How to build out culturally relevant Environmental Education programs with community partnerships

The Science Career Continuum is an out-of-school-time program, rooted in promoting accessible pathways for marginalized youth in STEM by providing resources to support them along their college and career pathways. In its 26-year existence, the award-winning program has evolved the way it delivers science education. Over the past three years, Science Career Continuum students participated in an immersive environmental education curriculum that focused on exploring environmental justice in Chicago. The inspiration for this curriculum came from the need to create affirmative connections between what students were learning through their summer internships at the Chicago Botanic Garden and what they were experiencing in their own lives. With generous support from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, staff were able to build out a program that centered students’ voices and lived experiences, and prioritized reciprocal partnerships with community leaders. Environmental justice examines the ways that power, privilege, and oppression shape decision making about who has access to safe environments. Chicago has a long history of environmental injustice on the South and West Sides that is still very much present.

Black, Brown, and Indigenous community leaders have led and continue to lead efforts to ensure that their communities are prioritized in environmental decision-making. It was essential for this project to work in partnership with and receive input from communities who are working on these issues and living them. Collaborating partners included the Alliance of the Southeast, Friends of the Parks, Fuller Park Community Development Council, American Indian Center, and Chicago EcoHouse. These partners, all of whom have a background in environmental justice, met with a curriculum writer over the course of three months to develop lesson plans, workshops, and activities for summer programming. Each summer, 40 youth in the Science First and College First programs, grades 8 through 11, participated in a five-day, four-to-seven week curriculum that explored four U.S. EPA environmental priorities:

  • Addressing climate change and improving air quality
  • Taking action on toxics and chemical safety
  • Making a visible difference in communities across the country
  • Protecting water: a precious limited resource

One of the major learning goals was for students to take an interdisciplinary approach to science so lessons were a combination of history, toxicology, plant science, and civic action. For example, during one week, students learned about the remediation process and the history and impact of industry on the Southeast Side of Chicago, and took a field trip to Steel Workers Park, a former industrial site. Overall, staff observed significant gains in content knowledge and positive shifts in attitudes and perceptions related to STEM. On average, students showed a more than 20 percent gain in content knowledge and reported that they felt encouraged to find solutions to the environmental inequities that exist in their communities. Students also reported that they often talked about environmental justice at home with families and friends and that the curriculum influenced their educational and career aspirations.

 An overview of major lessons learned and recommendations:

  • Secure funding for your project/curriculum.
    • Offer paid internships to youth.
    • Secure adequate funds for workshop materials and project building.
    • Provide equitable compensation for community partners for their time.
  • Amplify the voices of and listen to community leaders.
    • Understand that many grassroots organizations operate differently to mainstream environmental organizations and that resources are often not allocated equitably to grassroots organizations.
    • Relationship building between large institutions and grassroots organizations takes time. It is important for organizations to support the underlying work of community partners beyond one-off projects.
  • Be sensitive when teaching difficult subjects, like social justice and equity.
    • Youth understand inequity and injustice just as well as adults do. If you work with youth who are experiencing environmental injustices, make sure that there is an action component to your project so youth can be part of the solution.
  • Cultural relevancy is about understanding that culture is fluid and dynamic, made up of many factors, and that an individual’s cultural background influences how they learn.
    • Culturally relevant does not mean representing all cultures.
    • Spend the appropriate amount of time with staff instructors unpacking their own biases and learning about the history of environmental justice.
    • Let students develop their own projects that incorporate their existing knowledge, talent, and skills.
    • Include families in what students are learning.

To learn more about the SCC, click here and watch this video.

To view the environmental justice curriculum, click here.

This publication was developed under Assistance Agreement No.NE00E02261 awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It has not been formally reviewed by EPA. The views expressed in this document are solely those of the Chicago Horticultural Society, and EPA does not endorse any products or commercial services mentioned in this publication.