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How Environmental Jargon Creates Exclusion

Author Angelou Ezeilo

Angelou Ezeilo describes her start in empowering diverse youth in her book, Engage, Connect, Protect: Empowering Diverse Youth as Environmental Leaders excerpted below.

Angelou Ezeilo is founder and CEO of the Greening Youth Foundation. She is a 2016 Ashoka Fellow and graduate of Spelman College and the University of Florida, College of Law. She lives in Atlanta, GA, with her husband of 24 years..

Excerpt from the book

It was in front of the roughest audience imaginable — a classroom of fifth graders — that I discovered how painfully exclusive is the language we typically use in the green space. Talk about your tough crowds. I was at an Atlanta elementary school with Ruth Kitchen, our educational director at the time. We figured we would start off as we usually did, by trying to get the students to interact with us. So, we asked the class who among them would consider themselves “environmentalists.” This room full of about two dozen African American 10-year-olds looked at us like we had three heads and six eyes. These students had signed up to be part of our EcoForce club, so we knew they were already interested in the environment. But the question was not registering with them at all. Ruth and I looked at each other, brows furrowed. To understand the extreme panic that coursed through my brain, you should recognize how much time and energy had been directed up to that point in creating this curriculum and approach. It had worked so well in Gwinnett, we had been so thoroughly congratulated for our efforts, that we walked into that classroom supremely confident of our methods. But it didn’t take long at all for our confidence to be shattered. If you have stood in front of a classroom of skeptical fifth graders well on their way to exhibiting their boredom and maybe even lack of respect, you will know exactly what we were feeling. If you haven’t, try to imagine what it might feel like for a comedian to realize nobody is laughing at her jokes — and she still has a half hour to go in the set. I’m not embarrassed to say that a layer of sweat began to form on my forehead. I’m sure Ruth was experiencing the same thing. Fifth graders can smell fear and panic like hyenas. I knew I had to pull it together real fast.

“Who likes to be able to go outside and play?” I asked them. Of course, they all raised their hands.

“Who likes the fact that they have a park near their house to play basketball and get on the swings and slides?” Ruth asked, immediately knowing where I was going with this line of questioning. The hands all went up again.

“Who likes to be able to go to the sink, turn on the faucet and get a glass of water they can drink?” All hands went up.

“How many of you have asthma or have friends who do?” A sea of hands. That one really hit me hard.

“Wouldn’t it be great if you could go outside and breathe the air and not have to worry about the breathing machine?” I asked. “Who likes fresh air?” We went on and on, talking about food, asking them if they were glad they could buy fresh fruit and vegetables at the supermarket. Being 10-year-olds, when they heard the word “vegetables,” we got a chorus of “Ewww!” But they got the point. “Everything you just agreed to means that each of us is an environmentalist,” we told them.

For too many kids of color, that classroom episode wasn’t a rarity — they’re used to being force-fed curriculum that was not designed to touch them. I can certainly remember that experience in my own childhood, when I’d have to memorize material that was so far from my own interests and life that it would be much more difficult for me to make the essential connections that white children had a much easier time with. And the way that education has worked in America in the decades since integration, the teachers and the school will focus on deficits in the students when they don’t quickly master the material. What’s wrong with these kids? Maybe it’s their home environments, or their parents, or their lack of money, or — yes, I’m going there — their skin color?

As Ruth and I stood there in front of the class and were devastated to discover that we had made the same mistake that school systems had been making for far too long with kids of color, we could have walked away drawing the same conclusions that schools had made for the last couple of generations: these kids can’t get it because something is wrong with them. But instinctively we knew that wasn’t the right conclusion to draw. No, the problem was with us, not with them. When we drew up the lesson plans and created the materials, we had not seen them. So, we had to quickly figure out a way to connect with these kids so that they would understand the point of the information we were trying to impart. We had to be nimble, flexible—to put aside our carefully laid plans, even if they represented many hours of work. And even — and this is so vital a point — if those plans had already worked in Gwinnett County with a different population of children.

