sustainability is not a priority. These communities simply do not have the resources to proactively seek sustainable solutions. Tackling environmental concerns in these neighborhoods is a daunting task and is compounded by environmental injustice in these communities. However, I believe that teaching valuable lessons of empowerment first, and environmentalism second, is the key to reaching these children and thereby affecting real change. This will be the first in a series of articles written over the next few weeks, in which I will attempt to introduce readers to the concept of environmental injustice, what environmental education might look like in environmental injustice communities, and why environmental education is an important component of a successful sustainability plan nation-wide.

Recent research has been able to show that low-income White, Hispanic, and Black neighborhoods have dissimilar levels of environmental hazard, and that low-income Black neighborhoods have higher environmental hazard rates than the other two. Consequently, the disparity between the levels of environmental hazard in low-income and high-income Black households and neighborhoods is greater than similar comparisons of low- and high- income White or Hispanic households and neighborhoods. The South Bronx, for example, is the dumping ground for forty-percent of all of New York City’s commercial waste, including sewage treatment, sewage sludge, and food distribution by-products. Along with this disproportionate percentage of waste, this small area of the borough shoulders disproportionate rates of environmentally caused health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and asthma.

There was also a recent study conducted to examine the perceptions of environmental injustice and environmental concern among residents of a predominantly Black, highly polluted area. The findings indicate that the Black residents were more likely to believe that environmental injustice was at play and that local agencies are not adequately serving the environmental needs of the community. Common sense would tell us that children raised in an environment where their role models perceive environmental injustice and a lack of concern from those in power would be less likely to have any sense of environmental efficacy. Efficacy and empowerment are necessary for change, and they can also be fostered through targeted education. Education is therefore critical in these low-income, environmental injustice communities.

Educators like me, born of a world where the “environment” means lakes and mountains and natural preserves, must remember that this definition bears little meaning for children who live their lives in urban jungles. Education for these children must include a conceptualization of the environment as “where we live,” and in an urban context this includes a city block, graffiti on walls and buildings, and violence or other conflict that is a very real part of a child’s day. In addition, recycling may not be a serious consideration for these children if trash and debris are parts of the landscape, and it is surely hard to see how recycling water bottles can make a difference where there are so many more serious, endemic concerns. We must help urban children to achieve a sense of responsibility and ownership as a member of a community, so that they can start to truly believe that their actions are powerful and their intentions are meaningful. Mistrust of unresponsive governments and officials, as mentioned previously, is toxic to community building and will have to be overcome or compensated for with education, awareness, and eventually empowerment.

We as educators must remember that all of these factors have to be taken into consideration if we hope to enact change in impoverished, urban communities. While an emphasis on natural resources is certainly important, our primary goal for urban environmental education should be to show these children how they can take control and make a difference in their unique environments. In the following weeks, I will continue to explore what environmental justice is and what it means to residents of poor communities, what type of environmental education will be more informative and influential in these communities, and why environmental education is essential as we move toward a more sustainable future. I hope that you will join me.


Downey, Liam, and Brian Hawkins. “Race, Income, and Environmental Inequality in the United States.” Sociological Perspectives 51.4 (2008): 759-81. Print.

Jones, R. E. “Examining Linkages between Race, Environmental Concern, Health, and Justice in a Highly Polluted Community of Color.” Journal of Black Studies 36.4 (2006): 473-96. Print.

“Majora Carter on TEDTalks.” Web log post. TED Blog. 27 June 2007. Web. 17 July 2011.

About the author

Teri Hatch

Teri graduated Summa Cum Laude from the Honors Program at the University of New Hampshire with a BA in Political Science, Spanish, and Adolescent and Youth Development. She is currently an M.S.Ed candidate at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education in Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Development. Teri passionately believes in the invaluable role that early education can play in building a more sustainable future, and she therefore plans to devote her career to environmental education and awareness.