Multicultural Environmental Education (Winter/Spring 1996)

Vol.6, No.2 & 3: Winter/Spring 1996

Multicultural environmental education is not merely environmental education with multicultural populations or "audiences" nor is it "urban environmental education with multicultural populations."  It is rather a very new kind of environmental education, where content is influenced by and taught from multiple cultural perspectives.  It is conscious of its own cultural  perspectives and of the function that it has in the world and in the lives of diverse students and communities.  As the nation's schoolrooms and communities become more diverse and value their diversity, environmental education must evolve as it encounters new cultural realities in specific community contexts.

There are many themes and subthemes running through this issue: the emerging dialogue between environmental education and environmental justice; the experimental attempts of environmental educators to authentically work at the community level; and others.  But one of the most significant themes is the integrative dynamic of culture, ecology and community that is evident in each article.  This dynamic is the foundation for a new paradigm for environmental education.  Educators and activists at the grassroots level in communities around the country are creating it.  Here are some of their fears, hopes, struggles, successes and stories.

This Journal can be used in a number of ways.  Environmental studies programs can use it for course readers.  Environmental education programs can use it for training purposes by having staff read and discuss articles.  Classroom teachers can use it for practical ideas for their students.  Activists can use it for networking purposes.  Make it a part of your work and let us know of its usefulness and meaning to you.

Download PDF version (pages 1-24 only: 683KB)


1  Editor's Notes
     by Running-Grass

3  Making Multicultural Environmental Education a Reality
     by Dorceta E. Taylor

6  Environment: Where We Live, Work, Play and Learn
     by Charles Lee

8  Instrumental Values of Destruction
     by Bunyan Bryant


11 Youth Spirit Rising: Urban Environmental Activists
     by Deborah Leta Habib

14 First Person: Antonia Darder
     Interview by Cristina Valdez

17 Understanding Culture, Humanities & Environmental Justice
     by Carl Anthony


19 Environmental Justice Activism Triumphs
     by Running-Grass and Max Weintraub

22 Place and Diverse Communities
     by Tahnit Sakakeeny

25 Puget Sound Youth Stewardship Program
     by Lela Hilton

27 Environmental Justice Education Initiatives
     by Cynthia Williams Mendy

29 The Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project
     by Jo-Ann S. Henry

31 Richmond's Laotians: Putting a Community on the Map
     by Aiko Pandorf

32 On the Laotian Community
     by Bouapha Toommaly


33 Reflections on Identity, Place and Community
     by Elizabeth Ann Hass

35 The Terrain of Exclusion
     by Jacquelyn Denise Ruffin

38 Watercycles: Learning by Color
     by Maya Khosla

40 Past and Present on a Louisiana Landscape
     by Shirley E. Thompson

Youth Voices

43 Youth for Habitat II Program
     by Manaukaskar Kublall

44 The XCEL Program: San Rafael High School, California
     by Oakland Seligson

45 The Scoop on Groups
     by Deepali Potdar

Curricula and Resources

46 An Environmental Justice Strategy Game
     by Steve Chase

48 Upward Bound: Environmental Justice Video Course
     by Mark Spencer

49 Resources for Multicultural Environmental Education

Instrumental Values of Destruction: The Need for Environmental Education

As we continue to wreak destruction upon the Earth and upon each other, we are reaching a point where our actions are having dire consequences. We have embarked upon a market system that not only ravishes the Earth, but it diminishes the value of the lives of Earth's people. It is an out of control market system - a market system that extends into and shapes our personal lives, our consciousness, and the way in which we relate to one another. In our most intimate relations we often perceive one another as having instrumental value. That is, we view our friends in terms of what they can do for us-not what we can do for them or what both parties gain from the friendship.

Often we view the world from the shaky perch of the all-important “me”: “What can I get for myself, regardless of the pain it might inflict upon others.” Society is dominated by such “me-ism,” a viewpoint worse even than anthropocentrism. While the latter views humans as the very center of the universe, the former has a tendency to view me - not the community or the village - as being primary in the universe. This translates as a formula for unprecedented greed, avarice, and disconnectedness.

