Resistance: How do authors and artists serve as anti-racist visionaries in the quest for environmental justice?
Most students are passingly familiar with the idea of environmental justice, even if they don’t know the term; they are generally able to cite the seemingly inexorable progress of climate change as something that, for example, will disproportionately unjustly impact young people. In pushing students towards understanding a more nuanced perspective of environmental justice, Dr. Dorceta Taylor’s definition of the field is accessible and eye-opening: “In the United States and around the world, low-income, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian people tend to be living in spaces where environmental hazards, extreme natural and human-made disasters, and environmental degradation occur more rampantly… that is by design. (11)” Those key words-- Taylor’s simple and devastating affirmation that yes, inequality and segregation are by design-- are essential for students to understand before delving into current works of environmental literature and current issues in environmental justice.
A thorough grasp of Taylor’s definition of environmental justice, then, must include the concept that authors and artists who recognize and speak out in pursuit of environmental justice are, inherently, activists. If, as Taylor states, the environment is unable to be separated from issues of humanity, racism, and privilege, then environmentalists, by definition, are human rights activists. There is no such thing as a race-neutral examination of environmentalism, and human rights are inseparable from any work of environmental literature. A more complex examination of environmental literature must include the affirmation of artists and authors as visionaries and activists in the fight for environmental justice.
Power to Critique: Analysis Through Retort (Rationale)
One method that can help students venture outside of their reading “habits” or comfort zones is to ask them how different figures, authors, or characters might imagine a scenario or react to a piece of text. This move helps students enter the idea of literary lenses and, for teachers who need to help students deconstruct years of taking literature at face value without critique, is a valuable tool. In examining recent environmental catastrophes, most students are familiar with the impact of Hurricane Katrina. In light of Taylor’s emphasis on environmental devastation by design, however, Katrina can serve as a model to help students “talk back” to literature. For example, George W. Bush’s September 16, 2005 speech from New Orleans, in which he reacts to the “blind and random” devastation of the storm, is often used in high schools as a text for students to analyze. Rhetorical analysis is a vital component of high school English, but Bush’s speech is in no way empowering or triumphant. However, when viewed through the lens of Taylor’s definition of destruction by design, students can still have an empowering experience reading the text; by learning to refute and discredit Bush’s language, students gain power in the relationship between reader and text.
This balance of power-- across content areas-- can be nurtured by the teacher asking students to take on different roles. Christensen uses this practice in Teaching for Joy and Justice, where she describes teaching students to identify behavior roles in situations of justice and injustice: target, ally, perpetrator, and bystander. Christensen teaches students to identify these terms before facilitating role play and writing exercises in which students take on these roles and responsibilities. As Christensen describes, this practice is integral to helping students gain power: “As my students shared incidents of injustice in their lives,” writes Christensen, “I realized that they didn’t know how to act differently. They felt stuck, backed into a corner, frozen. (12)”
In the context of environmental justice, many people, young and old, feel frozen, unable to verbalize or give voice to their feelings surrounding complex and often criminal violations of human rights in the environmental sphere. Bush’s speech in response to Katrina is one example of a text that, if left unchecked, would serve no purpose beyond a rhetorical analysis; it would not serve an ethical practice in fulfilling Christensen’s goals of helping students gain power in their roles. However, in pushing students to assume a role during reading, such as the role of Dr. Dorceta Taylor, teachers are helping students achieve the curricular skills necessary for a rhetorical analysis while more importantly teaching them how to critique and speak up against injustices-- even if the injustice is committed by a person in power.
Giving students the opportunity, even through a relatively brief exercise, to offer a retort and rebuttal to injustice is fundamental to their skills as writers and thinkers who are able to voice their opinions in the face of injustice. Doing this in the classroom is a vital beginning; while most texts should be affirming, celebratory, and joyful, to ignore the realities of injustices committed by people in power is to neglect to prepare students to speak up and become upstanders in the face of, as Taylor writes, harm that is done by design. Christensen agrees: “Students need tools to confront injustice; they need to hear our approval that intervention is not only appropriate and acceptable, but heroic. Acting in solidarity with others is a learned skill—one I hope more of us will teach. (13)” Bush’s speech serves as a method for students to begin critiquing the work of others, and to learn to become more critical consumers of media-- both important skills.
