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Classroom VOICES

Educator Voice: Climate justice is education justice

November 2, 2021

Environmental activists protest outside the White House to demand U.S. President Joe Biden stop fossil fuel projects and put climate justice at the heart of his infrastructure plans, in Washington, U.S., June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

by José Vilson

This Educator Voice post was originally published on EduColor. You can find it here.

Recently, I was walking my nine-year-old son to school when he wanted to tell me about climate change. He heard how pollution from multiple sources was contaminating the planet to the point of its own extinction. He heard that, if we don’t do something about it, we won’t have a planet to live on. While he still felt like he wanted to know more about what he could do individually, I replied, “You know, it’s the same conversation we were having when I was your age.”

Recently, I was walking my nine-year-old son to school when he wanted to tell me about climate change.

Right then, it hit me that over three decades had passed before governments and corporations pretended to care about human extinction. Or, at best, that they thought incremental changes to our practices would remedy the planet.

Of course, the week before, I had plenty of conversations in Edinburgh, Scotland with TED Countdown, as executive director of EduColor.

I was there as one of TED-Ed’s valued partners, thinking how we get the education community to integrate more climate change lessons into our schools. As it was my first time across the Atlantic Ocean, I took this as an opportunity to learn more from peers and luminaries about our critical work. While I spent the majority of the summit listening, I also recognized how there was a vacuum in our own role as teachers, administrators, and other school-based personnel to heed the clarion call to mobilize for climate justice.

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In my youth, of course, I recall images of factory chimneys spitting grey clouds into the air, seagulls trapped in plastic six-pack soda rings, species on the verge of extinction, forests losing trees in packs, and the erosion of the Ozone layer. The calls to action included recycling, using less waste, and using mass transit. “Captain Planet” taught us lots, but the more concrete actions seemed reserved for kids older than us who had been endowed with superhuman ability. “The Jetsons” had an infomercial that finally explained why they had elevated apartment buildings. A few other shows and news reports attempted to show us the value of becoming environmentally friendly, but, as children, our conditions didn’t give us much of a starting point for actual action.

Captain Planet” taught us lots, but the more concrete actions seemed reserved for kids older than us who had been endowed with superhuman ability.

Now, decades later, by many accounts, we may be on the precipice of an extinction-level event. While it’s easy to blame humans individually, there now seems to be a more mainstream understanding that governments and corporations have a larger responsibility for the care of the planet. We must learn that, too, particularly in our most racially and economically marginalized spaces. Like our schools.

Thousands of people converged in San Francisco for the ‘Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice’ march, just days before the Global Climate Action Summit, demanding a phase-out of fossil fuel extraction and a just transition to a 100% renewable energy economy. Photo By Sunshine Velasco/ Survival Media Agency via 350.org

A few months ago, I might not have used the term “climate justice” as frequently as I do now. Anyone fighting for education justice, however, is already in the fight for climate justice. Dilapidated school buildings, asbestos-riddled walls, undrinkable fountain water, and unsanitary classrooms and lavatories are just some of the conditions we’ve seen across the United States. When we say “student learning conditions,” we’re naming how we can explicitly eradicate environmental racism from our neighborhoods where schools are often the epicenter for institutional negligence. A big part of the reason why EduColor endorsed Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s Green New Deal for Public Schools was the urgent need to detail that which is owed to all of our students, and unapologetically our students who more likely attend schools in disrepair.

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This effort has to go beyond volunteer projects where we plant a few trees and gardens. Exxon and Chevron have to do more. The IMF and World Bank have to do more. Mitch McConnell and Joe Manchin have to do more. We got a list. Philanthropic donations towards climate justice groups and education groups are appreciated, but if we can’t get concrete action in our legislation to hold bad actors accountable for their destruction, then getting new schools will be that much harder to obtain.

Make no mistake: the same people who couldn’t care less if we continue to see catastrophic hurricanes, climate change, and rising carbon emissions also don’t care if the average American — especially Black, brown, Asian, and Native/First Nations people — achieves educational equity. The system works fine for them. For the rest of us, dying lands, rising asthma cases, and global pandemics can make us feel absolutely helpless. At some point, we’ll realize that our solutions must be intergenerational, borderless, and urgent. For the next couple of weeks, leaders across the globe will convene in Glasgow to discuss climate change and decrease the global temperature down to 1.5º Celsius. We have a plethora of solutions, including scientists coming up with new ways to remove carbon from our atmosphere and leaning on indigenous knowledge across the world to revive the land.

We have a plethora of solutions, including scientists coming up with new ways to remove carbon from our atmosphere and leaning on indigenous knowledges across the world to revive the land.

But it’s gonna take a multi-headed coalition to get this monstrous problem solved. The justice we seek in our schools is inextricably tied to the justice we seek in the world. Schools have the opportunity to set an example for our youth to show that, yes, with advocacy and urgency, we can improve the conditions around them. When youth see this, those of us who identify as adults can keep running and pass the baton at the same time. When we learn to interrogate our conditions and those most in charge of those conditions, we get closer to justice. We ought to watch the UN proceedings closely and play whatever role we can as individuals, but we mustn’t let the messaging coming out of there serve as smoke and mirrors sans palpable action.

The justice we seek in our schools is inextricably tied to the justice we seek in the world.

(Note: It should be shameful for adults to know that the youth continue to lead the way in organizing around climate change and believe they must be activists in order to get this issue the highlight it deserves. Youth shouldn’t have to go up against CEOs and government officials to get the present and future they deserve. Youth should get to be full children, but here we are.)

People attending the Climate Justice Youth Summit participated in workshops on urban gardening, gentrification, climate refugees and policing. Photo by Jenna Gray

Of course, I want to ensure my son can live freely on a better planet than the one I and so many before me have enjoyed within our capacity. But, as an educator, I can’t think of just my own. All of our children are our responsibility. Once we see how the future of our planet has a facet that rests on our schools, we’ll get closer to the better future we keep asking for our children.


José Vilson is executive director of EduColor and a math teacher for many years in New York City. He is the author of This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education (Haymarket Books, 2014). José is currently working towards a doctorate in sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. In 2014, José founded EduColor, an organization dedicated to elevating the voices of educators, students and communities of color, and work that focuses on issues of equity, justice and agency as well as teacher and student voice.

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