WALC

A RACE CRITICAL ENVIRONMENT

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Conrad Benedicto, Director/Founder of

Wilderness, Arts, Literacy Collaborative (WALC) in SF

&

  Raynelle Rino-Southon, Author, The D Word, Creating a Niche for Diversity

The WALC Program at Downtown High School had been visiting Heron’s Head Park as a field study site for many, many years before I began managing the environmental education programming with Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ). In recognition of this and similarities in teaching approach and content, I decided to formalize a collaboration between the two by continuing to support WALC visits to the park and implementing semester-long units aligning both curricula. This relationship turned out to be one of the best experiences of my career and I continue to work and support the program, which is now approaching their 15th year in existence in San Francisco public schools!

 In the coming months we’ll hear directly from both Founders of the WALC Program in an in-depth interview I had with them. During that interview we touched on an aspect of their work that really spoke to my motivation to showcase examples of great work on the grounds; how our youth (and people) of color see themselves in their environment in hopes of having a healthier and a "just" life. This brought me to thinking about ‘A Race Critical Environment’ where, having the backbone of social justice is the crux of what makes environmental engagement relevant and impactful to young people of color. This Race Critical Environment speaks to the need to bridge communities of color and land together in order for our future generations to participate in the “environmental movement”. Race must be a part of the conversation.

Digging deeper into conversation, Conrad sent me this speech in its entirety. It touches on the aspects of delivering an environmental education programming that is quite rare, but much needed in this effort to engage at-risk youth and people of color in meaningful environmental experiences and connections. His speech spoke truth to the work. -It was delivered at the 4th Annual Earth Team Teacher’s Lunch, August 2005. 

“The Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative (WALC) is an interdisciplinary academic program operating at two inner-city high schools in San Francisco. We use outdoor field study experiences as a means to provide a conceptual and experiential foundation for a rigorous academic curriculum. During our camping trips, hikes, and weekly habitat restoration work, our students learn ecological concepts that they then use as a way to examine and understand the subject matter in their other WALC classes. These outdoor experiences also foster the bonds of friendship and affection amongst all of us that motivate both WALC teachers and students to accomplish things in the areas of academic and personal growth that are often quite inspiring.

We’re very proud of our students. At Downtown High School for example, where students are placed due to truancy, behavioral/safety concerns, and lack of credit due to F’s, WALC students often have 10-20% higher attendance and graduation rates than the school norm. At Balboa High School, Downtown High School’s biggest feeder school, as high as 30% of WALC students are accepted into the University of California each year and as many as 90% go on to some form of higher education—also above school norms. Both WALC chapters have the reputation of being the most academically rigorous pathway or project at their schools. We totally believe in contradicting the stereotype of outdoor/environmental education being not “academic” enough, not being “real” school. We’ve had our happy little successes over the past eight years and today I want to share with you some of the things we have learned in that time about trying to create an environmental education-based program that is specifically geared to meet the needs of low-income, inner-city students of color. Hopefully, you will find some of these insights useful in your own work.

Conducting an integrated environmental education program for students of color comes with a unique set of challenges and teaching opportunities that we in WALC believe should be met head on, addressed explicitly and substantively through the curriculum and not glossed over.

Our first challenge is that our students don’t claim open spaces or the “environment” in the way that those of us who have had more access to the wilderness do. What’s more, they are often made to feel like they do not belong there. In our eight years of experience, the incidents of people being rude or threatening to our students in places like Yosemite National Park or Pinnacles National Monument are far too numerous and consistent for us not to feel like many people still view the presence of our kids in places like these as an intrusion.

Our response to this is to make examining why an explicit part of the learning experience and, in fact, part of the character of our program. Why do most of our students feel a lack of connection to or common ownership for the environment? Why do other people sometimes react so negatively towards them during our trips? We deal with these issues directly. And by this, we don’t mean sitting around the fire circle and sharing how we feel. By this, we mean a substantive academic exploration supported by the analysis of historical evidence and scholarly writing. When we do that, our students are able to put their feelings and attitudes, and those of others into a larger context.

Much has been written, for example, about the effects of the Great Migration on the sense of connection African Americans had with the land. In order to escape racial violence and terrorism, millions of African Americans migrated from mostly rural areas in the south, where a connection to nature and the land had been established, to isolated urban conditions in the north, where this connection was severed. Within this history, our inner city students might find the origins of their own discomfort in nature. For generations of Asians and Latinos in California, the outdoors did not connote recreation, but backbreaking work in the fields. The word “camp” did not recall visions of marshmallows and hikes, but the canvas tent labor camps to which they were relegated to live. In learning this history, our students might be able to understand why they never went camping with their families when they were younger. There’s a sad connection between segregation laws preventing people of color from actually visiting state parks in the south, and the docent at Año Nuevo State Preserve inexplicably announcing to our students one day that the ranger who was to meet them down by the beach “by the way, has a gun.”

This historical contextualization of our students’ feelings or attitudes about nature and the treatment of them by others is an explicit part of our teaching because we want to nurture in them a sense of defiance about claiming their space in these natural areas. The next time our students are feeling weird in Lassen or Joshua Tree because people are staring or because a park ranger belittles them for needing a flashlight and a posse to go to the bathroom at night, their first response is not, “Man, when do we go home?” but, “Back up—I’ve as much right to be here as you.” Once we have nurtured this attitude within our students, it is easier to then foster those feelings of wonder, fascination, responsibility and stewardship for beautiful open spaces and the environment in general.

