- Students will explore the concept of environmental racism through their own experience of fairness.
- Students will learn about various environmental hazards and the fact that certain communities are affected more than others.
- Students will see that they can be empowered to change their communities by learning about young people who took a stand, and by creating materials addressing environmental concerns.
Environmental racism is a term that was coined by Rev. Benjamin Chavis, who conducted a study which found that communities of color are more likely to bear the brunt of environmental hazards than are white communities.
That study found that these environmental disparities occurred because of lax enforcement of environmental rules and regulations, as well as the placement of landfills and dumps and the disposal of hazardous waste in minority neighborhoods. The problem is compounded by the fact that members of affected communities are seldom found on city councils, planning committees or regulatory boards.
For younger children, linking the concept of environmental racism to their own understanding of fairness will help them grasp the injustice of this practice.
- Wrapped candies (Preferably sugar-free. Make sure no one has allergies.)
- Cards or stickers in two distinctly different colors (e.g., red and blue).
- For fourth- and fifth-grade classes, a copy of the article "Sunset Park Teens Take to Streets with Pollution Detectors"
- For K-3 students, art supplies for making signs and posters.
Part One: Give each student a wrapped candy and either a red card or a blue card. Have all the students with red wrappers sit on one side of the room, and all the students with blue wrappers sit on the other.
Instruct the class to eat their candies and to hold on to their wrappers. Then tell all the students with a red card to give their wrappers to a person with a blue card. Explain that the people with blue cards have to live with this garbage even though they didn't create it.
The class might protest and say things like, "That's not fair," "You're playing favorites," or they might ask "Why?" You can tell them, "Just because."
Then tell everyone to go back to their original seats and to give you back the cards. You can also walk around with a garbage bag to collect the wrappers.
After everyone is settled again, go around the room and ask how the exercise made the class feel. Let everyone air their feelings and explain that just as some kids were forced to take garbage they didn't make simply because the luck of the draw gave them a blue card, in real life, sometimes people are treated unfairly because of where they live or the color of their skin. Ask if your students know words for this. Depending on the age, they might offer terms like, racism, discrimination and prejudice.
Explain that certain neighborhoods are more likely to suffer from issues such as pollution, garbage and other environmental problems. Often this is because of unfair practices. This can include putting dumps and landfills in poor or minority areas where people might not be on the committees that make the decisions about where a dump should go, or where new immigrants might not speak English and won't be consulted about developments in their community.
Option for K-3
Tell the class that environmental hazards, close to or in neighborhoods, pose a big problem for the world. Remind them that we just did an exercise on garbage disposal and explain that many neighborhoods are faced with unfair environmental hazards.
Ask the class to come up with a few examples of some of these hazards. You can help them with suggestions like, pollution, air pollution, water pollution, food safety, and garbage disposal.
Have each student pick one environmental hazard. Then tell them to make a poster, using pictures and/or words, with a message that every child deserves to live in a healthy environment.
Option for fourth and fifth grades
Tell the class that environmental hazards, close to or in neighborhoods, pose a big problem for the world. Remind them that we just did an exercise on garbage disposal and explain that many neighborhoods are faced with unfair environmental hazards. Even so, people who live there don't have to just sit back and do nothing. Tell them you are going to read them a story about some young people who decided to take action about issues in their neighborhood.
Read the article "Sunset Park Teens Take to Streets with Pollution Detectors," by Colleen Long.
After reading the article, lead a discussion and ask the following questions:
- The article says, "More than 90 percent of Hispanics and 86 percent of blacks live in urban settings, which are typically at higher risk for air pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency." Why do you think urban areas are more polluted than suburban and rural areas? Why do you think these populations are more likely to be affected?
- The article talks about air pollution. What are some other environmental concerns that affect our neighborhoods?
- The article is about teens who got involved in their community by testing the air quality in their neighborhood. What are some other ways people can get involved in helping fix problems in their neighborhoods? Is there anything younger kids can do?
Part Three: Conclude by explaining the term environmental racism. Then ask the kids if they can tell you which of the following is an example of racism, which is an example of an environmental problem and which is a form of environmental racism:
- A city puts a dump in the middle of a poor Latino community
- A town cancels their recycling program
- People don't vote for a mayoral candidate because he is black.