Justice, Power, and Activism: What the Goldman Environmental Prize Winners Teach Us About Resilience and Democracy

Jason Frederick Lambacher, University of Washington Bothell, inspired by an original activity by Geoff Dabelko, Ohio University.
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The Goldman Environmental Prize has recognized grassroots environmental leaders "for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk" http://www.goldmanprize.org/about. This activity is a linked set of student-centered exercises that enables students to learn more about Goldman Environmental Prize winners and the courageous activism that grounds their work. The lesson also exposes students to a diverse range of environmental conflicts around the world and encourages inquiry into their political, social, and cultural contexts. The activity's basic model involves students researching individual prize winners and the environmental issues they raise, followed by a group presentation of their findings to fellow classmates. The basic model can be extended in several directions to include more in-depth reading and study, an analytical focus (on environmental history, politics, globalization, leadership, and governance), a theoretical focus (on ideas regarding power, justice, and activism in environmentalism), and opportunities for personal reflection about daring activism and active hope on campus, in community, or in personal life.

Learning Goals

The main idea of this activity allows students to learn about, and be inspired by, the individual stories of environmental leaders who represent the global faces of the environmental justice movement. Through these stories, students are introduced to environmental conflicts in different regions of the world. The diversity of case studies helps to frame discussion about environmental justice and provides critical reflection for comparative environmentalism. A focus on the nature of activism brings these questions home, and several iterations of the activity encourage personal reflection about values, politics, and agency. Basic skills include writing, oral presentation, group research, and discussion facilitation. Other goals may involve more extensive written research and analysis, art projects, campus environmental governance, Earth Week exhibits, and opportunities to connect with prize-winners and the civil society organizations they represent.

Context for Use

The activity is flexible enough to work in a variety of teaching situations with a range of educational levels. As its core involves student research and presentations, it works best in classrooms with fewer than fifty students. The degree of depth and level of analytical rigor can be dialed up or down at your discretion, which makes the activity applicable across a range of undergraduate and graduate levels. Depending on class-size and number of exercises engaged, you should commit two sessions at a minimum to complete the lesson. More instruction time may be needed if you would like to explore key themes through additional writing exercises or creative projects.

Description and Teaching Materials

The attached file has a basic model that asks students, working in small groups, to visit the Goldman Prize website and become exposed to as many prize-recipients as possible. Information about each prize winner is easily accessible through bios, speeches, and short videos. Each group then decides which person they wish to research further, clearing their selections with the instructor so that two groups do not choose the same prize recipient. Group research culminates in a 10-15 minute presentation for the whole class, along with a 10-minute Q&A session. Audience members write one question per presentation that can serve as the basis for Q&A. The end of each day of presentations finishes with 5 minutes of "open questions" that enable students to record what they're learning and feeling about the stories of struggle, inspiration, fear, hope, pessimism, and optimism to which they have just been exposed. Just prior to leaving class, students share in small groups their answers to these "open questions."

The basic model has 10 "iterations" that serve to stimulate further reflection and research. These ten extensions include:
1) suggested reading about the Goldman Prize itself -- its history and critical appraisal in academic literature; 2) readings about "scales of activism" from the small to the heroic, accompanied by reflective and analytical writing assignments;
3) supplementary research about the personal narrative and life stories of prize winners, focusing on leadership and turning points toward activism;
4) digging deeper into the political and social context of each case;
5) personalizing the question of activism to one's own life through writing exercises designed to explore questions of risk and inspiration;
6) further investigation into what happened after a prize winner was awarded their prize;
7) a group activity that asks students to form a Goldman Environmental Prize committee for their campus or local community;
8) a theoretical activity that looks more in-depth at concepts or ideas raised by the example in question through response papers or small group discussion;
9) a local-global activist mapping activity that traces links between a prize winner, local environmental organizations, and global civil society groups, and
10) a group project that asks students to correspond with prize winners or the organizations they represent.

Goldman Environmental Prize Teaching Exercises

Teaching Notes and Tips

I use this exercise in an Environmental Ethics class, and will likely use it in a future course titled Global Justice, Activism, and NGOs. It comes in a unit on environmental activism near the end of the course focused on extinction, biodiversity loss, and development. By this point in the course, my students have encountered readings and many conversations centered on questions of hope and despair regarding environmental problems and prospects for amelioration. We have engaged difficult issues of environmental (in)justice, and explored how problems also look different when approached through individual or collective frameworks. My students have just finished a unit on radical environmental activism and resistance in the United States through the story of the Earth Liberation Front and associated questions of "ecoterrorism." Additionally, students are working on quarter-long research projects on topics of their choosing, and not a few of them are overwhelmed at this stage by the difficult political issues that are raised and the seeming impossibility of finding lasting and workable solutions -- the doom and gloom environmentalism familiar to most of us who are engaged in environmental work. The stories of hope, resilience, and courage that are raised by the Goldman Prize winners give my students a dose of inspiration at an important time in the quarter for their learning, thinking, and research. As the course, up until this point, has been heavy on theory, a focus on individual narratives and thick description with plenty of detail helps to animate abstract concepts and ideas, something that is particularly important for students who are not as theoretically inclined. The examples provided by the Goldman Prize winners give a human face to environmental issues and many students seem to appreciate this. The energy it generates for some research projects is noticeable.

