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Long Live Earth and Its People


“America is segregated and so is pollution. Race and class still matter and map closely with pollution, unequal protection, and vulnerability.  Today, zip code is still the most potent predictor of an individual’s health and well-being.”

-- Robert Bullard, PhD, “Father of Environmental Justice”


• Environmental justice (EJ) issues disproportionately impact communities of color and low- income communities.  In exploring the issues and perspectives many of our students will feel the painful impact of lived and shared experiences. Give your students the space to breathe, process, and reflect often. Provide them opportunities for empowerment as they share their concerns and tell their stories. • Students that live in disproportionately burdened communities may experience a range of emotions, especially if this is the first time taking a deep dive into EJ. Oppression takes various forms, and pollution burden is one such form.That being said, there are inspiring examples of empowerment that are driven by vulnerable communities. Robert Bullard (the Father of EJ) often points to case studies of such empowerment. It can also be helpful to explore CalEnviroscreen prior to engaging with students. This can help ground educators in their own community burden or privilege while also identifying the potential environmental burden students may work, live and play in or near. • It is also important to note that although an EJ-focused classroom experience can ignite student action, it is also not their burden to bear. Bandwidth Recovery, Cia Verschelden, is a wonderful resource to tap into prior to engaging students in a potentially triggering lesson.  While many students will be ignited and inspired, some may find themselves stunned or upset. Starting with a guest speaker, ideally a community organizer, is a great way to open the content.

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Key Term / Definition

Green Action for Health and Environmental Justice defines Environmental Racism as:


“Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. Environmental justice is the movement’s response to environmental racism…


Environmental racism refers to the institutional rules, regulations, policies or government and/or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for locally undesirable land uses and lax enforcement of zoning and environmental laws, resulting in communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based upon race. Environmental racism is caused by several factors, including intentional neglect, the alleged need for a receptacle for pollutants in urban areas, and a lack of institutional power and low land values of people of color. It is a well-documented fact that communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by polluting industries (and very specifically, hazardous waste facilities) and lax regulation of these industries.”

Learning Objectives

These pieces have been selected as a way for students to: 

  • Identify environmental justice challenges in communities and the connection between Intersectionality and the effects of climate crisis 

  • Connect and engage students to the environment and embrace cultura y familia as part of the environmental narrative

  • Develop awareness, knowledge, and concepts to provide opportunities for environmental justice action

Essential and Guiding Questions

  • What is environmental justice and environmental racism? What are the 17 principles of environmental justice (EJ)?

  • How do environmental issues disproportionately impact communities of color with high poverty?

  • What environmental injustices exist in my community?

  • What are some ways to assure communities have access to a healthy environment to live, learn, and work in?

  • How do community members connect to the topics, issues, and policy initiatives that impact them and the spaces we are recreating in?

  • Are there organizations I can work with in my community?

  • How do we ensure everyone has a voice in the conversation?

Suggested Activities

  •  Environmental Justice (EJ) History

    • The EJ movement is rooted in activism driven by communities of color. The first national People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in October, 1991 was a groundbreaking meeting that gave rise to the 17 Environmental Justice Principles. (MS, HS, CC)

      • Give students time to read the above 17 principles and reflect. Students can share their thoughts/opinions/questions with a jamboard, or sticky notes. If in person, copy each principle and place each one around the room. Students can write their reflections on a sticky note they place under the principles. 

      • After they have written and posted their reflection, have a facilitated conversation about their thoughts from these principles. Students (or instructor) can lead this conversation by reading the principle and asking the group about their sticky notes.

    • Students may have more questions at this point.  At this point more context will help ground the following activities. (MS, HS, CC)

      • Begin with providing the EPA’s EJ timeline.  Then show this short Pro Publica: A Brief History of Environmental Justice video.  

      • Students can read this Robert Bullard interview or listen to this podcast.

      • Students can write a reflection.  

