Environmental Advocacy Project
This project requires students to focus on an environmental problem that they are passionate about and prepare materials to advocate on behalf of a proposed solution (or small part of a solution) to that problem. Through the process, students are required to provide an historical contextualization of the given problem within its associated community or communities. This historical understanding will guide their organizational efforts. While the students do not necessarily have to implement their "plans," this assignment prepares them with tools to do so should they so choose, and ideally the assignment helps foster creativity, anticipatory problem solving, and critical analysis in the process. It is designed to be a project that students individually work on throughout the duration of the course, but could easily be scaled up or down, or adjusted to be completed as a team project.
One of the overarching goals of any sociology course that I teach is to encourage students to explore one of the fundamental tensions within social theory - the connection between agency and structure. In other words, I want my students to think about how their "personal" or "individual" decisions are in fact informed by larger forces within society, and how those "individual" decisions contribute to collective action. I want them to take a critical approach to understanding the social world, and question the ways in which the current organization of society benefits certain groups over others. Furthermore, I want them to think about how we might radically redefine aspects of our society that may seem "natural" or "have always been a certain way" and to carefully consider the kinds of tools that can be used to rally others to work towards new ways of social organization. These larger goals have influenced the following course outcomes:
- Students will learn and apply theories of social change.
- Students will explore the fundamental tension between individual agency and social structure in their efforts to imagine and/or instigate social change.
- Students will research and describe the historical context of a community and apply this knowledge to understanding the current state of the given environmental issue they are concerned with.
- Students will explore the idea of environmental justice and ways in which marginalized groups have been/continue to be disproportionately influenced by destructive environmental practices.
- Students will engage in a critical comparison of the benefits/limitations of different types of community-organizing tactics (i.e. online efforts versus more traditional on-the-ground techniques) and coordinate a larger plan of action that takes these factors into account.
- Students will identify relevant and reputable resources to inform their arguments.
- Students will practice delivering their message (adjusting to the constraints of different mediums, formats, and audiences).
Context for Use
This assignment is appropriate for a college or university level lecture-based course and can be scaled to size depending on the length of time available. I have used it primarily as a longer project that builds over the course, and culminates with a week in which students submit drafts and complete peer reviews before turning in their final paper. This assignment would work well in an Introductory Sociology course, and/or a Social Problems or Contemporary Social Issues course. I find that students are often overwhelmed by the complexity of the social problems we discuss throughout the course, and I like to end with a hopeful project that brings into focus the ways in which these seemingly unsolvable problems can in fact be tackled at some level. It also provides an opportunity to apply theory and knowledge to inform action, and to think about the potential for social change.
So far, this assignment has been implemented solely in an online course (and was intentionally designed to explore the benefits/drawbacks of online organizing efforts) but could easily be used in a traditional face-to- face classroom. As described here, the project is designed to be completed by an individual. With minimal effort, it could also be assigned as a group project.
Description and Teaching Materials
Teaching Notes and Tips
- Theories of social change;
- Discussions surrounding the nuances of advocacy versus activism as well as the benefits and drawbacks of online activism (sometimes disparaged as "slacktivism") and more traditional "on-the-ground" methods of activism;
- Concrete advice on how to write for different audiences and mediums (i.e. the constraints of writing a tweet versus writing to an elected government official);
- Ethical guidelines for the Instagram section (I highly encourage that instructors provide feedback on prompts prior to engaging in this part of the assignment, in addition to ensuring that students receive consent from participants to share their stories and photos).
I also use rubrics when grading the assignment (based on the guidelines proposed in the handout), and examples to illustrate previous work (which could illustrate strengths and weaknesses).
Assigning peer reviews is also very helpful. Not only does it provide feedback, but it also accomplishes the goal of educating others about the respective issues.
References and Resources
To illustrate the purpose of the Instagram section: https://www.instagram.com/humansofny/
Guidelines on writing a Public Service Announcement:
Guidelines on writing persuasively to elected officials:
Film on activist Saul Alinsky: "Saul Alinsky: The Democratic Process"
Film on coal mining in Appalachia: "Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal & The Fight For Coalfield Justice"
For excellent questions on the merit of individual vs. collective action:
Maniates, M.F. (2001). Individualization: Plant a tree, buy a bike, save the world? Global environmental politics,1(3), 31-52.