A few weeks ago, I went out to the beautiful Cedar River Watershed Outdoor Education Center with my supervisor for my practicum—Green Jobs Research Assistant at Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) and the SPR environmental learning unit, a team of naturalists and environmental educators—to plan 2018’s environmental education. SPR is in charge of the environmental education centers at parks like Discovery and Carkeek, where students can learn a variety of lessons from how to build their own home garden to how to decipher native species from invasive ones to how to spot a good home for a crab in a tide pool. When I arrived at the meeting, I was pleased to find out that two out of the other eight people at the all-day meeting were not only also women of color, but alumni of the Urban Environmental Education graduate program. The rest of the group were women in charge of various environmental learning centers throughout the city. Our task that day was to plot how to bring more diversity into the centers.
The day began with some discussion on where diversity is lacking, so we would know where we need to improve. It quickly became apparent, like it usually does, that diversity was professional vernacular for race. The environmental educators noticed that most of their students were middle or upper middle class white students. They wanted to bring more youth of color, immigrants, and youth from other economic backgrounds into the environmental learning centers.
What a timely opportunity for me to have a chance to apply what we have been discussing in our classes. I began to think about a book we had been reading in my Participatory Action Research class: Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In Freire’s theory, the leaders of a group and the students of the leaders must work together to learn from each other in loving humility. There cannot be a sense of us vs. them. There is only the we, who work together toward a common goal, in this case environmental justice and equity. To me, it seems like in order to better include the ‘othered’ populations, the environmental educators would first need to start by ‘un-othering’ them in their minds, that is, deconstructing the us vs. them mentality. Othering, by definition, is the act of a dominant group mentally classifying another group as “not one of us.”
Back to the meeting. As I was about to comment on these reflections, one of the UEE alum took the thoughts right out of my mind. “How are we involving the community to understand what they need and how we can best serve them?” she asked. I qualified her statement, commenting that “at times in meetings like this I find that I am part of the ‘them’ that is being talked about rather than the ‘us’ who may be doing the planning.” The other UEE alum then posited, “I wonder if that is how the people we want to serve feel…”
The room was silent for a few moments. Heads began nodding. What I learned was that there already was a sense that the community needed to be involved in environmental program planning, but that day there was greater awareness to the radical idea of we, instead of us and them. I left the meeting very impressed by the women who spoke up and with all who listened. I was also very excited to see the theory I learned in the classroom put into practice in a real-world situation with real implications in the city call home.
Sylvia Hadnot is an alum of the Urban Environmental Education program.