Out-of-control market forces determine our world view; they frame our relations with one another and with nature. Environmentalists do not seem to understand that before we can protect the environment and give authentic reverence to it and to the wonders of nature, a set of core values must be deeply seated to guide our relations with one another. Our instrumental approach to one another and to nature disrupts the connectedness and usurps the responsibility for human and nonhuman life. This disconnection is the basis of the crisis of spirituality we experience today.

Some environmentalists overlook people of color to build a relationship with nature; some have ignored the habitat of homeless people to protect the habitat of the spotted owl. As they diligently work to guarantee the rights of trees and endangered animals, they blindly neglect assigning similar rights to people of color. Although environmentalists claim to champion biodiversity, in practice that concept often seems to stop at the border line of our urban centers.


Environmental education must play a major role in rectifying this shortsighted and separatist view of humanity and nature. By making students more aware of the adverse effects of an out-of-control market system, environmental education can help students understand market forces and their impact on our personal lives. Environmental education can help us to understand the need to be spiritually connected with each other, as well as with nonhuman life forms. Along with this connectedness comes a reverence for all life forms. The teaching of environmental education helps us move away from me-ism, which represents the extreme form of anthropocentrism, toward biocentrism and an understanding that humans are subject to the same laws of nature as other living things.

Environmental education must help us understand that humans are a part of a complex web of life and that our survival as a species depends upon other life forms, even those much smaller than ourselves. To understand our predicament of inhumaness we must not only understand the destructive power of market forces, but we must be willing and able to control such forces. To control such forces will require a new system of relating to one another, a new value system that will extend across multicultural lines, embracing a new or renewed reverence for nature.

Environmental education must help students to search for truth and meaning in their own lives and practices. They must learn the importance of cherishing and extending life-affirming connectedness. To save the global community from wanton destruction, it is important that truth, meaning, and advocacy interface to rekindle our spiritual and life-affirming "connectedness" to the land, to other life forms, and to the world in which we live.

Environmental education can help students to recognize a larger self, one that recognizes the importance of biocentricity and one that believes that the destruction of life at any one place on life’s continuum has the potential to significantly alter or destroy all life forms. Truth and meaning represent more than just a cognitive exercise. When used as integral elements of the participatory research process, students and teachers learn together about the connectedness of all life forms. It also forms the basis for personal empowerment and the ultimate realization that each of us can make a difference in the world in which we live.


Before all else, we as teachers must free ourselves to be more than technicians constrained by the limited themes and materials covered in textbooks - textbooks that are often published by distant companies. We must be participatory researchers – not detached from students, but integrally involved with them in the teaching and learning process. To be effective environmental educators may require us to write curriculum materials based upon the students' environment. Producing a curriculum that validates the student's own life situation invites the student to engage in problem-solving activities. Such activities include defining the problem, collecting information, weighing alternative solutions, and recommending the most appropriate solution. Below are key issues or themes that should be included in any environmental education curriculum in order to help put the market system in its proper perspective:

1) Cultural and Racial Awareness and Nature. In order to connect with one another across cultural and racial boundaries, we must deconstruct race as a social construct; we must demonstrate the instrumental value of race and how racial differences are used for social, economic, and political gain. Questions to be entertained by students might include:  In what ways do instrumental values affect your person life? What can you do about controlling these values in your life? If you had to be born again of a different color, what color would that be? How would your life be different now than what it was before?

Also, white cultural hegemony must be challenged and critiqued by making it possible for multicultures to be cherished and celebrated. What are the barriers that keep people of different cultural backgrounds from interacting with and accepting one another? What are the barriers that keep people from interacting with and understanding nature? If you had to be born again but as a different animal, what animal would that be? What is unique about that animal? What are its contributions to the ecosystem?

2) Environmental Justice. Environmental education must make students aware that environmental justice is broader in scope than environmental equity. EJ refers to those cultural norms and values, rules, regulations, behaviors, policies, and decisions to support sustainable communities, where people can interact with confidence that their environment is safe, nurturing, and productive. Environmental justice is served when people can realize their highest potential, without experiencing the “isms.” Environmental justice is supported by decent-paying and safe jobs; quality schools and recreation; decent housing and adequate health care; democratic decision-making and personal empowerment; and communities free of violence, drugs, and poverty. These are communities where both cultural and biological diversity are respected and highly revered and where distributive justice prevails. Students of environmental education must know not only the definition of EJ but they must also understand the symbiotic connection between sustainability and justice. It's this symbiotic connection that is the driving force of environmental education.

