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watching them learn

April 1, 2010

Yesterday I had the privilege of being able to speak in a class at Syracuse University.  My brother teaches a class on Sustainable Design there, and their department is interested in coming up with a definition or a departmental understanding of what “Sustainability” really is.  I find it quite admirable that they are probing deeper than traditional one-liner definitions, and I appreciated even more that my brother wanted me to incorporate my work with environmental justice into their understanding of sustainability.

I really enjoyed teaching… I just love the act of it.  You know how people love to talk about their kids? They’re so proud and excited, they’re just bursting with stories.  That’s how I feel about environmental justice (and, more recently, just sustainability).  Getting the opportunity to talk about some of the definitions I’ve been developing, and telling some of the stories of the movement, and giving examples of positive community organizing—all to people that hadn’t ever heard of EJ… oooh golly!  It was really great.  Teaching just feels so natural, and it feels positive.  It feels like doing good and making a difference.

Two moments that I thought were interesting with students:

After I finished giving my presentation, we took a restroom/water/air break.  One of the students near me had this defeated look on her face, and we talked about how EJ can be overwhelming and depressing.  It’s true—I’ve felt it many times myself.  In a way, the fact that she was feeling that way after just a half hour presentation made me feel good, like I had adequately conveyed how big, messy, and unacceptable this problem is.  I also took the opportunity to talk about how much is being done, though, and how exciting it is that we’ve made so much change.  But I really knew what she was feeling, and I think it’s important both to feel the weight of the problem and to find inspiration in what can be done to fix it.

Another moment I really liked was when one of the students who very much did not have a grasp of EJ (and only some basic ideas about sustainability) before the class said something like, “Why don’t they teach us this earlier?”  She continued to the effect of “They teach us math and history, but why not sustainability?  Why isn’t this a course in elementary school?”  It was a great question for many reasons; for one thing, I loved that she really got how important it was.  And being a chipper, friendly sorority girl, she’s the type of person who can really spread ideas like these to people that might not have heard them before.

But the answer to her question has a couple parts… first off, there are a lot of politics that go into what is getting taught in schools.  No surprise there.  But secondly, the idea of sustainability is really complex.  I’m just now getting to a nuanced, in-depth understanding of it after years and years of upper level schooling and focused study.   It requires knowing about our governmental system, what our resources and ecosystems consist of, the kind of societal limitations that exist, and the variety of problems and solutions that have been tried so far.

But then again, maybe it’s ALSO an idea that is amazingly simple.  Everything is connected.  Maybe kids could get this concept, and use it in everything they do as they grow up.

Talk about inspiring.

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