Teaching the Next Generation About Environmental Justice

With terms like “sustainability” and “climate activism” becoming mainstream, it’s easy to forget that environmental justice has only been around for a few decades. The idea that everyone should be equally protected from and involved in preventing environmental hazards is newer than television, computers, and even cellphones. But as more and more people realize that marginalized groups bear the brunt of climate change issues, environmental justice is picking up traction at long last.

The power of education is immense. Knowledge drives action and solutions. For teachers, activists, and parents, environmental justice education is the key to empowering the younger generation to make positive change — perhaps eliminating environmental inequities once and for all.

The following tips are designed to help you raise, teach, or mentor high-impact environmental leaders.

By Amanda Winstead

Personalizing Education With Learning Theories

Before thinking about how you can communicate the concept of environmental justice, it’s helpful for educators, activists, and parents to understand how students learn in the first place. When you know what really makes new concepts stick, you can better cater to the unique needs of young learners.

Understanding the behaviorism learning theory, for instance, can help you create a classroom that reinforces the idea of environmental justice. This theory posits that students’ behavior is determined by external forces. As a result, you may reward students for retaining information about how race or income affects one’s exposure to hazards.

Similarly, you might embrace the experiential learning theory, which says that students learn best through first-hand experience. Using this theory, you can set up opportunities for younger generations to immerse themselves in the concept of environmental justice. Educators can set up a field trip, perhaps letting students compare water quality in a majority white and a majority Black neighborhood. Activists may set up environmental justice protests especially for teens or families with children to participate in.

Incorporating a variety of learning theories in your teaching efforts can help you reach a larger number of Gen Z students with environmental justice education.

empty chairs and table in library
Photo by Drahomír Posteby-Mach on Unsplash

Adding Intersectionality to the Conversation

To instill a passion for environmental justice in the younger generation, it’s important to keep intersectionality in the conversation. Understanding the broad impact of their actions can help children, teens, and young adults identify the interconnected causes and effects of climate change, racism, poverty, and more. This way, our future generations will be better equipped to tackle the root causes of environmental injustices.

Helping students get hands-on with real-world data is an effective way to make the concept of intersectionality stick. In an exercise outlined by the National Science Teaching Association, students can map out factory locations and nearby water systems, which would be at risk for contamination. Students can visualize how those water systems are largely used by Black and Latinx communities, introducing the concept of environmental racism.

As students start to embrace the need for environmental justice, they can benefit from experiences that allow them to engage more directly with the concept. For example, children and preteens can interact with guest speakers who work with or live in affected communities.

High school and college students may benefit from environmental internships or service learning opportunities that allow them to work and form emotional connections with marginalized groups. With increased empathy, their dedication to environmental justice may grow.

girl walking in university grounds
Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

Emphasizing Individual Impact

Getting students to understand the concept of environmental justice is one thing. Inspiring them to become active environmental justice leaders is another. Whether you’re an educator, parent, or activist, you can encourage students to act on their learnings by emphasizing how much individuals can make a difference.

The role of corporations, governments, and other large institutions shouldn’t be downplayed when teaching about environmental justice. But when you also show younger generations how much impact their individual actions can have, they’ll be empowered to make a positive change.

As an example, government and political science teachers can explain the power of one vote in the context of environmental justice. As students realize that who they vote for can directly change environmental policies — and counteract policies that continue to hurt marginalized communities — they’ll have the drive to become politically engaged in the future.

Similarly, activists can create campaigns that educate younger generations about the perks of personal energy independence. Students will realize that they’re not just protecting themselves from inflation and power grid failures. They’re also playing a direct role in promoting ecological sustainability.

university stairs with people blurring past
Photo by Loïc Fürhoff on Unsplash

Putting Environmental Justice Lessons Into Practice at Home

Parents are one of the biggest influences on students’ behaviors. Environmental justice education in school and extracurriculars (or on online channels like social media) can certainly change the way students think and act. But it’s reinforcement at home — where minors typically spend the majority of their days — that fully changes the way they live their lives.

At home, parents can make intersectional environmentalism a part of their daily lives. In addition to teaching kids about sustainability through recycling or reusing household items, you can ask them to turn off lights or use less water to keep energy and freshwater supply plentiful for all.

Another way you can reinforce environmental justice lessons is by shopping with sustainable children’s clothing brands and emphasizing why you choose those companies. For example, if you’re consciously purchasing from a brand that uses natural dyes, you can sit down with your kids to explain how this minimizes the number of toxic chemicals that flow into underserved communities.

Raise a Generation of Environmental Justice Leaders

The next generation has the power to move the world closer toward environmental justice. While many of us are just being introduced to the concept of environmental justice in adulthood, today’s students can learn about and embrace the need for it throughout their lives. As a result, they can gain the knowledge and passion needed to combat environmental injustices.

To strengthen the impact of your teachings, first understand how students learn. Then, include conversations about intersectionality and individual impact to your conversations to drive home your environmental justice lessons. With reinforcement at home, you can effectively raise a generation of environmental justice leaders.

About the Author

Amanda Winstead is a writer focusing on many topics including technology and digital marketing. Along with writing she enjoys traveling, reading, working out, and going to concerts. If you want to follow her writing journey, or even just say hi you can find her on Twitter.