3) Participatory Research. Participatory research allows both students and teachers to engage in a process of discovery and reflection. Students are integrally and actively involved in the planning, action, observation, and reflection until understanding or a solution is reached. The research process should help students liberate themselves from the shackles of oppression by actively engaging them. To be an effective research team, both teachers and students must develop problem-solving and group process skills.

Here is one example of participatory research. A high school environmental educator works with students to prepare them for water testing. The teacher then takes the class to the local river to collect water samples and through laboratory testing the students find a high level of coliform bacteria and a large number of water-soluble salts and toxic metals. Some of the questions to be asked are: Who was responsible for the pollution? What is the role of the market system in creating these conditions? What impact is the pollution having upon human and nonhuman life? Are people of color and low-income people differentially impacted? What regulatory agencies are responsible for its cleanup? To solve the problems, student may need to draw upon chemistry, civics, math, computer science, and biology. They may decide to brainstorm strategies for getting the appropriate agency or corporation to engage in cleanup efforts. Ideally, participatory research empowers students by allowing them a chance, often rare in the educational experience, to become actively engaged in education in the roles of both learner and teacher.

4) Pollution Prevention vs. Pollution Control. Environmental education curricula should tackle the goals of pollution prevention and pollution control. If we can reduce fugitive emissions by 90 percent, then why can't we reduce them by 100 percent? The reason is that it may not be cost effective. Controlling emissions completely would increase the cost exponentially, thus cutting into profits. But while a 90 percent reduction might be good enough for some chemicals, it is not an acceptable limit for others, particularly for those chemicals that are fat-soluble and persistent in the food chain. Because some chemicals bioaccumulate, amplifying themselves hundreds or even millions of times as they move up the food chain from lower animal to higher animal to humans, they can become a problem of major proportions. Any environmental education curriculum should include the importance of recycling, reducing, and reusing as prevention strategies. At the same time, however, the most important pollution prevention strategy is to refrain from using toxic chemicals in the production cycle.

5) Deep Ecology. Deep ecology maintains that to be detached from nature robs people of their unique and spiritual and biological personhood; no one can be saved on planet Earth unless we save everyone, including the grizzly bears, the rain forests, ecosystems, mountains and rivers, and the tiniest microbes in the soil. Some basic tenets of deep ecology consist of bioregionalism, biodiversity, and biocentrism as opposed to anthropocentrism. It contends that if people harm nature, they harm themselves. Everything is intricately related; no one has the right to destroy other living things without good reason. Although the supporters of deep ecology do not advocate going back to the Stone Age, they do advocate reverence for the land, for primal people, and for communal societies, based on mutual aid and a bonding with nature.

The question students must wrestle with is: how deep or how shallow can we become and still be able to survive on planet Earth? While some environmentalists take deep ecology to the extreme, most of them do not. Yet the more shallow we become, the more we perceive nature as having instrumental value; the more shallow we become, the less value we place upon human and nonhuman life. The question again is how deep should we go? How shallow can we be without becoming disconnected?


Bryant, Bunyan, Environmental Advocacy: Concepts, Issues, and Dilemmas. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Caddo Gap Press, 1990.

Bryant, Bunyan, "Issues and Potential Policies and Solutions for Environmental Justice: An Overview." In Bryant, B. (Ed.). Environmental Justice: Issues, Policies, and Solutions. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1995.

Kendall, Peter, and Manier, Jeremy. "Maybe Animals Do Care,"The Detroit News and Free Press, August 24, 1996.

Lerner, Michael, The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1996.

Lappe, Frances Moore, Diet for a Small Planet. New York: Ballantine Books, 1983.

A considerable portion of this article on instrumental values and environmental education was based upon Michael Lerner's book, The Politics of Meaning.

