At the beginning of March representatives for CHEJ, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and Just Moms STL protested outside EPA Headquarters in DC to draw attention to the radioactive waste fire endangering children near the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Missouri. One of the more memorable parts of the protest occurred when children at the rally took the megaphone and began leading chants. However, as powerful as that moment was, it can be difficult to know how to introduce children to the topics of environmental justice and environmental racism. How soon is too soon to teach them about these topics? How much information should be covered? Where should we begin?
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (part of the NIH) website hosts kid-friendly webpages that can help adults explain complex subjects like environmental justice (EJ). The webpage boils EJ down to a simple, but important definition: “Environmental Justice is a new term that simply means making sure that everyone has a fair chance of living the healthiest life possible.” It explains environmental risks and uses the concept of “fairness” to help kids identify environmental justice issues and contextualize examples in their day-to-day lives.
Online teaching resources include lesson plans to introduce EJ topics in the classroom. One accessible activity from tolerance.org had the facilitator hand out wrapped candy as well as two different colors of cards. After the students eat their candy, everyone with a red card gives their trash to someone with a blue card and that person has to hold onto the trash. This activity is meant to spark a conversation about fairness, privilege, and, depending on the group, environmental racism.
In addition to classroom activities, books and youtube videos can be great conversation starters. A Mighty Girl recommends numerous environmental books about environmental heroes, innovation, and revitalization. Youtube videos can present some intimidating facts, but introduce environmental justice well, and many videos like this one by Kid President show kids that they can make a difference.
Though teaching children about difficult topics like environmental justice and environmental racism can seem challenging, the resources available can make these important conversations easier. They can help us frame these topics in a way that isn’t hopeless, a way that empowers children to truly be the change they wish to see in the world. So let’s embrace the challenge and bring children into these conversations; otherwise we’ll never know what insight they may have. Let’s start cultivating the future leaders of our movement.
By Stephen Lester. Nearly 10 months ago, a Norfolk Southern train with more than 150 cars, many of which contained toxic chemicals, derailed in East