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  • Writer's pictureKenesma John

Environmental Justice Education Programs in Schools

It is important to have environmental justice education programs in K-12 schools and universities. This paper will highlight what environmental justice education is as well as its importance. It will also address the components of civic ecology education programs which include action advocacy, critical consciousness, and the integrated use of technology. This will not only build community well-being through social networks, but also increase individual and community resilience, a sense of place, and social capital. Reconnecting urban communities with the urban environment through the use of environmental justice education programs will create youths who have self-efficacy in science, who have a sense of environmental stewardship and who are agents of change.

What is Environmental Justice Education?

The term environment can mean literally everything there is, even though we commonly restrict the term to be concerns about human health, human activity, ecology, and natural resources (Holifield, 2001). Environmental justice education encompasses concerns about human health, human activity, ecology and natural resources and draws on the legacy of civil united with problems of the inner-city environment that recur due to decision-making patterns that burden minority groups disproportionately. Land-zoning and city planning are two practices that contribute to current patterns of environmental inequality in the United States cities. As academics, it is our duty to continue to focus on how land-use zoning, real estate dynamics, industrial development, city planning, and demographic change contribute to environmental inequality in the United States cities (Holifield, 2001). There are places in the United States that have been of limited access to certain types of people. For example, parks, like national parks are claimed spaces rather than invited spaces Krasny & Tidball, 2009). In a civic ecology program that focuses on the resilience framework, things like community gardens are proposed to allow more access to everyone and not just people of certain socioeconomic status. It also ties into ‘peopled landscapes’ like state parks or parks in the middle of the cities that reflect European city structures. It teaches how to manage these ‘people landscapes’ through natural resources management practices.

Any decision-making patterns that burden minority groups disproportionally are sufficient evidence of environmental racism and environmental justice education tries to combat and inform learners about that by providing civic ecology programs (Holifield, 2001). Civic ecology programs must include an action component, and advocacy, that involves citizens with an emphasis on restoration. Civic ecology shifts the focus to people being stewards of their environment (Krasny & Tidball, 2009). This in turn will not only enhance local ecosystems but will contribute to community well-being through social networks.

Components of Civil Ecology Education Programs

Civic ecology education programs must include an action component of advocacy, restoration, stewardship, decolonization, monitoring and recreation in order to be successful.


An action component of advocacy, restoration, and stewardship encourages action that addresses environmental racism, food security and equitable access to green space. This is achieved through activities like community gardening, forestry, and watershed restoration. The resilience framework in civic ecology programs focuses on the well-being of larger social-ecological systems. It focuses on the role of environmental education and how it links to sustainability. It suggests ways to teach natural resources management practices in cities or ‘peopled landscapes’ (Krasny & Tidball, 2009). Along with this component, place attachment and ecological place meaning rooted in authentic care is needed. Sense of place can be influenced by urban environmental education. Sense of place means a symbolic and memorable component of the urban environment (Kudryavtsev et al., 2012). Research has found that strong place attachment and ecological place meaning contribute to pro-environmental behaviors (Kudryavtsev et al., 2012). Sense of place may be influenced through direct experiences, like participation in environmental restoration activities, in places (Kudryavtsev et al., 2012). Place attachment is strengthened by different factors including frequent use of places, commitment to outdoor recreation activities in that space, long-term residence, social interactions, opportunities to function as a community member, and hands-on environmental stewardship activities in that particular space. As a result, it provides positive youth development and critical consciousness.

Critical Consciousness

Programs that focus on developing critical consciousness through decolonization, monitoring and recreation, address structural inequities such as poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia and encourage action that addresses environmental racism, food security, and equitable access to green spaces (Delia & Krasny, 2018). A shared goal among environmental programs is reconnecting urban communities with the urban environment (Kudryavtsev et al., 2012). Half of the world’s population lives in cities so urban environmental educators want their programs to reconnect urban communities with urban natural environment. The results would prove to increase pro-environmental behavior (Kudryavtsev et al., 2012).

Positive youth development assumes that all youth have the capacity to become successful adults if they have meaningful, long-term relationships with peers and adults; they can also be participants and leaders of community activities. Authentic care goes way beyond caring for individual students. It includes preparing students to confront inequitable social structures, and care for and about nature (Delia & Krasny, 2018). Urban environmental education programs in U.S. cities that target youth of color who live in low-income neighborhoods have programs that engage youth in multiple activities including policy advocacy and teaching younger children (Delia & Krasny, 2018). When people are able to see changes in their environment due to their own actions, they learn about caring, contribution, competence and critical thinking.

Integrated Use of Technology

The importance of urban ecosystems environmental education is growing along with the use of advanced visualization technologies. Unfortunately, a disconnect exists between research done and tools used by professional environmental scientists and the subject of environmental science taught in public schools. With increased urbanization of landscapes, greater pressure is placed on urban natural resources. These resources are critical in maintaining healthy ecosystems. Unfortunately, students tend to be unaware of the importance of the urban ecosystem in which they reside, as well as lacking in the necessary scientific skills to understand how their actions, good or bad, impact their local urban ecosystems (Barnett et al., 2011). Thankfully, user friendly geospatial and visualization technologies are more accessible to educators in environmental science education programs. These user friendly geospatial and visualization technologies include tools like geographic information systems (GIS), computer modeling tools, and visualization software. The integrated use of technology can help students explore real-world contexts through place-based education and allows students to explore real-world contexts and see all phases of the scientific process in class projects. Students can conduct scientific investigations of their ecosystem, improve self-efficacy toward science and environmental stewardship, and explore potential career options in science and technology at the same time (Barnett et al., 2011). This availability gives students opportunities to engage in scientific enquiry where they are in direct contact with data collection and can be active participants in improving their neighborhoods (Barnett et al., 2011). This also gives them the ability to connect local knowledge to larger global environmental issues right from the comfort of their classrooms.

Importance of Environmental Justice Education

Environmental justice education builds community well-being through social networks, increases individual and community resilience, influences a sense of place, and builds social capital through restoration and preservation. This, in turn, helps develop environmental stewardship of an individual’s community. Environmental justice education programs reconnect urban communities with the urban environment and create youths who have a sense of environmental stewardship and who are agents of change. Positive place meaning might inspire commitment to urban environmental stewardship, while negative environmental information (emphasized in environmental education and media) may lead to denial of environmental problems or the belief that one cannot contribute to environmental solutions. A civic ecology education program can address all of the community and environmental goals (Krasny & Tidball, 2009).


A successful resilience civic ecology education program would include adaptive learning, innovation, social capital, and ecosystem services. The results suggest that an environmental education program that engages in environmental action can provide positive youth development and create youth who become agents of change. By participating in civic ecology programs, students’ self-efficacy and sense of environmental stewardship (ecological mindset and appreciation for their urban ecosystem) will significantly improve.


Barnett, M., Vaughn, M. H., Strauss, E., & Cotter, L. (2011). Urban environmental education:

Leveraging technology and ecology to engage students in studying the environment.

International research in geographical and environmental education, 20(3), 199-214.

Delia, J., & Krasny, M. E. (2018). Cultivating positive youth development, critical

consciousness, and authentic care in urban environmental education. Frontiers in

psychology, 8, 2340.

Holifield, R. (2001). Defining environmental justice and environmental racism. Urban

geography, 22(1), 78-90.

Krasny, M. E., & Tidball, K. G. (2009). Applying a resilience systems framework to urban

environmental education. Environmental education research, 15(4), 465-482.

Kudryavtsev, A., Krasny, M. E., & Stedman, R. C. (2012). The impact of environmental

education on sense of place among urban youth. Ecosphere, 3(4), 1-15.

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