For Educators: Environmental Justice Movement
Environmental Justice is one in a series of lesson units to be launched as part of the Avoice Virtual Library. The lessons will provide teachers supplemental information about African American Congressional members’ push, often in collaboration with grassroots organizations, for environmental justice for minority and low-income communities.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been at the forefront of the Environmental Justice Movement, calling national attention to the disproportionate burden of pollution on the most vulnerable members of our society. Their public advocacy has included protesting the location of toxic waste sites in minority and low-income areas, calling for new and revised standards for clean air and water, as well as promoting environmentally progressive energy policies. Their efforts to bring Congressional attention to environmental injustices and raise the levels of awareness about the environment in their communities have brought about significant changes in environmental policy and oversight.
Through the use of documents and images provided on the website as well as suggested activities and readings to explore topics like the Hurricane Katrina Disaster and the Gulf Region, students will learn about the growing need for minorities to become more engaged in protecting their environment and how best to do it.
Grade Level: 8-12
Essential Question: Is it important to care about our environment? How may an unhealthy environment affect my personal life as well as my community?
Using documents, images, and articles from the Avoice Web site, students will:
NS 9-12.6: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives.
Content Standard F: A personal and social perspective of science helps a student to understand and act on personal and social issues. This perspective builds a foundation for future decision making.
Era 10: Contemporary United States (1968 to the present)
Standard 2E: The student understands how a democratic polity debates social issues and mediates between individual or group rights and the common good.
Select an activity below to view full activity guidelines:
Introductory Essay: Environmental Justice
It is well documented that people who live, work, and play in America’s most polluted environments are poor and people of color. This is no accident. These communities are often targeted as locations for the placement of facilities that negatively impact the environment. In these communities, you may find a waste dump, landfill, or a dirty industrial plant emitting pollutants into the air, or a highway or railway creating noise pollution, or the use of a pesticide for farming that pollutes the soil and the vegetables and fruits we eat, or radioactive waste storage areas, and meat and poultry processors. The environmental changes brought on by facilities such as these, have helped prompt the formation of a grassroots movement to fight environmental injustices and the creation of the term “environmental racism.”
The Environmental Justice Movement emerged in the 1980s in reaction to these discriminatory environmental practices. The origins of the Environmental Justice Movement, however, may be traced to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s as well as the Environmental Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Citing the environmental threats from hazardous wastes and other toxic chemicals in their communities, low-income communities of color emerged as strong activists against what they viewed as environmental attacks on their civil rights.
In 1982, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, then director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) coined the term “environmental justice” in response to an incident in Warren County, North Carolina. At the urging of community leaders, Chavis and others including the Southern Christian Leadership Conferenc’s (SCLC) Joseph Lowery and Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) member Walter Fauntroy participated in a month-long protest against the siting of a chemical landfill in Warren County. The protest, though unsuccessful, garnered the attention of national civil rights leaders and environmentalists and is commonly recognized as the birthplace of the Environmental Justice Movement.
The Warren County incident was also the motivation for a CRJ study examining the correlation between race and toxic waste. In 1987 CRJ published a report about this study, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Social Economic Characteristics of Communities of Hazardous Waste Sites, citing the overrepresentation of toxic waste facilities in minority communities, especially African American and Hispanic communities.
Other communities of color had organized to oppose environmental threats before Warren County. In the early 1960s, Latino farm workers organized by Cesar Chavez fought for workplace rights, including protection from harmful pesticides in the farm fields of California’s San Joaquin valley. In 1967, African-American students took to the streets of Houston to oppose a city garbage dump in their community that had claimed the lives of two children. In 1968, residents of West Harlem, in New York City, fought unsuccessfully against the siting of a sewage treatment plant in their community. But the Warren County protests marked the first instance of an environmental protest by people of color that garnered widespread national attention.
In 1990, the Congressional Black Caucus and a bipartisan coalition of academic, social scientists and political activists met with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials to discuss the heightened environmental risks for minority and low-income populations. The CBC and others suggested that the EPA’s inspections did not address the needs of low-income communities of color. In response, the EPA created the Environmental Equity Workgroup. In 1992, the workgroup addressed these concerns in a report, Reducing Risk for All Communities, which highlighted the exposure of racial minorities to high levels of pollution. The group made several recommendations, among them was the idea that an office was needed to address environmental inequities. As a result, the Office of Environmental Equity was created; the name was changed to the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) in 1994.
