By: Kate Bovarnick
In Environmental Justice — a team-taught, double-period, semester-long block course — students develop a deep understanding of environmental science, local government, policy-making, and more. But the most important lesson from the class may be what students learn about themselves.
“Students leave this class year after year saying the same thing: I didn’t know I could make such a difference,” explained teacher Tricia Johnson. This is Johnson’s sixth year teaching the class. She teaches the science of environmental justice issues, while Brian Kelahan is in charge of the ‘justice’ — or social science — side of things.
“We try to ingrain in the students that science and the environment is really part of so many aspects of our day to day life. And if they have the knowledge about these issues, and the confidence to speak out against or in support of the issues they can make a difference,” said Kelahan.
That sentiment was what drove students’ final projects. Students were tasked to find environmental challenges that disproportionately impact low income residents, people of color, and other vulnerable groups in the New Haven community, and to construct a solution to address those issues. They dove into projects where both the science and the social science were complex and important. For instance, one group developed a toxic tour of the Fair Haven neighborhood, raising awareness of potential health hazards, and exploring what residents and students could do to change these conditions. Another surveyed residents from across New Haven about whether they perceived their own neighborhood, or downtown New Haven, as having more significant trash and illegal dumping issues — and sharing their findings with both environmental advocates and the Chamber of Commerce. A third developed plans — to be implemented this spring with a large group of their peers — to address invasives species along the West River, restoring ecosystems services and public access to the river that runs through the heart of several New Haven neighborhoods.
A project that particularly stood out to teachers and students dealt with the water quality in local rivers and its relationship to income in the surrounding areas. Juniors Yasmine Scipio, Francesca Ruiz, and Moshema Hull spent countless hours collecting water samples, testing toxicity levels, attending community meetings, and presenting their findings to local high schools. “It was pretty cool getting to go out to the rivers and physically collect the samples, we even did it in the snow. Getting to perform the tests on the water was really interesting. I never really realized that how the wealth people have affects their environment,” reflected Moshema. What were the students findings? The greater medium income of a neighborhood, the cleaner the water in the surrounding river was. “The Mill River that is surrounded by the upper class neighborhood of East Rock had much lower toxicity levels then the West River which is closer to a lower income neighborhood,” explained Yasmine.
The class not only gave the students the tools to handle the science and research behind their projects, but it also gave them the power to do something with their findings. Moshema, with the rest of her group, decided to share their findings with other community members and young people who could act on what they learned. “As a group we thought that what we found was pretty powerful and we wanted to share it with other people. We started going to West River Community Meetings Beaver Pond Park meetings, we started feeling like our voices were being heard.” The group took the idea of reaching out a step further, and decided to present to local high schools not only about their scientific project, but also about the work they did in the community. “We went to The Sound School, Hillhouse, Metro, Wilbur Cross, and Coop High School. We wanted to let other teenagers know that they can also make a difference, if they speak out they can be heard,” said Francesca.
Sarah Tracy-Wanck — who coordinates Common Ground’s environmental leadership work, and who worked closely with several Environmental Justice project groups — saw the impact of experiences like these on students’ relationships with their community. “Not only do these students learn that they have the power to voice their concerns and solutions regarding social and environmental exploitation, but they also understand that Environmental Justice must privilege the voices of communities. Consequently, many projects began with a participatory research component designed specifically to assess community perspectives, which then informed the structure and approach of the action-based project.” For Tracy-Wanck, Janet Sakouvogui, member and leader of the Fair Haven Annex area Toxic Tour group, embodied this approach. “Janet was constantly questioning if the design of their project was grounded in the needs and opinions of the residents in the area.”
Environmental Justice will hopefully be offered next year, and with it many more students will be able to find their voice and connect with community. “Before this class I didn’t know that I, a fourteen year old high school student, could make any kind of difference. Now I realize you have the right to fight against injustice,” reflected Freshman Fiona Kelly, while presenting on her work with toxicity levels in Fair Haven.