Environmental justice is critical to protect under-resourced communities from environmental and health hazards and to ensure residents are involved in critical decision-making around maintaining a healthy environment. Students in Albuquerque, NM are addressing environmental justice in their community head-on by working with the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge to create their first ever Environmental Justice Strategic Plan.
Through the students’ work with Earth Force, they developed the skills, knowledge, and motivation to address environmental justice in their community.
The environmental justice movement has strong roots in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, and in Albuquerque’s South Valley in particular. The neighborhood of Mountain View, on the south side of Albuquerque, is home to around 4,400 people, 81% of whom are people of color. Mountain View hosts two Superfund sites, numerous gravel and concrete manufacturing facilities, junkyards, a freight rail line, and many other industries. It is considered to be one of the most environmentally burdened communities in New Mexico, and is home to the primary sewage facility for Albuquerque. Because of the heavy traffic and no sidewalks, there are few safe places for children to play outside or even walk.
During the 2015-2016 school year, students started working with Earth Force, using its Community Action and Problem-Solving Process, which is a six-step model that combines the best of civic engagement, environmental education, and STEM. Through the Process, youth work together to design and implement a project to explore root causes and address a policy or practice related to the environmental issue that they identified in their community.
When looking at the strengths and weakness of their community, fourth graders at Mountain View Elementary School realized that their community’s environmental history was unique and presented many issues. They knew they could play a role in creating more access to resources, like the Refuge, in the community. They also wanted to better understand what their community wanted to see improved.
They created a youth version of an environmental justice survey/needs assessment that worked to gather information on what issues existed in the neighborhood, and what their peers’ understanding was of issues and strengths. The survey asked questions like “How do you get to school in the morning?,” “What do you like about your house/where you live?,” and “Do you think there are any problems with where you live?”
They surveyed 110 students and found that most students did think that there were problems in their neighborhoods and wanted to see more sidewalks, parks, and grassy areas. (This makes sense, as 80% of students said they liked playing outside verses playing inside.) The results of the student survey were shared with the community at the Community Celebration of Environmental Justice at Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge on May 21, 2016.
The Refuge was so impressed with the students’ findings, they chose to incorporate the results in the Refuge’s first ever environmental justice policy, which they recently released! Take a look at the 2017-2020 Environmental and Economic Justice Plan that students helped to shape.
This story is an important reminder that we have the ability to fight for our environment. And that young people can and want to play a leading role.
Author: Kristen Mueller
Kristen Mueller leads national communications, creating engagement and excitement around Earth Force, and its partners’, hands on, minds on programming. Specializing in traditional media and social media relations, she brings youth voice and leadership to the forefront of the environmental education field.