By 1990, leaders of the growing Environmental Justice Movement began to look for allies among traditional, primarily white environmental organizations. These were groups that had long fought to protect wilderness, endangered species, clean air and clean water. They were well-funded and powerful enough to influence national policy on environmental issues, but they had had little or no involvement in the environmental struggles of people of color. That year, several environmental justice leaders co-signed a widely publicized letter to several environmental groups like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the Wilderness Society accusing them of racial bias in policy development, hiring and the make up of their boards, and challenging them to address toxic contamination in the communities and workplaces of people of color and the poor. As a result, some mainstream environmental organizations developed their first environmental justice initiatives, added people of color to their staffs and resolved to take environmental justice into account when making policy decisions.
Two years later, the CBC established the Environmental Justice Braintrust under the leadership of Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-SC). The CBC has indentified environmental justice as one of the top three issues on every agenda since the braintrust was established. The National Environmental Policy Commission, established in 2000, is an outgrowth of recommendations from a Congressional Black Caucus’ Environmental Justice Braintrust. The Commission was created by the CBC to address environmental justice, public health, and economic development. The Congressional Black Caucus’ Environmental Justice Braintrust continues to be a driving force in environmental justice activism.
Activity 1: Pollution: Why Should I Care About It?
Distribute to each student a copy of the KWL worksheet and the introductory essay.
Reading and Analyzing Information: Share with the students the introductory essay about Environmental Justice. Allow the students a few minutes to read the essay and respond to the questions in column one and column two of the chart.
Discussion: Lead the students in a whole class discussion about what they learned from the essay. Using large sheets of easel pad paper, record the students’ responses.
Video Segments: From the list below, select 1-2 video segments depicting first person interpretation and stories about pollution in their communities and how it impacts their daily life. It is recommended that you review the video segments first to determine which ones are most appropriate for viewing with your students.
Show the students the video segments. Following the viewing, allow the students time to respond again to the questions in column one and column two of the KWL chart.
A story about the aftermath of one family’s discovery that they were not properly warned about toxic waste at a nearby landfill which polluted their well and damaged the soil on their family farm. (7:03 minutes)
An excerpt from the documentary about Bob White, West Virginia and the impact of coal mining on communities in this region of the country. Maria Gunnoe, the winner of the Goldman Prize for North America, is a longtime resident of Bob White and the narrator telling the story of the environmental devastation of mountain removal and mining. (5:30 minutes)
This town in southeastern Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, is the site of the fourth largest waste dumping site in the country. (8:58 minutes)
This short film documents the heaviest concentration in California of oil refineries, major ports, major freeways, heavy diesel trucking, and oil drilling. Residents of this largely Latino community share the environmental effects on their daily lives and their fight for clean air. (12:33 minutes)
Again, in a whole class discussion, ask the students to share what additional information they learned from the videos about environmental issues. Using the large sheets of easel pad paper, record the students’ responses. Display the responses in the classroom for reference as the students continue to explore answers to questions generated during the discussion.
To introduce the students to the legislative impact of CBC on environmental issues, view the Avoice webcast: Leadership and the Environmental Justice.
Activity 2: The Birth of the Environmental Justice Movement: Warren County, North Carolina
Web Resources Needed:
Reading and Analyzing Documents:
Divide the students into small groups. Share with each group a copy of H.R. 843, the Case Study of Warren County, and the Warren County fact gathering worksheet. Ask the students to review the materials by responding to the questions on the worksheet. Tell the students that the information they gather will be used later to prepare a poster display and/or write an op-ed essay about pollution in your community.
Research and Presentation (Compare and Contrast):
After the students have completed the worksheet, invite them to explore their school grounds, neighborhood, community or city for areas that may be posing an environmental hazard. Ask them to record what they see using the digital camera. You should also encourage the students to search on the Internet for additional information about hazards like water quality and waste management in their community and what the local or state governments are doing to correct the problem. Using the information and images they have gathered, have each group prepare a poster to distinguish between what happened in Warren County, NC and what’s happening in their community’s environment today.
