Part Two: A Vision of Just and Sustainable Education

Written by Teri Hatch

In my last article, I introduced the concept of environmental justice. Understanding environmental justice is to recognize that individuals in low-income, Black communities are systematically subjected to greater concentrations of environmental pollutants […]

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

In my last article, I introduced the concept of environmental justice. Understanding environmental justice is to recognize that individuals in low-income, Black communities are systematically subjected to greater concentrations of environmental pollutants and toxins than any other socioeconomic group. Of course, this truth ought to inspire outrage and action on many levels. My particular attachment to the cause comes from its implication for environmental education, which is my passion. I believe that environmental education that focuses solely on teaching what is right or wrong and what we ought to do is missing the mark with these kids. Research and consideration of this topic has led me to a vision of environmental education tailored for those children who are most susceptible to environmental toxins and simultaneously least protected: those children affected by environmental injustice. Such forethought is critically important for all those invested in environmental education.

My confrontation with the topic of environmental injustice and its significance for sustainability education came through my independent research in a public school in West Philadelphia. Here, I interviewed a number of elementary-school-aged children about their environmental knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors, contrasting their answers with those of children at a suburban elementary school in New Hampshire. I was expecting to find differences between the two groups with respect to the extent of their knowledge, ignorantly assuming that the children in New Hampshire would be better informed. What I found was not so much an education disparity but rather a difference of attitude that was initially disheartening. The children in West Philadelphia seemed to know that we are supposed to recycle, for instance, but they, as compared to their counterparts in New Hampshire, lacked the conviction that their individual actions could truly make a difference. When I asked the children in New Hampshire what they would do if their favorite outdoor space was covered in litter, they invariably responded with some version of “I would clean it up.” The children in West Philadelphia, however, tried to shift responsibility, telling me that they would ask a garbage man to pick it up or, in one instance, that they should “hire a superman.”

In my opinion, these answers are a symptom of environmental injustice. Research has shown that the very real conditions of environmental injustice cause low-income, Black individuals to believe that their situations are endemic and that those in charge of protecting them are not doing their jobs. This understandably leads to disempowerment and eventually to a feeling that nothing one does will truly make much of a difference in the reality of his or her situation. The comments of those children in West Philadelphia indicate that they have inherited a feeling that they are not in control of their environmental destiny. Imagine how difficult it is to convince children that conserving water and turning off lights is important to protecting the “environment,” if the environment in which they live is dangerous, let alone something worth preserving. The effort is nearly futile if the children have also come to believe that no one cares about their environmental health. In my opinion, combating this attitude must be the number one priority for environmental educators in areas representative of environmental injustice.

Teaching empowerment is a critical precursor to teaching environmental stewardship. This is not a lesson that can be taught by the book or in any short order, but rather must become a focus in interdisciplinary education. We as educators should consciously give children choices whenever possible and ensure that they can see the real outcomes of these choices. Environmental education is a perfect arena for offering children options to direct their own curricula because of the inherently personal nature of environmental conservation. My proximal environment is different than yours, and my recipe for conservation likewise involves making personal choices that are going to differ from yours. This could translate to the classroom by, for example, empowering children to decide which environmental concern they would like to focus on, whether it is water conservation, global warming, species endangerment and extinction, etc.

Children should also engage in environmentally friendly projects, the results of which they can readily see. Service projects such as planting a neighborhood garden or engaging in a community clean up are empowering for children, and providing follow up so that the children can see appreciation for their efforts is especially gratifying. Allowing the children to be involved in the planning of these projects will make them particularly rewarding and enjoyable. I contend that it is especially important for children in urban environments to have these experiences, as positive interactions with nature are likely few and far between.

It is of course vital for children everywhere to learn how to protect our Earth and why this is important. These lessons may be easiest to convey to children who have daily interactions with nature and therefore appreciate its worth. Urban children may inherently be less receptive to environmental messages, and environmental injustice in low-income, urban neighborhoods makes these lessons that much harder to grasp. City children are greatly in need of quality environmental education, so it is the task of educators like me to develop curricula that speaks to them. I believe that this requires careful attention to empowering the students as learners and environmental stewards. Raising a generation of city residents who take pride in their space and therefore seek to protect it will pay huge dividends for all of us fighting the environmental fight. It will also be exceedingly beneficial for these individuals and their communities. The end result of our educational efforts should be to show these students that they can, in fact, be their own “supermen.”


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.

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.