Power to Critique: Analysis Through Retort (Lesson)
In this lesson, teachers will discuss the topic of environmental justice through Hurricane Katrina using Christensen’s roles as literary lenses. First, teachers should introduce the roles of target, ally, perpetrator, and bystander. As a warm-up, students will engage in reflective journaling: when have they engaged in these roles? How have they observed allies standing up for others in history, in the media, or in their own lives?
Next, students will practice writing a retort to reclaim power through a whole-group exercise. As a whole class, students will read the remarks of then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, who stated that "It looks like a lot of that place [New Orleans] could be bulldozed," and that rebuilding the city “doesn’t make sense.” Using a document camera or projector to capture student reactions to Hastert’s words, the teacher can guide students through drafting a whole-class response to Hastert’s language. During this process, students should identify the roles of perpetrator, target, and ally.
Once students are comfortable with their role in responding to the words of perpetrators, they are ready to analyze Bush’s 2005 speech independently. Students will read Bush’s speech and annotate for initial reactions before moving on to a double-entry journal. In using this text analysis strategy, students will assume the role of Dorceta Taylor as an ally with a strong understanding of environmental justice. Students will write their retort to Bush in the voice of Dr. Taylor. Writing as Dr. Taylor, students should address 1) Bush’s diction in his portrayal of New Orleans and its residents, and 2) Bush’s choice of narrative: which stories is he choosing to tell in the story of Katrina, and whose stories are being neglected? By assuming the voice of an expert (Taylor), students will be pushed to examine Bush’s speech through the lens of environmental justice.
Activism Through Lyrics (Rationale)
For English teachers to engage in the ethical teaching of environmental literature, they should ask themselves to find resistance or celebration in the majority of the texts and materials they bring into the classroom. To do this with fidelity, teachers must examine a variety of genres and modes of text, including art and music. Examining the contributions of artists, and allowing students to examine artists in an academic context, shows students the value of artists as activists and authors in the face of injustices.
With the goal of studying the response to Hurricane Katrina through the lens of environmental justice, students will examine through close reading the work of artists who addressed the Bush administration’s response to Katrina. All song choices masterfully use allusion and a forceful tone to call attention to the failure of multiple institutions in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as well as the failure of institutions across generations which engineered Katrina as the predictable outcome of environmental injustice.
Activism Through Lyrics (Lesson)
In pairs, students will receive printed lyrics and links to listen to four songs: Mos Def’s Dollar Day, Public Enemy’s Hell No We Ain’t Alright, The Legendary K.O.’s George Bush Don’t Like Black People, and Jay-Z’s Minority Report. Students will choose one of the songs to analyze, focusing on the artist’s rhetorical choices in how they chose to respond to injustice.
In their pairs, the students will listen to and perform a close reading of their chosen song. Their close readings will be used later as the framework for their analysis, so teachers should ensure that students understand how to engage in the close reading process. Students should pay special attention to 1) how their artist creates their chosen tone through diction, imagery, and detail, and 2) how their chosen artist chooses to critique multiple systems or institutions in their condemnation of the response to Katrina.
After engaging with the lyrics through close reading, paired students will work together to write a music review analyzing their chosen artist’s piece. In their review, students should use their close reading to discuss how their author created their chosen tone through their lyrical decisions, their artist’s success or failure in critiquing systematic injustice, and an analysis of the success of the messages that their artist chose to communicate to their audience.
The creation of this polished piece of writing can conclude with a share-out in which students have the opportunity to listen to all pieces of music as they read their classmates’ music reviews.