Prepare an Article for a Newspaper or an Op-Ed essay
Working in small groups, ask the students to prepare a newspaper article or op-ed essay about environmental issues in their community. Encourage them to send their writings to their area newspaper or local, state, and federal officials to inform them about their personal concerns and interest in improving their community’s environment.
Earth Mapping to Track Environmental Damage
The Environmental Protection Agency provides an online service that allows anyone to find industrial facilities located near their home, workplace or schools. The EPA Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Explorer allows users to learn about the pollution profiles of each facility, including which pollutants are generated and how the facility handles them. You can also compare the performance of the facilities in your community to similar facilities locally, nationally, and now Canada and Mexico.
Using the third column of the activity worksheet, ask the students to do local and national research using this tool to learn what the environmental hazards are, where people are most effected and what, if anything, is being done about it. Encourage students to map the locations of these facilities or hazards using Google Maps or Google Earth to see where the facilities are located in relationship to their homes and school.
Ask the students to explore the worksheet’s sample list of environmental hazards; identify what and where it is happening and if it is impacting other parts of the country (can environmental hazards in the Atlantic Ocean near New York City effect the beaches of Nova Scotia in Canada? or How does the use of pesticide for growing fruits and vegetable effects the soil and water where it is grown and your health when eaten?)
Activity 3: Advocacy for Environmental Justice and the Congressional Black Caucus
Divide the students into small groups. Provide each group with a copy of Congressman Dellum’s 1991 Memorandum, the Environmental Justice Braintrust photo, Protesters Marching Against Waste Dump photo, and the analysis worksheets for documents and photographs.
Using the documents and sharing segments of the webcast, introduce the students to the action of advocates for environmental justice. Encourage the students to explore ways in which others have or could advocate to insure everyone is protected from environmental hazards.
Tell the students that they will prepare a persuasive letter to Congressional Black Caucus members encouraging them to continue their fight for environmental justice. Ask the students to explain in the letter why the issue is important to them and what they can do in their personal lives to support congressional efforts. Direct students to use the Environmental Justice Advocacy worksheet to organize their thoughts in preparation for writing their letters.
Teacher: Please forward the students letters to the Caucus, other state and Congressional representatives, as well as the President of the United States, as an example to the students that they do have a voice in raising awareness of what is happening in their community. Tell the students that they can use the following websites to find information about Congressional Black Caucus Members of the U.S. Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate).
Activity 4: Hurricane Katrina
In August 2005, the north-central Gulf Coast was hit by the third-strongest hurricane on record, Hurricane Katrina. It caused severe destruction along the coast of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana with the worst damage occurring in New Orleans, Louisiana. In New Orleans, nearly all of the levees were breached, flooding almost the entire city and several of the neighboring parishes. A levee or dyke is an earthen embankment or artificial sloping wall that runs parallel to the course of a river or coast, whose primary purpose is to regulate water levels and furnish flood protection from seasonal high waters. The city’s deteriorating levees (many of them in the communities of African-Americans and the poor) failed to protect the city and its residents from rising waterways caused by Hurricane Katrina. Approximately 1,800 people lost their lives, making it one of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes in U.S. history.
Hurricane Katrina highlighted the vulnerability of low-income communities and people of color to environmental disasters. Many of New Orleans’ black residents were displaced, stranded, and left permanently homeless by Katrina. Among the major issues of this humanitarian crisis were shortages of food, water, and medicine. Many neighborhoods were left contaminated and the state and federal governments were highly criticized for the slow pace of recovery efforts. As a result of Hurricane Katrina, the issue of environmental pollution and contamination was brought back to the forefront demonstrating how the environmental safety of poorer communities has largely been ignored.
This activity is designed for students to self-explore the Avoice exhibit on Environmental Justice. Direct them to find and review the following document and exhibit spotlight section:
Divide the students into small groups. Provide each student a sheet of paper and pencil for note taking. Distribute a Document Analysis Worksheet to each group, along with the hyperlinks to the Avoice website.
Online Research and Analysis of Information:
Using the computers, allow the small groups of students in-class time to research the recommended document and web page. Ask each group to prepare an outline of key facts they learned about the effect and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (i.e. what happened and what is being done about it today).
