Identity and The Environmental Justice Movement (by David Rosas)



Identity and the Environmental Justice Movement




9-10 Grade; RH Craft and Structure; WHST: Production and Distribution of Writing.




The goal of this lesson is for students to come to know the issues and events that helped to create the Environmental Justice Movement, and for students to explore how the movement helped to shape a shared, common identity as people of color to address the issues of environmental injustice and racism.




This multi-day lesson will first ask students to read, analyze, and critically engage with the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice and fellow classmates to discuss key issues, themes, and demands set by the Principles. Discussions will also center around identity.


Short readings will be assigned to place the Environmental Justice Movement into historical and theoretical context that will be further discussed during the following class period.


The final activity consists of an in-class group project in which students will design an institution of their choosing (business, their own households, political institution, etc…) to create a larger in-class community according to the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice to further analyze the document, explore how Environmental Justice can relate to their own lives, explore the idea of commonality and identity formation behind shared issues, and allow students to explore how they want their communities to look.




The adoption of the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit not only created common grounds for continued work in the Environmental Justice Movement, but also signals the creation of a common identity within the movement as people of color around shared issues, lived experience, and a shared desire to combat these issues within their own communities and across the country.




What are the key points of the document? What are the key issues being addressed?


In the context of this document, what does it mean to be a person of color?


What special challenges do people of color face and how does this document plan to address them?


How do society/culture, economics, politics, and the environment intersect and interact with one another in the reading?






Environmental Racism: The disproportionate distribution of environmental hazards, such as toxic waste facilities, on people of color


Environmental Equity: Equal distribution of environmental hazards.


Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ: a racial justice agency that had been active in African American struggles for human rights.




The Environmental Justice Movement began through issues concerning hazardous waste. People and communities of color struggled not only with unequal opportunity to housing, land, and livelihood, but also dealt with the environmental burdens of industry and the negative health effects that came with it in the few spaces that were theirs.


What can be seen to have sparked the movement was the incident in Warren County, North Carolina and the studies done afterwards. Residents of the mostly black and low-income county attempted to resist the establishment of a hazardous waste disposal landfill, culminating in a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign to halt the dumping. The campaign proved to be unsuccessful but sparked a series of studies conducted by social scientist and non-governmental organizations. The 1987 report “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States” by the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ proved to be one of the most influential studies done within the movement. The intent of the report was to do field investigations and challenge the presence of toxic substances in residential areas across the country and to determine the extent to which African Americans, Hispanic American, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and others were exposed to hazardous waste in their communities. The report found that, across the country, race was the most significant determinant in the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities.


“Toxic Waste and Race in the United States” helped to spark both academic inquiry and grassroots activism.  In 1991, the Commission for Racial Justice and a handful of academics planned a summit to bring together grassroots leaders, create greater involvement by people of color in shaping national environmental policies, and create networks of people working towards environmental justice. The summit brought together more than 650 grassroots and national leaders from all fifty states, along with delegates from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Chile, and the Marshal Islands. The summit was formative for the movement in that it broadened the scope of environmental justice from solely antitoxics to include public health, worker safety, land use and access, transportation, housing, resource allocation, and community empowerment. Out of the summit also came the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice as “a guide for organizing, networking, and relating to governmental and non-governmental organizations”.




The 17 Principles of Environmental Justice:


Introduction to Robert D. Bullard et al., “Toxic Waste and Race at 20: 1987-2007,” United Church of Christ (2007).


Chapter 1 of Robert D. Bullard’s Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. (Boston: South End Press, 1993)




Lesson can be done within two class periods or split up into multiple days.


First Activity:

Have students read the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, either individually or as a class. Go through the Preamble and all 17 principles and pose students with the essential questions. Allow students time to think and write out their answers to the essential questions individually then reconvene as a group to discuss the answers. Take time to write down questions that arise from the Principles and save them for the next class period. Assign students Second Activity/Homework.


Second Activity/Homework:

Have students read the Introduction to “Toxic Waste and Race at 20: 1987-2007” and chapter one of Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots and assign questions. Also have students research local environmental justice groups.

Questions assigned are to help students gain a historical and theoretical context for the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice and the Summit:


What is environmental racism?

What is environmental justice?

What does it mean to be an internal colony and how does it relate to environmental justice?

What are the key events that lead to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit?



Final Activity:

Begin with a discussion of the reading and answers to the questions.


Split the class into individual groups. During the class period, students will be assigned to design an intuition of their, or the instructors, choosing using the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice as a guide. Ultimately, the class will reconvene to present their institution and see how these institutions would serve the needs of a greater class community overall. Institutions can include banks, healthcare facilities, schools, businesses and stores, housing cooperatives, anything really that can be considered a social, economic, or political institution—be creative!


Beginning from the preamble, have students pick a series of principles that are most relevant to their institutions and design according to them. Help guide the students by asking guiding questions including:

What are the needs that need to be addressed? How are they addressed and by who?

Who are the decision makers? Who is represented?

What principles were used? How were they applied?

What identities are represented? What identities are not?


Have the students create a write-up and answer the questions provided. Have students reconvene and present their institution with their write-up. Then discuss how these institutions can be incorporated into a greater community and how they meet the community’s needs.


Ending questions can include:

How does this relate to you? How do your experiences relate to those in the group?

How do you relate to the document? Is your identity(identities) represented in the document?



Still a Final Activity:

Have students create artwork to represent the community that they created. Have it be represented in writing, visual art, music, food, or other mediums of choosing.




“The Principles of Environmental Justice”. (Paper drafted at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, Washington D.C., October 24-27, 2001).


“Toxic Waste and Race in the United States,” United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (1987).


Robert D. Bullard et al., “Toxic Waste and Race at 20: 1987-2007,” United Church of Christ (2007).


Robert D. Bullard, edit., Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots (Boston: South End Press, 1993).


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