Initial Publication Date: June 18, 2013

Workshop Synthesis

The final session of the workshop asked participants to summarize their closing thoughts about the workshop topics and experiences. The list below represents a synthesis of some of the common themes about interdisciplinary approaches to teaching environmental justice.

  • Environmental Justice is important, has a strong moral imperative and is a societal issue that requires perspective and information from multiple disciplines to be understood and addressed. As such it provides a strong venue at all types of institutions for teaching students how to bring together perspectives and ideas from multiple disciplines to bear on a problem and how to work in interdisciplinary teams. Integrating EJ across the curriculum is a viable and powerful thing to do, but our success is contingent on our ability and willingness to build consensus across entrenched disciplinary boundaries.
  • Addressing EJ can be done in small ways in existing disciplinary courses if an institution doesn't have the resources to develop entire courses on the subject. EJ can be a very strong integrative principle for student writing in a variety of genres. There are good examples and resources to address EJ within and beyond the classroom.
  • Environmental justice and environmentalism are not the same things. While they share some perspectives and history, they are sometimes in conflict. There is a need to introduce students to the basic concepts of race, class, gender, power dynamics, ability/disability and white privilege that are fundamental to understanding EJ. Writing and inquiry can be important tools in introducing these concepts.
  • EJ Issues are an excellent way to engage students in the study of environmental issues because EJ perspective incorporates personal and community impacts with the scientific examination of the cause and effects of environmental contamination. However, they can also be alienating to some populations. It is essential to understand your student population and to think about the approach and framing. Comedy can serve as a valuable tool for approaching difficult topics.
  • Environmental (in)justice is a complex system that includes includes power inequities, historical context and inherent spatial variability of hazards and resources. Using a systems approach to analysis of both the physical and social systems involved may help highlight root causes and fundamental interactions.
  • Developing empathy for others' life experience and point of view is central to building concern for and attention to environmental justice. Some strategies for building this perspective include sensory mapping, real or cyber ethnography, service or community based learning, literature and media assignments, roleplaying and games that look at contrasting narrative, arc of story, point of view, and evolution through time. Reflection is an important tool and can provide a gradeable product.
  • It is essential to maintaining hope and agency in the face of a long lasting complex challenge like EJ. Studying success stories, people who have made a difference, and actions that give hope can be effective. There is a tension between maintaining hope, and understanding the full extent of how complex and deeply entrenched the problems are.
  • While we all desire our students to become actors in making our civilization more environmentally just, there are a variety of strategies for approaching this in different instructional settings. They range from developing empathy and awareness to requiring students to engage in service or advocacy. In all cases faculty are careful not to dictate the students perspective or approach. The frame is to learn how to act, not to be told to act in a certain way.
  • There is a strong tension between educating and engaging students in Environmental Justice and respecting the affected communities. This requires attention, preparation and skill. Anthropologists and sociologists have experience with these issues that can be brought to bear. Listening, sensitivity to context, and reflexivity are essential. While we have expertise to offer, we must refrain from removing agency to ourselves.
  • Having to make and negotiate decisions in a group takes patience, time, and skill, and is something that environmental justice communities have to do under exceptionally "high-stakes" problems.
  • Engaging students in EJ community work can provide a profound life changing experience. It is hard to do, particularly in the absence of institutional support. The community connection takes time, commitment, and sensitivity. It has a lot of potential benefits on both sides but shouldn't be undertaken lightly.
  • EJ and sustainability are intertwined in important ways that offer important educational openings for students. Both have inherent geoscience elements that can introduce students to our scientific understanding of the Earth.
  • We need to address the tension between the EJ movement and expert discourse, as well as the tension between localized, place based EJ movements and national policy communities and global problems.