Empowering Black Youth in Green Spaces with Climate Change Education through a Social and Environmental Justice Lens

Empowering Black Youth in Green Spaces

Black History Month is a great time for learning about Black climate scientists and environmental professionals. In this article, GreenLearning is sharing narratives that can help all educators to empower Black youth in green spaces so they can feel welcome and safe, while also amplifying the stories of Black environmentalists in support of social and climate justice. As an organization, we aim for transformational change in our professional development, staffing, content and writing of educational materials, including engagement with educators. From the diverse people shaping the great outdoors to current trends in intersectional environmentalism and the climate education sector in Canada - we share some of these stories.

Nature is a powerful tool for healing, empowerment and social justice. However, it is not always welcome, safe and accessible to everyone, especially Black youth. Canada in particular, has a long history of environmental inequity that stems from systemic racism, colonialism and now, the impacts of the climate crisis are threatening the livelihood in many communities across the country. According to Amnesty International Canada, Climate change affects everyone but Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities are disproportionately affected.” In a bid to combat climate change and also, empower Black youth in green spaces from a social and environmental justice lens, we discuss the ways in which organizations and K-12 educators working in school boards need to foster inclusive learning about the climate and outdoor recreation. Here are some ideas to explore.

Adopt an Intersectional Approach to Your Teaching Practice

Before we can tackle and dismantle the barriers that threaten young Black people in green spaces, it is important to take an intersectional approach to environmental work — whether that is in education, conservation, climate mitigation and adaptation and so on. Leah Thomas, an African American Climate Activist coined the term “intersectional environmentalism” and defined it fully during the peak of the continuous Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd’s murder. Consider the definition that she provides below.

“Intersectional Environmentalism is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for people and the planet.” - Leah Thomas

In light of this explanation, climate education needs to be comprehensive and accessible for all young people and Black youth need to see themselves being reflected in the climate change curriculum — both within the historical view and in context of how marginalized groups are often disproportionately affected. Only then, can we truly empower them to become informed citizens who are ready to advocate for real change.

Foster Inclusive Learning Environments to Address Youth’s Fears

Race and Nature in the City is a report that was commissioned by Nature Canada in 2021 and its findings show that urban nature spaces like ravines and parks in most cities like Toronto are often seen as “white spaces” by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) youth. There has always been the silent notion in many communities that Black people are not interested in the environment — a false assumption to make. Perhaps it is not that they are not interested but the fact that they need to feel safe and secure enough to participate in activities within such spaces. Lead researchers on the report, Jacqueline Scott and Ambika Teneti consulted with groups of several BIPOC youth in Toronto. Their work has resulted in some recommended actions that environmental organizations and education groups can take within their work to help make green spaces more safe and welcoming for Black youth. One of such actions, as a section of the report reiterates, is the importance of addressing any fears young people have regarding participating in the outdoors — be it urban spaces or the wilderness.

Showcase and Support Black Environmentalists Without Tokenism

Tokenism can be described as any action which misleads the public to think that an organization or entity treats minorities fairly, and in an equitable way. An example of such an action could involve hiring members of a visible minority group as a means to avoid criticism and probe, thus creating an illusion that the organization is diverse, equitable and inclusive.

Within an educational context, tokenism might show up when the topics of teaching and discussion centre around a specific minority group, but only on specific days and not in a broader context that is integrated into the school’s overall learning curriculum. Tokenism can also occur when these topics are being discussed and then the students who belong to that minority group are suddenly turned into spokespersons to share their stories and speak on behalf of the entire group, leading to the feeling of pressure that comes along with being singled-out.

As an educator who cares about social and environmental justice, you can avoid tokenism in your classroom. Ensure that youth feel safer by showcasing a wide variety of stories and climate experiences that celebrate Black environmentalists. When it comes to navigating the outdoors, seek to share tangible examples from people of diverse backgrounds on how they are able to handle racist comments and/or physical attacks in green spaces. Finally, authentically engaging with a Person of Colour to actually lead the learning workshop or facilitate the outdoor activities can go a long way.

Today, although some threats still persist, there is a growing community of Black people who enjoy the calm and adventure that nature provides. You may consider exploring, engaging with and supporting the following groups.

Advocate for Socially Equitable Policies and Laws Such as Bill C-266

Policy actions are an important step towards social and environmental justice. Our youth are ready to walk the talk. They want world leaders and decision-makers to do the same. Bill C-266 which is currently before the House of Commons addresses Canada’s lack of a national strategy for including environmental justice and racism in environmental planning and assessment. If Bill C-266 becomes law, it will be used to effectively combat and prevent environmental racism and then further social and climate justice.

You can use our eCards program to help your students learn about environmental topics and to become active, engaged citizens. eCards empowers youth to act for the climate by learning about environmental issues, creating informed messages and acting on them. You could use the platform to have your students create eCards for Bill C-266. Students can do some research to find out more about the bill and then use eCards to create messages to engage with decision-makers. By sending an eCard, learners can then express what they have learned through their research and what matters most to them.

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