Using Our Power: Public Resistance (Rationale)
Another current example of literature as current resistance to environmental crimes comes from Flint’s lead crisis. Janet Phoenix, in Robert Bullard’s 1993 Confronting Environmental Racism, writes that “lead poisoning, while completely preventable, is one of the most common environmental health diseases in the United States. (14)” Nearly thirty years after its publication, the facts of Phoenix’s call to action against lead poisoning still hold true: lead poisoning directly harms children, largely children of color, with irreversible and devastating consequences. There is no policy, writes Phoenix, developed to “break through the de facto segregation that keeps people of color trapped in contaminated houses, jobs, and communities. (15)” Flint’s criminal lead poisoning, in which Governor Rick Snyder and his administration deliberately covered up and excused the poisoning of Flint’s largely Black population, is an example many students have heard of; however, many students are unaware that a fearless woman was instrumental in dismantling the system of abuse and crime that poisoned the city.
Teaching about pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is teaching a story of disruption, resistance, and revolution against abusers. In Christensen’s book, Dr. Hanna-Attisha would be a lesson in action. Teachers can use her town hall meeting, in which she speaks to the Flint community about defying the threats she received to stay silent for the good of Flint’s children, as a model for effective public speaking; Hanna-Attisha’s blend of powerful logos and ethos with stirring pathos is an authentic example of persuasive technique. Teachers can also use excerpts from her book, What the Eyes Don’t See, in which Hanna-Attisha writes about her tireless fight to, as she puts it, join the activists and journalists of Flint as a piece of their puzzle. “I was just the last piece,” writes Hanna-Attisha. “The state wouldn’t stop lying until somebody came along to prove that real harm was being done to kids. Then the house of cards fell. (16)”
English teachers can also use Hanna-Attisha’s celebration of her identity throughout her books and op-eds as a mentor text for students to affirm their own identities. Hanna-Attisha begins What the Eyes Don’t See with a discussion of her name and her journey to Michigan as an Iraqi immigrant. Throughout her work, she affirms her identity: as a woman, an immigrant, and a scientist. In a New York Times op-ed condemning Mr. Trump’s travel ban, Hanna-Attisha writes:
“I grew up confident and competent and keenly aware as an immigrant from a broken country that there is injustice in the world and understanding the need to always fight for justice. Indeed, this is what has guided and framed my work in Flint, where the children I treat woke to a nightmare of usurped democracy, environmental injustice and criminal government neglect… And while I’m glad I was there to help bring the Flint water crisis to light, I can’t help wondering if, with new limits on immigration, we are losing the next pediatrician who will expose a future public health disaster. (17)”
As an opener in exposing students to Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s activism and resistance, teachers can introduce the concept of using one’s position to enact change and speak up; Hanna-Attisha, throughout her book and in her public speaking, attests to how she felt a sense of duty as a pediatrician and community member to expose the Flint crisis despite powerful players who worked to perpetrate the attack on the public. Teachers can use footage from Hanna-Attisha’s town hall meeting to accomplish multiple goals; students can chart how the producers of the footage and Hanna-Attisha are using ethos, pathos, and logos to present a sophisticated blend of persuasive writing to the public, and can also journal about how Hanna-Attisha fulfilled her duty as a public health professional and as a community activist. Teachers can also use selections from Hanna-Attisha’s What the Eyes Don’t See, many chapters of which can stand alone as powerful lessons in narrative structure.
It may seem odd to use literature surrounding the Flint crisis as classroom resources when the stated goal of using environmental literature is, in large part, to empower rather than to dispossess. However, Hanna-Attisha’s writing affirms that the topic can still be broached through a lens of courage and defiance. To ignore the topic is to ignore the model which allows Flints to continue to be committed across the country; to give attention to the people who fight against the crisis is to teach resistance.
Using Our Power: Public Resistance (Lesson)
As a whole class, students will view “The Tragic Impact of Lead Poisoning on Kids: The Flint Water Crisis,” a short YouTube video that covers the origins of the Flint water crisis and introduces Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s role as a whistleblower who exposed the crisis and its impact on the health of Flint children (18).