Because this activity is student-centered and involves groups choosing and researching an individual prize winner and conveying what they've learned through a class presentation, I have found that the overall level of engagement is quite high. Students are frequently astonished to learn that so many Goldman Prize winners are young, with many being comparable in age to themselves. Reflecting on this connection leads to mixed reactions in the class, with some concluding that they could never do something so courageous and risky, and others fired up to do environmental justice work.

I have also noticed that because the Goldman Prize is global in nature (it recognizes six representatives from different regions of the world), my American students are exposed to the diversity of environmental struggles around the world. Some commented that these grassroots leaders and their struggles should be more well known and questioned whether the media or their education is at fault for this ignorance. The broadening of their horizons in this regard is an important pedagogical goal and a good first step in thinking comparatively about environmentalism in different social contexts. My international students, moreover, welcome the global focus of the exercise as well. A few remarked that they were learning about movements and campaigns in their home countries and regions for the first time. Other international students were clearly proud to teach fellow classmates about issues from their home countries from a position of authority and authenticity.

A sizable number of students reported on course evaluations that this activity was their favorite in the class. Reasons range from the fact that they could choose the content, their presentations were received warmly by classmates, and that they got to know other students through group work. A few also report that the tangible examples of daring activism prove that hope and positivity are still possible, despite all-too-familiar problems of injustice and powerlessness when it comes to environmental politics.

Note: I give teaching notes for the basic model and tips for each supplementary activity in the Word document found in the Description and Teaching Materials tab.


I give a collective grade for the group presentation (PowerPoint construction, delivery of information, the collective "statement of importance" the group composes for the presentation, and the management of Q&A from audience). I also assess audience participation for the questions they compose, the conversations they spark, and the "open sentences" they complete at the end of each day of presentations. I also emphasize that students should "speak to each other" as much as possible without filtering questions and answers through me, with the idea that the presentations and attendant conversation is as student-focused as possible.

References and Resources

The Goldman Prize website:http://www.goldmanprize.org

Readings & Films about the Goldman Environmental Prize:

Langholz, J., Sand, K., Raak, L., Berner, A., Anderson, H., Geels, B., . . . Nelsen, A. (2013). "Strategies and Tactics for Managing Environmental Conflicts: Insights from Goldman Environmental Prize Recipients." Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research, 1-17.

O'Neill, Kate. "The Comparative Study of Environmental Movements." Comparative Environmental Politics: Theory, Practice, and Prospects, edited by Paul F. Steinberg and Stacy D. VanDeveer, MIT Press, 2012, pp. 115–142. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vjs7f.10'>http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vjs7f.10.

Dauvergne, P. (2016). "The Rise of Environmentalism." In Environmentalism of the Rich (p, Environmentalism of the Rich, Chapters 7-10). The MIT Press.

Cohen, A. (2014, May 02). "Goldman Environmental Prize Reaches 25-year Milestone." The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California: J, p. 7A.

Benzinga Staff. (2012, June 05). More than 100 Goldman Environmental Prize Winners Call On Government Leaders to Take Risks at Rio Earth Summit, Commit to Sustainable Development. Benzinga.com, p. Benzinga.com, June 5, 2012.

Collection of articles about Goldman Prize archived by the L.A. Times: http://articles.latimes.com/keyword/goldman-environmental-prize

Redford, R., Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund, & Mill Valley Film Group. (2009). Global Focus: The Nw Evironmentalists. Sausalito, CA]: Mill Valley Film Group Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. (DVD)

Readings & films about environmental activism, hope, struggle, and resistance:

Solnit, Rebecca, Hope in the Dark

Macy, J., & Johnstone, Chris., Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in Without Going Crazy

Wapner, Paul, Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism

Maniates, Michael, "Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?"

Guha, Ramachandra, Environmentalism: A Global History

Keck, Margaret & Sikkink, Kathryn, Activists Beyond Borders

Marietta, D., & Embree, Lester E., Environmental Philosophy and Environmental Activism

Gottleib, Roger, A Spirituality of Resistance

Keogh, Martin (Ed.), Hope Beneath our Feet: Restoring our Place in the Natural World : An Anthology

Hawken, Paul, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World

Dowie, Mark, Conservation Refugees: The 100-year Battle between Global Conservation and Native Peoples

Schlosberg, David, Defining Environmental Justice: Theories, Movements, and Nature

Litfin, Karen, Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community

Vanderheiden, Steve, "Eco-terrorism or Justified Resistance? Radical Environmentalism and the 'War on Terror'"

Parson, Sean, "Understanding the Ideology of the Earth Liberation Front"


Taking Root: The Story of Wangari Maathai

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

Racing Extinction