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Place and Diverse Communities: The Search for a Perfect Fit

A Sense of Place

0ver the last four years, I've been designing and implementing urban environmental education programs for a New England-based, non-profit, recreation and conservation organization called the Mountain Club (AMC). In the past, we've struggled not only to find the most appropriate participant group for our programs, but more importantly, to find the right setting, or "base," from which to conduct our work. For example, should our programs focus on one particular Boston-area park, or should they incorporate parks across the city? Should we work with one neighborhood in particular, or should we work with community centers city-wide? We've been struggling to define and establish a sense of place for our programs within the culturally diverse urban arena.

As perceptions of the “urban environment” have evolved and expanded, so have urban environmental educational programs. Once we believed that the urban environment simply meant green-spaces within the city. Our education offerings mirrored that view. Today we see our program's base and future as resting in what is called “community conservation work.” In fact, environmental education and conservation organizations nationwide are also terming their programs “community conservation work.” Currently, many of these “community conservation” initiatives are struggling through their own attempts to establish a sense of place. Just as definitions and perceptions of the urban environment have evolved, so have the definitions and perceptions of what makes community and what makes for community conservation work.

AMC has a strong history of running outdoor education workshops in the White Mountains of Northern New Hamp-shire and Maine. The organization has been promoting the protection and responsible use of this region for more than one hundred years. We have overnight facilities and trails in the mountains which give us an actual, physical stake in the region. We have a constituency of members that supports our conservation and research efforts. We also have a strong vision for the future of our programs in the area. Our organization's history, physical connection to the land, supportive members, and a vision for the future have created the solid sense of place from which our North Country education programs can develop and flourish. This sense of place can give any develop-ing program the direction it needs to push past obstacles and succeed.

For over 25 years, AMC had been successfully running the Youth Opportunities Program (YOP), designed to train youth workers in outdoor leadership so they, in turn, would be qualified to lead their kids on hiking and camping trips through the mountains. YOP remains a fantastic program. However, its coordinators see in it one significant short-coming: kids have a great time in the woods, but the reality is that most of them live in the city. How can we involve and engage them where they live? The answer: The Urban Trails Program, the program which I coordinate.

Inner-City Youth and Empowerment

It seems as though with each new funding cycle there is a certain key word or phrase that comes into vogue. During the year Urban Trails was conceived, there were two phrases, “inner-city youth” and “empowerment.” Thus, Urban Trails was drafted as a program that would help to empower city youth by paying them an hourly stipend to build and maintain parks in and around Boston. On its best days, youth participating in Urban Trails would set stone steps, create water bars and clear trials. These projects worked – when they could be found.

In designing Urban Trails, we were not able to establish a sense of urban place comparable to the sense of North Country place that helped YOP grow. In the mountains, there was always trail work to be done. It was accomplished by a combination of professional trail crews, supervised volunteer trail crews and many committed volunteers who worked on their own. We rather naively assumed that in city parks there would also always be plenty of trail projects at hand, and that the land maintenance agencies would generally be competent and helpful in using the aid of inner-city youth. These assumptions didn't hold. The program depended upon the existence of substantial work projects that challenged youth and taught them new skills. However, in city parks there are not many trails to blaze and bridges to build. In search of new work projects, I was constantly moving from one land maintenance agency to another, continuously reestablishing myself and the program. The program was headed towards failure. This was mainly because we did not begin with a good sense of place. We had neither history nor understanding of the physical and bureaucratic nature of city parks. We did not have any physical stake in one particular urban area; and with no history or clear fit for this program within our organization, it was a struggle to push beyond obstacles.

The Contradictions of Ownership

At the end of my first summer with Urban Trails, we knew that for the next funding season we would have to focus on the idea of “ownership” for our organization to proceed. What we needed was one particular urban green space. This way, we as an organization could take ownership of the space, along with the young people who worked on the land. Questions arose: Which green space should we choose? What neighborhood would it be in? Can you just decide to take ownership of an area? Or is ownership something that takes to you?