        1. Prompts:  What examples of environmental justice did you find powerful?  What questions do you have about environmental justice?  What do you think communities that are disproportionately impacted need to be empowered in their quest of justice?  

  • Environmental Justice case studies:  Instructors can jigsaw the listed case studies, or have students choose a case study to explore and/or present on. Use these slides to guide students. (MS, HS, CC)

    • UpStream by Dr. Beth Rose Middleton Manning focuses on Indigenous Water Access in California.

    • Dumping in Dixie:  Race, Class and Environmental Quality by Robert Bullard, the father of Environmental Justice.

    • Environmental Justice in the San Francisco Bay Area provides an overview of EJ issues for Bay Area residents.

    • The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein focuses on how U.S. law created segregated neighborhoods throughout the country, tying this history to EJ issues.

    • EJ Atlas:  “The EJ Atlas collects these stories of communities struggling for environmental justice from around the world”

  • Data Set exploration: Students can explore these maps to dive into community demographics, health outcomes and pollution exposures.  If you choose to use these resources, give students time and space to reflect. Students can choose a community to explore. Although these maps don’t explain why there is a pollution burden, they lay out what the problem is. See this resource for guided activities using CalEnviroScreen. (MS, HS, CC)

    • CalEnviroscreen:  California mapping tool that “help identify California communities that are disproportionately burdened by multiple sources of pollution”

    • EJScreen:  EPA mapping tool for the United States

  • Storytelling: Present this slideshow on EJ Storytelling and its relationship to civic action and community empowerment. The lesson culminates in students creating their own environmental justice story based on the resources in the slideshow. Examples of photovoice, video narrative, and ethics are included. (MS, HS, CC)

  • Dedicate two class sessions to having students report on environmental racism in groups using this lesson plan from Learning for Justice. (MS, HS, CC)

  • Natural Disasters: As a class, ask students to shout out the names of natural disasters they remember. Some students may remember recent California earthquakes and wildfires, the Texas freeze in 2021, or older events such as Hurricane Katrina or the polar vortex in winter 2018-2019. Write the name of each natural disaster on the board. Then, ask students to pick one natural disaster from the list and write down everything they know about it. Have them discuss in small groups what they remember. At the end of class, assign them to prepare a 5 minute presentation on the natural disaster they wrote about, focusing on how it affected marginalized groups in the area where it occurred. You may need to spend class time defining the term “marginalized” and giving examples of how specific disasters have caused the most harm among these groups. Case studies to consider are the lack of U.S. government response to Hurricane Katrina’s African American victims and Hurricane Maria’s Puerto Rican victims, despite Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. colony. (MS, HS, CC)

  • After teaching your class about environmental justice, ask students to create a poem, short story, or collage responding to the following prompt to close out your unit: What would your community look like if environmental justice was achieved? Describe how it feels to live in that world. (MS, HS, CC)

Text Selections




Reference materials for the educator, background, databases
  • Science Friday by Laura Diaz Activities to Explore the Relationship between Race and Income and Pollution Exposure.

  • CalEnviroscreen:  California mapping tool that “help identify California communities that are disproportionately burdened by multiple sources of pollution”

  • EJScreen:  EPA mapping tool for the United States

  • EJ Atlas:  “The EJ Atlas collects these stories of communities struggling for environmental justice from around the world”

  • Storytelling as a Tool:

    • Briant, K. J., Halter, A., Marchello, N., Escareño, M., & Thompson, B. (2016). The Power of Digital Storytelling as a Culturally Relevant Health Promotion Tool. Health Promotion Practice, 17(6), 793–801.

  • Photovoice Resources

  • Photovoice Ethics: Wang CC, Redwood-Jones YA. Photovoice Ethics: Perspectives from Flint Photovoice. Health Education & Behavior. 2001;28(5):560-572. doi:10.1177/109019810102800504

  • TEJAS: Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services

  • The Wilderness Society: The Public Lands Curriculum

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