In small groups, students will receive copies of Hanna-Attisha’s epilogue, titled “Haji and the Birds. (19)” In the epilogue, Hanna-Attisha recounts a family fable told by her mother. The fable describes Haji, Hanna-Attisha’s grandfather, who doted on the birds in his garden during his youth in Baghdad. When Haji’s leg is broken, the birds come together to fly him to safety. As an adult, telling the fable to her own children, Hanna-Attisha comes to understand Haji’s birds differently, aligning the narrative of her own activism with Haji’s allegory of collective action to achieve a common good.
After reading “Haji and the Birds,” students should discuss the function of the fable as it aligns with Hanna-Attisha’s own work as a revolutionary in pursuit of environmental justice. They should track their thinking throughout their discussion in a T-chart comparing Hanna-Attisha’s story to Haji’s fable.
Lastly, students should examine how Haji’s birds function as a symbol for community or group action. In their small groups, students should brainstorm a list of problems their community currently faces. Finally, they should discuss and develop a new symbol of community or group action that could serve their own community as a representation of hope. Students can present their symbols through creative writing, art, digital art, photography, and should justify their choice with a written explanation of how their symbol functions as an appropriate address to the problems faced by their community. Students should examine and discuss their classmates’ choices of symbols through a gallery walk at the conclusion of the activity.
Reclaiming Power: Persuasive Writing (Rationale)
In the quest to provide students opportunities for authentic writing assignments, teachers must center student power. What is the function of the desire to provide “real world” writing tasks if students are not armed with the power and institutional knowledge to pursue results-driven writing-- that is, writing by which the author can navigate systems of power-- in the ‘real world?”
In studying environmental literature, students examine writers and artists as activists, revolutionaries, and visionaries. Through practical and empowering persuasive writing-- a tired curricular tenet of high school English-- students can go beyond proving mastery of the content and move towards using their own experiences to provoke and demand change from those with institutional power.
Reclaiming Power: Persuasive Writing (Lesson)
This persuasive writing task should serve as a culminating project after reviewing the fundamentals of persuasive writing and the rhetorical triangle. To begin their persuasive writing task, students must first choose an issue of environmental justice of concern in their community. Students should be reminded of the broad definition of environmental justice and Taylor’s emphasis of its connection to humanity; issues such as housing justice, school funding and segregation, gentrification, infrastructure, and workers’ rights are all issues of environmental justice.
Next, students should begin to record their knowledge about their chosen issue. Eventually, they will need to write persuasively about what must be done to change their chosen topic, so students should be reminded that they will need research (logos) from reputable sources; however, equal importance should be given to firsthand experiences that students or their families may have had. Teachers should explicitly teach the value of these primary experiences of students, families, or community members as ethos-- expert knowledge, essential to a persuasive stance, that strengthens credibility.
Once students have built their background knowledge of their topic, their teacher will guide them through a skill they will need for life: researching and targeting their public officials. Depending on the issues students choose and the solutions they propose, these officials may be as local as the school principal or board of education representatives or as broad as the president or other national representative. Students must determine which official would be the most effective to target through persuasive rhetoric, and should be shown how to use the internet to find the contact information for local, state, and national representatives.
Once a student has chosen which representative they will be contacting, they should use Christensen’s framework of perpetrator/bystander/target/ally to ensure they are confident in their understanding of their role in speaking out and using their voice to directly address their representative. As Christensen writes, students can gain power when they learn and put into practice the principle that intervention is heroic. Part of gaining that power comes when students research their chosen official to target their writing and persuasive appeals based on their lives, experiences, voting records, or history. Students should be encouraged to create pathos through their knowledge of their targeted audience.
After researching, students can choose whether they want to engage in persuasive writing through a letter or through a phone script, which they can read to their representative or record on a message. Students should be encouraged to speak frankly, and to persuade using a blend of logos, ethos (emphasizing personal experiences and expertise), and pathos. Students will revise and edit their persuasive piece until it is ready to be emailed, voiced, or recorded.
For most students, this writing project would be the first time that they might reach out to make direct contact with an official in power; however, by structuring this project in an encouraging and validating classroom environment, this project will hopefully nurture confidence in lived knowledge and expertise, as well as foster a confidence and skill that can establish a lifelong pattern of speaking out against issues of injustice.