In many ways, this is a microcosm of the point of this entire book: just because a particular method might have worked in the past and with a particular population doesn’t mean that it’s going to continue to work.

Ruth Kitchen and Angelou Ezeilo with first GYF environmental education class. Credit: Greening Youth Foundation archives

And the onus is on you to recognize when it’s no longer working and figure out a new approach. This wasn’t a problem a generation before me, when my parents were attending all-black elementary schools enforced by legal segregation. They were taught by caring and compassionate black teachers who usually instinctively knew how to cater lessons to their students. But then the US Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision mistook the demands of the plaintiffs for equal schools and deemed that equality meant they needed to sit next to white students. As a result, many all-black schools across America were shut down, and an estimated 50,000 black teachers were fired, leaving us with the school configurations we still have today: namely, mostly white teachers instructing black students. Studies have shown that black students in elementary school who have black teachers perform better on standardized tests and face more favorable teacher perceptions. In addition, according to a Johns Hopkins study, low-income black students who have at least one black teacher in elementary school are significantly more likely to graduate from high school and consider attending college. Similarly, it has been shown that black students perform better in HBCUs because they are taught in nurturing environments primarily by teachers that look like them.

But as we have confronted the realization that, for many reasons, we are unlikely to get many more black teachers in America’s schools, educators have pushed for something called “culturally relevant instruction,” which attempts to take into account the particular culture of the students. This wasn’t an issue for us in Gwinnett County, Georgia, when we began. The students were predominantly well-to-do white kids who had a very different base level of knowledge about these environmental issues than did the students in Atlanta. These middle-class students had heard words like “renewables, energy, reduce, reuse, recycle.” They might not have known exactly what they all meant, but the concepts the words explored were part of a lexicon to which they had been exposed. Even the word “environmentalist” would resonate with them. They had grown up with these concepts swirling around them. The parents immediately embraced what we were doing; the science teachers quickly saw how our work could complement what was being taught in Natural Science class — a class that you’d be hard-pressed to find in Atlanta.

If we had started out at a more middle-class predominantly black school in Atlanta, perhaps our reception might have been different. But that initial foray into Atlanta took place at a Title I school, which meant that at least 40 percent of the students in the building met the federal definition for low-income. The Title I program has been around for more than 50 years and currently provides more than $14 billion to thousands of schools and more than 6 million students across the country to help offset the negative effects of poverty. The fact that the school was deemed low-income meant that the students were much less likely to have encountered the environmental concepts we expected them to already know. As I left the classroom that day, it was becoming clearer to me that the jargon, the mindset, the overall approach we use in this field often has the effect of excluding groups of people. I don’t think it’s necessarily done on purpose, but it’s definitely something we need to explore further, to fix. The environmental community must look inward and ask: Why aren’t we able to connect with these communities of color? Why aren’t they at the table? Where’s the disconnect?

We use so many words in the environmental community, words that have become second nature to us, that send very distinct messages to communities sitting outside of our world.

For instance, even the word “organic.” Let’s take a step back and think about how the average person typically encounters that word. If you’d never really paid much attention to the word before, upon a cursory investigation an inescapable fact jumps out at you: organic costs more. And not just a few pennies more, but considerably more — as much as 20 to 100 percent, according to some estimates. Right away, you conclude that “organic” must be some kind of synonym for “rich-people food.” For those on a limited budget, they’re going to conclude that “organic,” whatever it means, is not intended for them. Even before they come across some kind of public education or marketing campaign that explains how organic food is free of harmful pesticides that conglomerates use to enable them to mass produce our food and increase their profits, they are starting from a position of extreme skepticism. Even after they encounter the explanations for the organic price difference, they might conclude that the food they normally eat hasn’t hurt them yet so it must be okay — and thus not worth the heftier price tag for the so-called safe food.

For African Americans, the race factor must be added to the equation. It’s clearly something for white people, which automatically lets you know it wasn’t intended for you. If the pro-organic argument is coming from white people, an enormous amount of racial distrust is overlaid on the issue. We have years, generations, of painful experiences and shocking revelations screaming at us that we can’t trust the things white people tell us when it comes to our health.

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