AMC is a New England conservation organization but because we're headquartered in Boston, we felt an obligation and a commitment to better our city environment. If, for instance, we had been a YMCA located in one particular pocket of the city, then it would have made sense for us to have adopted the nearest park. But we're not located in a small, urban neighborhood; we're located in the center of the city, in its wealthiest, best manicured and most “coalitioned” neighborhood. So I began to look to the surrounding neighbor-hoods for “ownership opportunities. We developed a handful of successful projects, such as clearing side lots and planting seeds near our youth centers. Although neighborhood-lot work engaged the youth, it really didn't make sense for AMC as an organization. There were already other city organizations that specialized in turning lots into playgrounds or gardens. They had successful histories and clearly stated mission statements that established them in the urban environment. They had place. In addition, vacant lots really didn't fit with profile. Our mission states that we are committed to the "protection, enjoyment and wise use of the mountains, rivers and trails of the Northeast." Of course we supported efforts to revitalize urban lots; but direct involvement in the process seemed to be outside of our mission.

We needed to take ownership of a place that made sense for our organization. I located an urban riverway, envisioning neighborhood kids building and caring for trails along their river. This is when I received my first real lesson in urban environmental politics. A representative from the local land maintenance agency had been taking me on site visits to the river and helping me sketch plans for trail construction. There was definitely a need for a greenway that could connect neighbor-hoods and alleviate some of the traffic from other over-used riverways. I had assumed that if no work was being done on the area, we could just jump in and take ownership. I was completely naive as to the amount of time required to secure construction permits (even for trails), and build neighborhood constituencies. Apparently, a major Boston urban environmental organization had already been working on the above. It had just appeared as though nothing was being done along the river. At the same time the representative from the maintenance agency was taking me on tour, he was also negotiating with the other group. When I finally learned of their advanced stage of involvement, we backed off from the riverway. Although I felt discouraged after this experience, I held an underlying belief that when we finally found the right programming place, it would truly be ours.


That season ended by our doing a series of large clean-up and trail building events on Boston's harbor islands. We built these events around the popular concept of “diversity.” The trail work days became celebrations with barbecues, games and free T-shirts. Rather than have youth groups work alone as the “janitors” of the city, these events involved people of all ages, backgrounds, and levels of physical and mental ability in discovering and caring for the islands together. This model successfully carried the program through several years. By concentrating our work on the islands, we were no longer moving among various locations and land maintenance agencies. The islands were common ground, belonging to not just one Boston area neighborhood, but all the local neighborhoods.

Despite the growing number of participants at each of these island work events, I still felt as though something was missing. I was sure that if volunteers were working on project sites that were close to them, places they could revisit on their own, we could accomplish so much more. I was still struck by that word "ownership." I wanted a work project with a connection to one particular community.


This time I did a little more homework and found another urban in the city of Chelsea, where no other Boston-area environmental organization seemed to be doing any work. However, after struggling for several years to find a programming place, I was cautious about myself. Communities such as Chelsea have been burnt by the unfulfilled promises of zealous outsiders. They have also grown frustrated by the half-hearted attempts these zealots have made to understand the nature and needs of the community before developing their own agendas. After all, every community has its own sense of place. For Chelsea, it was one of distinct ethnic neighborhoods and a turbulent history.

Chelsea had recently come out of receivership. For the past decade, everyone from state officials to presidents of universities had been trying to tell the community how to right itself. The city had some major economic, social and environmental challenges ahead. However, it also had a new government, some committed citizens, and a determination to make changes on its own.

I began by meeting with people in the various Chelsea government offices including the Department of Planning and Development and Health and Human Services. I met with school teachers and a prominent citizen action group. I just wanted to listen to the community's needs. Had I come in peddling my wares and offering our service and advice, I believe my actions would have been aptly interpreted as arrogant. Instead, I demonstrated my sense of respect for Chelsea. I felt privileged that they allowed me to sit in on their meetings. I kept quiet and learned from them; after all, they were inviting me into their home.

I am a woman of color who grew up in a very urban, blue-collar Boston neighborhood. For this reason, from the start of my work in Chelsea, I never felt superior to my surroundings. Instead, I viewed the city as a place of potential for partnerships and learning. I do not yet believe that all community workers must “match” their surroundings. However, it may be more initially challenging for various racial, ethnic or class groups to set aside certain ingrained missionary sentiments and proceed at a true level of “simpatico.” Likewise, it may be initially more difficult for the community to trust the motives of an outsider who does not have any apparent connections to the community.