Environmental and outdoor education programs that find themselves attracting mostly white middle class students, despite the presence of students of color at their schools or in their communities, might look to see if the direct and scholarly confrontation of these issues can help them address the lack of diversity in their programs.

The second challenge/opportunity I would like to talk about is the general notion that the issues our students struggle through in their lives are not connected to environmental studies, that their shared experiences and concerns and those of the environment and environmentalists are irrelevant to each other. We, of course, do not agree with this notion, and have found the connections to be both obvious and elegant.

Ecological concepts observed, analyzed, and documented during our field studies can be powerfully instructive, particularly for youth of color. Ecological teachings—such as the function of diversity, the interconnectedness of organisms within an ecosystem, dynamic balance, and sense of place—that our society needs to internalize in order to sustain the environment are exactly the same concepts our students need to learn in order to navigate the issues of poverty, racism, and lack of opportunity they must face every day. In fact, conditions of nature are the same as conditions of social justice.

For example, when we teach our students the function of diversity within an ecosystem, they begin to understand through field observations, monitoring projects, and habitat restoration that a diverse ecosystem can be more stable and sustainable. Redundancy in a diverse ecosystem means that multiple species can do the same "job," which means that if the number of a particular species suffers due to disease, for instance, other species ensure that the “job" (keeping the rodent population in check, providing a host for a particular type of moth's caterpillar stage, etc.) still gets done and the ecosystem continues to function. When students have gotten a strong grasp of this concept because they've seen it, they've helped restore it, they've experienced it out in the field, then we can apply it to something like early African American history in my U.S. History class. By forbidding enslaved African Americans to read, speak their native tongues, practice their African traditions—and by making them conform to one language, one belief system, one all-encompassing legal status—slaveholding states essentially took away the diversity within this community; that same diversity which would have meant strength, stability, sustainability. That's why the struggle for literacy, the struggle for education was so important. It allowed the African American community to become more and more diverse—doctors, business owners, farmers, writers, lawyers, dentists, botanists, and teachers instead of only menial laborers. The result is a stronger community whose contribution to the landscape of American life resounds to this day. Diversity is a condition of nature and it is also a condition of social justice.

All of the WALC themes are both conditions of nature and conditions of social justice. “Sense of Place,” simultaneously our most basic and most complicated theme, is all about knowing how organisms or individuals fit within a larger context. When we teach our students how phenomena we observe at Lassen Volcanic Park—lava tubes, sulfuric springs, plug dome volcanoes, glacial erratics, cirques, rivers—fit into the larger context of tectonic and gradational forces shaping the landscape, it becomes a conceptual model they can then use to explore how individuals, communities, organizations, and even actions fit into the larger context of economics and politics shaping our country. Learning the concept of Sense of Place almost always leads our students to notice that they lack exactly that. Most of our students have some sense of being "left out." They don't feel like they are really a part of this country or land, and yet they are here. When our Chinese American students, for example, learn that Chinese people accounted for 25% to 30% of California's government revenues despite being only about 10% of the population during the 1850's, they get a sense of how they fit in, what role their people played in the larger context of California history. None of our students—from the Samoans to the Pilipinos, the Cambodians to the Salvadorans to the African Americans—need to feel like they "don't belong" here in the United States. The historical evidence is clear and the current economic, socio-political, and cultural evidence is clear as well—their communities had and still have significant places within the larger context of United States history, economics, culture, and politics. All we have to do is unearth that evidence, very much in the same way we do during our trips. The fact that students go through our educational system ignorant of this is unjust in and of itself. Sense of Place is a condition of nature and a condition of social justice.

After a semester or a year in WALC, students are conducting environmental justice workshops, voter awareness and registrations drives, school-wide exhibitions of their thematic projects, and producing public service announcement films for the environment—and they don't feel silly doing it. They have an excellent grasp of how they and their actions fit into the bigger picture. They have a Sense of Place.

In WALC, our field studies therefore literally provide a way for our students to analyze and understand all the novels, texts, and primary documents we have them read, draw conclusions for all the labs they have to conduct, write those monster papers they get at the end of each semester, and complete the numerous projects we assign, while at the same time giving us inspiration, and helping us become a community of people that genuinely care for one another (more or less—they still drive me crazy sometimes). Outdoor experiences are not cause to get out of school, they are opportunities for students to learn and for us to offer them tangible context and/or evidence for the concepts we study.

I would like to conclude with two more thoughts—one is related to what I’ve already said and the other not so much.

The first is that, in our efforts to connect our students with the earth, we teach them that all peoples—if you explore their histories and cultures deeply enough—have in their heritage: traditions, beliefs, and practices that contain ecological wisdom. We all have a heritage of environmentalism that we can recapture and embrace, and there is no need for us to appropriate the traditions and practices of other cultures—something that occurs far too often in our commercialized society.

The second thought is something that we try to articulate to funders and administrators, something that perhaps environmental educators should say more in these trying times of overemphasis on standardized tests and teaching to them. We’ve noticed that now there is an emphasis on organizations seeking to influence overall educational policy in the face of exit exams, API scores, state takeovers and merit pay, and a de-emphasis on smaller organizations that provide direct programs to youth. We support statewide efforts to balance out current educational policy, but we must continue to remind funders and administrators that it is smaller innovative environmental education programs that provide actual alternative models on the ground. It is more crucial than ever for environmental and outdoor educators to continue their practice, and be given support, because our work puts forth an alternative vision, and our successes provide the actual proof needed to win the policy debate.

Thank you very much for your time. I hope this little talk was of some use to you, or at least interesting to hear.