In summary

New approaches to youth engagement and education are keys to bringing about environmental justice in communities of color.

By Kimi Waite, Special to CalMatters

Kimi Waite is a 2019 Environmental Education 30 Under 30 awardee, recognized by The North American Association for Environmental Education. She is also a Public Voices Fellow on the climate crisis with The OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

An environmental disaster hit the city of Carson once again in late December when 8.5 million gallons of raw sewage spilled onto city streets, prompting the closure of several beaches in Los Angeles County and Orange County. 

Last fall, it took two weeks for crews from the L.A. County Department of Public Works to start spraying for a putrid odor coming from the Dominguez Channel Watershed after receiving more than 4,000 complaints from residents in Carson and surrounding areas

Carson residents criticized the county’s slow response and questioned if the response would have been quicker in a wealthy white neighborhood. 

That smells like environmental racism, the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. In response to environmental racism we aim to achieve environmental justice. 

To help do that, teaching students about environmental justice and climate justice is imperative, as education must reflect the realities of students’ lives. A transformative approach to education called Youth Participatory Action Research and equipping students with the tools they need to take action in their communities are essential to achieving climate justice. 

I have worked as a kindergarten teacher and as a district curriculum specialist in South Los Angeles. I have seen how even kindergarteners notice environmental injustices like pollution, lack of access to green space and the smell of gasoline in heavily-trafficked areas. 

The importance of preparing students and community members for leadership roles to work toward environmental justice began more than 30 years ago at the  First National People of Color Leadership Summit. The 1,100-person delegation drafted 17 Principles of Environmental Justice and the Principles of Working Together. They significantly redefined the meaning of “environment.” 

Historically, especially to the largely white environmental organizations, “environment” is referred to as the pristine natural areas outside of cities. At the summit, “environment” became known as where people (particularly people of color) live, work, study, play and pray. This allowed for the inclusion of issues like toxic pollution, worker safety, transportation, housing and health.

Charles Lee, a longtime activist, an organizer for the summit and now a senior policy adviser for the EPA, stated that the summit provided an “opportunity to showcase the environmental leadership that people of color, low-income and indigenous communities not only continue to demonstrate but (are) also crucial to solving today’s existential climate crisis.”

With local issues of environmental racism, we must look to community-grown solutions, and that means listening to residents who know the community best and viewing their knowledge as valuable assets in the fight for environmental and climate justice. 

Another leader in the environmental justice movement, Robert Bullard, stated: “the U.S. is segregated, and so is pollution.” 

He also said, “People have the right of self-determination and not somehow being predetermined what you will be, what your community will be.” 

Instead of headlines that portray Carson with a deficit lens, let’s ask, what are the assets in this community? What do Carson residents of all ages view as possible solutions to environmental justice? 

Environmental justice is the response to combating environmental racism. Educators and community members will need to get involved to address the impacts of environmental racism on our lives. New approaches to youth engagement and civic education are keys to making this happen.

Youth Participatory Action Research is essential for climate justice education because it positions students as researchers and prepares them to take action to address issues of community concern. We need to rethink who has the expertise needed to address climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. It’s not always the adults. 

Putting tools in the hands of youth will encourage self-determination in the fight against environmental racism.

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