Community Conservation Work and Community Representation

Shortly after I had begun familiarizing myself with Chelsea, the next key phrase was canonized: “community conservation work.” I was invited to join community conservation commit-tees, talk at community conservation workshops and take part in community conservation charettes. I had no idea what “charette” meant, and I was beginning to question my definition of community. The earlier Chelsea meetings had been with people I believed comprised the community -residents, as well as school and city officials. But at these charettes, the residents and local officials were seldom present. Instead, there were non-profit environmentalists (like myself), and public officials, usually from state government. One charette focused on exploring the community conservation needs and opportunities within a largely Latino and southeast Asian city. However, no representatives from these ethnic groups were present. In another community conservation committee meeting, participants had already begun drafting long-term plans for the community's river and before any member of that community had even been notified of the committee's existence.

At the community conservation charette, I asked why there were no Latino or Asian representatives present. Some of the representatives from the community's minority white population said that it was too difficult to get people from those groups to participate. I will admit that it is often difficult to involve recent immigrants in community activities; however, there were Latinos and Asians in this city who were not recent immigrants. The charette organizers could have at least printed outreach flyers in Spanish, Vietnamese or Cambodian. In general, unless a representative from each of the community's population groups is present, plans for community conservation work should not even begin to be drafted. To be successful, the community at hand must “buy-in.”

The issue of “buy-in” raises another important question: agendas. Whose projects are really getting done? Whose agendas are really being met? If a community conservation initiative has to work so hard to get a community to “buy-in” to the projects, are those projects really community-based? I admit that at times, communities can lack the needed momentum and clear direction to solve problems. But at what point is the stereotype of “unorganized, uninformed,” urban communities challenged? I have participated in community conservation initiatives where outsiders, including myself, have itemized the community's primary environmental concerns. We have then developed, and sometimes begun, rudimentary action plans designed to address these concerns. We should have spent at least as much time thoroughly investigating the community's list of concerns as we did developing our gilded action plans.

Sometimes such initiatives are invited into the community by public officials who provide their own panel of community representatives. As the “specialists,” we should have the wherewithal to make sure this panel is comprehensive and truly reflective of the community. The belief that outside community conservation workers (public agencies and environmental non-profits) can the needs and objectives of a community without first consulting with its members is patronizing at best, and fundamentally racist or classist at worst. I have never heard of outside organizations developing environmental agendas for a wealthy and primarily white suburb.

What if there are environmental concerns within a community that are not being addressed? If the community does not recognize them, are they still concerns? As an outsider, there is a fine line between calling a community's attention to what you believe should be an environmental concern, and being presumptuous or overstepping your place. Community conservation workers are currently struggling to define this obscure line. If a public official has been commissioned to address an environmental concern within a community, but the community has other environmental objectives, to what extent is this official willing to risk her career by challenging the bureaucratic order and altering her agenda? To what extent is a non-profit willing to bend the parameters of their funding? Or is community conservation work just a facade under which an appointed official or a crusading environmentalist can enter a community and fulfill her objectives? One person on my community conservation committee asked revealingly, “How do we get them (the community) to do what we want?”

Because the island trailwork events and several other projects were ongoing, I had the luxury of being able to listen to the Chelsea community without any specific programming agenda or task I needed to accomplish. They told me that they wanted opportunities for their children, an environmental career training program. Their request had created a programming need and base. Finally, I could adjust my program to fit the place, rather than continue to look for a place that fit my program.

To be wanted by a community is the ideal scenario. Eventually, it should be the goal of every community conservation programmer to longer be needed by the community. The process of moving from the status of an outsider to a useful service provider is gradual. In the meantime, Chelsea and similar communities face certain, immediate, and undeniable environmental problems. In part, these concerns can only be surmounted by the gradual process of community action. Some aspects of these problems could be more easily overcome with the additional expertise and publicity provided by larger, governmental and non-profit “community conservation” initiatives.

The question remains. Will communities prioritize these concerns over their other challenges? If they don’t, should outsiders take action anyway? If they do look for outside help, then certain agendas must be set aside and new agendas must be mutually developed. The day when a minority can plan for the majority within a community is no longer. If you hold a meeting and representatives of the community do not attend, then your meeting is null. An outsider’s place in community conservation work is to seek out every facet of that community, to listen, and to make yourself available. When they want you, they will find you, and together you will create the right place for your program.

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