The Environmental Justice Movement and its Origins (by Marlene Salazar)

The overall goal for students is to gain historical knowledge on the environmental justice movement. While using the Principles of Environmental Justice, selected readings, and visuals students can get a better understanding of the movement.

The following lesson is intended for students to understand a social movement influenced by the Civil Rights movement. The activities are made for students to get a basic introduction of the environmental justice movement and its core values. The first lesson consists of student discussion on a brief 3 minute YouTube video by Robert Bullard, who coined the term environmental justice and is one of the first academic scholars to write on the movement. Also, students will engage with an important primary source from the environmental justice movement—the Principles of Environmental Justice. This activity will allow students to better understand the movement as well as gaining important skills such as public speaking and analytical comprehension.

Furthermore, students will be reading a passage from Robert Gottlieb’s book, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement. Students will receive an academic point of view of the movement and its origins while having class discussion on the book. In addition, students will have access to maps and graphs that depict the movement while improving their geographical and analytical skills. These activities make students have the chance to speak and better interpret the environmental justice movement. The skills that students will gain from these activities are important overall as they provide an opportunity for students to improve on their speaking and analytical skills.


The Environmental Justice Movement is based on the influence of other social movements while creating a unique movement that included race, class, and gender as part of the movement’s core beliefs.

1) What is environmental justice?
2) What is environmental racism?
3) How is the Civil Rights Movement linked to the Environmental Justice Movement?
4) What are the Principles of Environmental Justice?
5) How do the Principles of Environmental Justice shape the environmental justice movement?
6) After learning what the environmental justice movement is, do you see your or other communities differently?
7) How do maps and graphs enable the environmental justice movement?

1) Environmental Justice-the fair distribution of environmental benefits and undesirable pollution
2) Environmental Injustice-the unfair dispersal of environmental benefits and harmful pollution
3) Environmental Racism-the placement of hazardous and toxic pollutants in an area where it is a community of color
4) Communities of color-a community or group of people that are not Caucasians

The Environmental Justice Movement began, according to Robert Bullard in his acclaimed book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, in the 1980s after an African-American community fought against an unwanted landfill in Warren County, North Carolina.1 After continuous efforts such as protesting, the county’s residents lost and faced a contaminated landfill in their city that would jeopardize the city’s health which consisted of a poor African-American population.2 An important milestone towards the building of the environmental justice movement, the Warren County demonstration showed one important aspect of the Environmental Justice Movement—it combined both environmentalism and Civil Rights activism. As Warren County helped established a new movement, the environmental justice movement represented a new opportunity where low-income and marginalized groups throughout the United States joined efforts against toxic and polluting sites in their communities. The movement was also a challenge against the “whiteness of the environment movement…[and] raised the question of constituency and the limits of the existing environmental agenda.”3 The environmental justice movement is a response to mainstream environmental movement exclusion and the lack of representation of marginalized groups within the environmental movement. The alternative environmental movement, as Gottlieb describes it, addressed the issues of race and gender—issues that were not included in the mainstream environmental movement.4 As the movement began with the inspiration of the Civil Rights as well as a response to the environmental movement, the environmental justice movement has become a great opportunity for marginalized groups to participate in.

The movement has caused people from different backgrounds to create a new social movement that has been inspired from former movements. As a new form of activism, the environmental justice movement included the participation of a diverse group of people such as the Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA). The organization, Mary Pardo depicted, used networking to create a solid coalition.5 In a community where family values are valued highly, family networking can easily become political backing. Family networking legitimizes and supports the activism of the individual, and in this case a Mexican-American mother from East Los Angeles can help the movement grow and become stronger. The Mothers of East Los Angles like the protest efforts of Warren County are examples of the different groups across the United States that are involved in the environmental justice movement. From mothers to a whole city involvement, marginalized groups are able to find a voice and protect their community in the environmental justice movement. Also, throughout this lesson plan the environmental justice movement has grown as well as to incorporate important visuals that clearly defined and connect a relationship between race, class and environmental harms.

Furthermore, an important document that established the movement’s goals and ideals was The Principles of Environmental Justice. Each of the seventeen points represents a mission, a struggle, and what defines as the overall efforts by the environmental justice movement. The preamble of the Principles of Environmental Justice is significant as it establishes environmental justice as a movement but also a national and international movement against “over 500 years of colonization and oppression.”6 The preamble establishes that environmental injustices have existed for hundred of years, while also expanding the definition of the environment that includes cultural heritage. As a multinational and multicultural movement that includes a wide range of people whose environment and culture are affected, the environmental justice principles hope to create a movement that will address these problems. The environmental justice movement does not only define itself throughout the document, but also separates itself from the mainstream environmental movement as a movement that includes marginalized people living in a polluted environment. Overall, a movement that has an interesting background will be furthered explored by the activities performed and learned in the process of defining the environmental justice movement.

