MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

Environmental Education - Thinking Outside the Box

"…walk your talk. If you do not live your life a certain way, then all the education in the world doesn't mean anything. You know it's kind like applied research. What is applied research? (pointing at tape recorder) What does it mean at the University if it gets put into a working paper or document then goes on the shelf? To me it means you take information and apply it to community, you take it to people that need it."

--Socorro Montero

Socorro Montero (pseudonym), a participant in my doctoral case study research, delivers the essence of my field of study at the University of New Mexico. My focus is environmental education, in particular the role of Women of Color activists (specifically Chicanas), for, with, and on behalf of the environment. I was invited to present a paper about this work at the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting held this April in New Orleans, Louisiana. The panel, entitled "Rethinking Environmental Education," and my paper focused on the need for a shift in consciousness and thinking, and to step "outside the box" of common conversations and accepted norms of environmental education (EE).

Environmental Education can benefit greatly from thinkers outside of academia, from individuals fully engaged in their surrounding world, both natural and built, who are responding to environmental challenges. My research highlights a new direction in EE by focusing on Chicana women environmental activists who, alternatively, are also educators for the environment. The knowledge, experiences, and lives of these activist women are presented via their different thoughts, approaches, and visions for unlocking barriers to meet educational needs now and into the future. For women of color, the words and meaning of environmental education have been redefined and broadened. The word environment implies spaces where you work, play, and live, combining family and community. Guadalupe Valdez writes that educación has a much broader definition than what happens within the walls of a classroom, it includes manners and moral values. Additionally, I would add ethics to the list. Integrating these expressions of environment and education expands problem solving in EE with a focus on development of skills, knowledge, and value awareness in order to promote diversity and active participation in teaching and learning.

EE is cross disciplinary and integrates subjects such as ecology, economics, and social sciences. EE can serve as a bridge between these disciplines with that of community knowledge, to seek better understanding in the identification of problems and to uncover issues that may not represent mainstream perspectives. My case study -- "How Might Minority Perspectives Inform the Field of EE?" -- expands on environmental problems and the strategies used toward solving them through the eyes, voices, experiences, and actions of two Chicanas. They are a mother and daughter working in New Mexico communities toward environmental, economic, and social justice.

Women of color activists make up a good portion of the environmental and social justice movements. As sustainers of society, these women work to protect and preserve culture and tradition are simultaneously fighting for cleaner neighborhoods and preventing their community from being targeted as a dumping ground for the nation's waste. Together, women of color, family, and community members are creating a strong contingent to address multiple issues in a grass-roots movement. Women of color seek alternative forms of education such as action research, community-based service learning/experience, group problem solving, and collaborative endeavors. Their work builds upon a faculty of knowledge outside mainstream instruction that equally engages and enriches environmental educators.

As caregivers, nurturers, and sustainers of community, the knowledge and activism of these women are greatly needed in discussions about EE. As seen through the lens of diversity (race, class, language, ethnicity, and gender), women of color, and more specifically Chicanas, draw attention to capacities in movements among multiple cultures. Embedded in Gloria Anzaldua's "mestiza consciousness" are individuals who can successfully move in multiple cultures. Anzaldua brings awareness of living in a changing world with knowledge and ideas that sometimes contradict one another. Further, negotiation is a constant for women as they move about, within and around those cultures. Whether it is gender, race, class, or language, Chicana perspectives build upon and contribute to women's work for the betterment of society.

But these efforts are nearly invisible in most academic dialogues. For instance, Dolores Huerta, co-founder and secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers, played a key role in contract negotiations (1968-70) that resulted in one of the largest and most successful food boycotts in U.S. history and the first collective bargaining agreements for California farmworkers. Her ability to speak a language in addition to English, and to successfully negotiate the human rights of farm workers with heads of business, led to decisions that positively affected agricultural workers throughout North America. Yet, a student interested in reading about Huerta's acts of courage and leadership would probably have a better chance looking through police and FBI files than to find her catalogued in a public library.

My research focuses on the local knowledge of grass-roots activists through the work of a mother and daughter, both educators for the environment. The identification of problems in their respected communities requires knowledge building, critical skill development, multiple languages, awareness of varying values, and the seeking out possible solutions. Socorro's daughter Pilar demonstrates critical thinking in a power analysis critique:

"…typically in the United States there is a Board of Directors, is kind of male dominated sort of structure…So it's interesting that this still exists and it's already 2001 and basic things like child care haven't changed…"

What is remarkable is the longevity and strength of women in environmental work. Multi-generation activism is one way that demonstrates commitment. Socorro and Pilar also draw connections to tierra madre as a place of refuge, healing and spiritual renewal. These spaces of re-creation lend to the power and resilience required in their struggle to sustain themselves as they continue their work in the broader community.

Frances Ortega

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"In 1990 five U.S. National Laboratories reported that either fair competition plus restored research priority, or a proper accounting of its environmental benefits, could enable renewable energy to supply three-fifths of today's total U.S. energy requirements at competitive prices. Renewables could even supply one-fifth more electricity that the United States now uses."

--Natural Capitalism, 1989
Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins



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