Lead the students in a whole class discussion about what they learned from their online research and what they think that local, state, and federal government needs to do to insure that this tragedy doesn’t happen again.
Ask the students what other documents they saw on the web site that demonstrated the Congressional Black Caucus’ strong and continued advocacy for the support of the victims of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation.
To end this activity and before the students create their own classroom exhibit, share with them the CNN article of first person narratives from children who experienced Hurricane Katrina as well as the online video clips. Lead the class in discussion about their reaction to the stories. If you have students who may have experienced Hurricane Katrina (or any other natural disaster) or have family members who survived it, this could be an opportunity to share first-hand experience with fellow classmates.
These reflections could also be expressed through a creative writing exercise and incorporated into the classroom exhibit.
Have the students create a classroom display about Hurricane Katrina and what we must do to prevent such a major catastrophe from happening again. Encourage the students to explore the themes of environmental injustice, humanitarian efforts, displacement, and rebuilding a community throughout the display. Encourage them to refer to the Avoice exhibit and their outlines. For additional information you may want to also refer students to the following websites.
Consider screening one of two recommended films: Trouble the Water (2008) and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006). Both documentaries are awarding winning films.
Activity 5: How do I Make a Difference in My Community?
“Now all of the issues of environmental racism and environmental justice don’t just deal with people of color. We are just as much concerned with inequities in Appalachia, for example, where the whites are basically dumped on because of lack of economic and political clout and lack of having a voice to say “no” and that’s environmental injustice.” -Robert Bullard
Share the above quote with your students. Lead the class in discussion about what Dr. Bullard meant when he made this statement. Ask the students:
Activity: Organize a School-wide “Environmental Hazards Awareness Day”
With your students, organize a school-wide “Environmental Hazards Awareness Day.”
Advocacy: the act of supporting or arguing in favor of something, such as a cause, idea, or policy.
Environment: surroundings, indoors and outside; the climate, habitat, atmosphere, and ecology.
Pollution: the introduction of harmful substances or products into the environment, such as air pollution.
Justice: the quality of being fair; to act or treat justly.
Reclamation: To rebuild, rehabilitation, and renewal
Bullard, Robert and Beverly Wright. Race, Place, and the Environmental Justice after Hurricane Katrina. Westview Press: New York, NY, 2009
Friedman, Thomas L. Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How it Can Renew America. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Publisher, New York, NY, 2008
Hawken, Paul. Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being, and Why No One Saw It Coming. Viking Press: New York, NY, 2007
Lerner, Steve. Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 2006
Leuzzi, Linda. To the Young Environmentalist: Lives Dedicated to Preserving the Natural World. Franklin Watts Press: Danbury, CT, 1998
Avoice: African American Voice in Congress
Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)
Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF)
Environmental Justice, Environmental Racism
This is a web resource for Environmental Justice activists
This is a pollution information site where you can search for the in-depth reports for your county, covering air, water, chemicals, etc.
Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University
This web site provides the most current information about environmental issues that are occurring today: articles, Katrina updates, the latest legal actions on landfill and waste dumps, videos, and legislative actions (local, state, and federal).
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Compliance and Enforcement
This site is an excellent source for learning about environmental protection, compliance with the nation’s environmental laws and enforcement of those laws.
Trouble the Water. Dir. Carl Deal; Tia Lessin. Zeitgeist Films, 2008.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Dir. Spike Lee. HBO Home Video, 2006.
The Environmental Justice Movement lesson unit was created through the combined efforts of:
Adrena Ifill, Project Director, Avoice, CBCF Virtual Library Project
Alison Kootstra, Project Coordinator, Avoice, CBCF Virtual Library Project
R. Maria Marable-Bunch, Education Consultant
This lesson unit was reviewed by the following educators:
Dr. Lynne Long, Professional Development and Curriculum Design, Washington, DC
Dianne Moore-Williams, Mentor Teacher, Washington, DC
Tanya Brown Merriman, Museum Educator and Assistant Professor, Los Angeles, CA
Tracey Mina, Preschool Educator, Brooklyn, NY
This project was made possible by the generous support of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Dell Inc. and The University of Texas at Austin.