1. Blank Paper for each student
2. Pencil and Color Pencils
3. Robert Bullard’s definition of environmental justice:
4. Principles of Environmental Justice:
5. Excerpt from Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement by Robert Gottlieb:
6. Map depicting environmental injustice and environmental racism:
7. Graph provided by Teaching Tolerance:

Day 1:
For the following activities students will change their seats and arrange them in a circle. It is understandable if there is no space in the classroom and it’s hard to move around, therefore this seating arrangement in a circle will not be enforced. Ideally throughout this lesson plan students will have the opportunity to change their space dynamics and better communicate with one another by forming a circle. Again if there is no space to arrange this seating, the lesson plan will not be affected.

Students will be given the definitions of the following words in the beginning of the class: environmental justice, environmental injustice, environmental racism, and communities of color. The definitions can be found under the Glossary section of this lesson plan. After providing these definitions, students will then see Robert Bullard’s brief explanation of environmental justice and its history (Robert Bullard’s speech: Afterwards, students will be asked the following questions:
1. What are your initial thoughts about the environmental justice movement?
2. What do you think about Robert Bullard’s definition of environmental justice?

Afterwards, teachers will do the second activity of the day. Before class, teachers must print and cut the 17 principles. Here is the link to the Principles of Environmental Justice: Depending on the number of students, students will receive randomly one principle or if the class is larger than seventeen students, 3 to 4 people will then share one principle. After students receive one environmental justice principle, their assignment is to draw what they deem as a representation of their principle. Students will have only 15 minutes for this portion of the assignment. Next, students will then have the chance to present to the class what their drawing represents and how it interprets their principle. When students have finished presenting, the teacher will pass the Preamble to each student. As a class students, with some help from the instructor, will interpret and break down the significance of the preamble and how it relates to the environmental justice movement. Here are some helpful questions throughout this process:
1. Do you see any connections with the Civil Rights Movement?
2. What separates the environmental justice movement from other social movements?
3. What was the intention of the preamble?
4. How do the 17 points reflect the preamble purpose?

For Homework please assigned the excerpt from Robert Gottlieb’s book, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement. Here is the link:

Day 2:
The instructor today will have the option to print or project the following map and graphs for students. Below is a visual of the map and link to the graphs:

First the instructor will present the map and after 4 to 5 minutes will ask the following questions:
1) What patterns do you see from this map?
2) Do you see a connection between polluting sites and where communities of color are located? If so, where?
3) How does this relate to the environmental justice movement?

After discussion, the instructor will show the graphs. Again allow students to read and analyze the graphs. You may ask the follow questions to guide discussion:
1) From the various graphs what connections can you associate class, race, and the exposure to hazardous and polluting sites?
2) What is the significance of each graph? Summarize in one sentence as the document indicated below each graph.
3) Can you make connections from the map we saw earlier to the graphs we see? What are the similarities?
4) How does the graph represent the cause of the environmental justice movement?

After discussing the map and graphs, students will then move on to discuss Gottlieb’s book. The book explains how the environmental justice movement has been drawn and influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. Here are some guiding discussion questions:
1) How did the Civil Rights Movement impact and shaped the environmental justice movement? You may draw from your knowledge on the Civil Rights Movement and what you read from Gottlieb’s book to help answer the question.
2) Why do you think the environmental justice movement adopted some of the Civil Rights principles?
3) Can you draw some connections from the Environmental Justice Principles and the excerpt we read for today’s class?
4) How has this excerpt shaped your definition of the environmental justice movement?

The last activity students as a class will go back to the original definitions given to them in Day 1. As a class, students will come up with a definition to each of the following glossary words: environmental justice, environmental injustice, and environmental racism. Then after redefining these terms, students will write a reflection paper of 1 page describing what they learned and how the environmental justice movement has made them view their community differently. Below is the prompt:

What did you learn about the environmental justice movement? Have these concepts make you view your community or other communities you might know differently? If so, how?

1. Bullard, Robert D. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 2000.

2. Gottlieb, Robert. Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement. New York: Island Press, 2005.

3. Pardo, Mary S. Mexican-American Women Activists: Identity and Resistance in Two Los Angeles Communities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

4. Pellow, David N., and Robert J. Brulle. Power, Justice, and the Environment: A Critical Appraisal of the Environmental Justice Movement. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2005.

5. Pulido, Laura. Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California, 2006.

6. Pulido, Laura. “Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90, no. 1 (2000): 12-40.

7. Pulido, Laura. “Community, Place, and Identity.” Thresholds in Feminist Geography: Difference, Methodology, Representation. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997.

Key Ideas and Details:
2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas

Craft and Structure:
4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text
5. Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
7. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
9. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

11.10 Students analyze the development of federal civil rights and voting rights
5. Discuss the diffusion of the civil rights movement of African Americans from the churches of the rural South and the urban North, including the resistance to racial desegregation in Little Rock and Birmingham, and how the advances influenced the agendas, strategies, and effectiveness of the quests of American Indians, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans for civil rights and equal opportunities.


1 Robert Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 2000).

2 Ibid.

3 Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (New York: Island Press, 2005), 269.

4 Gottlieb, 210.

5 Mary Pardo, Mexican-American Women Activists: Identity and Resistance in Two Los Angeles Communities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), 109.

6 “Principles of Environmental Justice.” First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. 24-27 October 1991. <> (5 April 2013).

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