Teaching Environmental Inequality: Watching “Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek”

This is the second in a series of blog posts about the Environmental Inequality class I taught this fall. The first post shared the class syllabus and research project. This post covers a movie I’ve enjoyed using the last two times I taught the class, Leah Mahan’s Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek.  Here’s the film description:

Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek  follows the painful but inspiring journey of Derrick Evans, a Boston teacher who moves home to coastal Mississippi when the graves of his ancestors are bulldozed to make way for the sprawling city of Gulfport. Over the course of a decade, Derrick and his neighbors stand up to powerful corporate interests and politicians and face Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil disaster in their struggle for self-determination and environmental justice.

 

I’ve shown the film in my Environmental Inequality class twice now, and it has been helpful both times. In 2015, we learned about Turkey Creek at multiple points throughout the class. I showed the 2011 Daily Show clip about Turkey Creek early in the semester. My previous descriptions of using this clip are available here, here (at Jan. 13), and here. This time around I showed the clip on the day we were learning about the distinction between the environmental movement and the environmental justice movement. I emphasized that while it is wise to take the the specifics of the Daily Show’s coverage of Turkey Creek with a grain of salt, the clip speaks to real tensions between environmental efforts that focus on habitat preservation and environmental efforts that focus on human wellbeing and cultural preservation. This clip unfailingly generates incredulous responses and good discussion.

A bit later in the class, we returned to Turkey Creek on the day set aside for natural disasters. I used the following two readings that day – the second discusses Turkey Creek:

Finally, I screened Leah Mahan’s documentary toward the end of the class. Returning repeatedly to Turkey Creek in our class gave the students a real-life story to think through as they learned new facets of environmental inequality and the activism that responds to it. Using the film at the end of the class provided a way to tie together and bring alive many of the threads about which we had been learning. Indeed, one of the students was so enthusiastic about the film that she helped me launch an annual environmental justice film screening for Earth Day. The inaugural film featured was, you guessed it, Come Hell or High Water.

Several aspects of the film make it great to show as part of environmental justice education efforts. First, it shows how environmental destruction has impacted human life (most memorably through increases in flooding due to paving over wetlands that previously absorbed heavy rains). Second, it clearly depicts how racism and classism influence development in ways that produce environmental and human harm.

Third, the film addresses the pleasures and cultural significance of the outdoors to the historically black town of Turkey Creek. This is a great antidote to the Daily Show clip, which features a more disdainful view of of the potential pleasures of outdoor activities, even as one of the interviewees appears to be enjoying herself while birding, and another talks about birds’ revered local status. The film’s inclusion of the potential pleasures of the outdoors helps me to correct for the environmental justice literature’s sometimes overly simplistic portrayal of people of color environmentalism as focused exclusively on urban areas and industrial pollution, and white environmentalism as focusing exclusively on habitat preservation and outdoor leisure activities. While racial divisions and tensions between these two approaches are real, it certainly isn’t true that people of color have no relationship to the environment outside of the health impacts of pollution.

Finally, while the film focuses on a central character who leads the charge to protect Turkey Creek, it does not portray him through the usual “great man” narrative. We see clearly that Derrick Evans, the protagonist, is doing important work in his home town. But we also see how difficult the journey is, and how much it costs him. I appreciated that the director resisted the temptation to simplify the problems he faced and depict them as solvable through a single person’s heroic actions. The results is a film that dovetails with my efforts to encourage my students to analyze the complexity of environmental inequality, and the scale of the change necessary to address it.

So, that was what I did with the film in 2015. In the fall of 2016, I showed Come Hell or High Water at the beginning of the semester instead.  I paired the movie with our early coverage of disasters and climate change (see the readings I used this time here). My thinking was that just as the film could be used at the end of the course to help tie everything together, so too it could be used at the beginning to help introduce the course content. This approach also seemed to work well, but I think I prefer the end-of-the-semester screening for the richer, better informed discussion that it generated.

All in all, I recommend the movie! If you use it in your own classes or at a campus screening, I’d love to hear how it goes. I’m sure director Leah Mahan would too.

Teaching Environmental Inequality: 2016 Syllabus

This post is the first of several about the the Environmental Inequality class that I finished teaching at Howard earlier this month. It was my third time teaching the class.  I wrote about its first incarnation at UC Santa Cruz in 2012 here, and shared my Howard University syllabus from 2015 here. Here’s what I did this time around:

 

The first time I taught the class, I kept the assignments simple with pop-quizzes and take-home essay exams. The second around, I had students do research and writing on websites they built themselves. You can find an overview of that assignment and all of the prompts I gave the students to complete it here.

This year we did a community-based research project. I’ve wanted to do a class project like this for a long time but the timing has never been right. The first time I taught Environmental Inequality at UC Santa Cruz I was filling in for my advisor for one semester only. It didn’t seem to make sense to do an intricate community-based project when I couldn’t design the project to last over multiple semesters. Also, it was my first time teaching my own college-level class as a graduate student. Also, my dad was ill. The second time I taught the class, last fall, I was brand new to Washington D.C. and didn’t yet have local contacts with whom to collaborate. This fall the timing was finally right. I had put some time into getting to know local organizations, and thought I could use the project to continue to get my bearings on the world of Washington D.C. environmental justice activism. Here’s the project overview from the syllabus above:

This semester we will work on a collaborative research project with the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Empower DC, and ANC commissioner Rhonda Hamilton from the neighborhood directly adjacent to Buzzard Point in Washington, D.C. Buzzard Point is currently being redeveloped. It will be the site of the new DC United Soccer Stadium and many other new construction projects. Our work will involve conducting oral history interviews with residents living near Buzzard Point to document their family history in the neighborhood, relationship to the community and to the adjacent Anacostia River, and experiences with pollution and development. We will host guest speakers as well as go on field trips and conduct off-campus research activities as part of this project. The Anacostia Community Museum will then add the transcripts to their archives and create a booklet based on your interviews to distribute to research participants in the winter of 2017. When the booklet is ready (early 2017), there will be an optional reception at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum to which you will be invited. This effort is a pilot project to upon which I hope to build a longer-term research relationship with our off-campus partners. You will be provided with detailed assignment prompts to guide each stage of your work as the course progresses.

In the next few posts, I’ll share reflections on the boat tour we took as a class on the Anacostia River, the interviews the students conducted, and some of our in-class activities. Some of the posts will also have slideshows. Stay tuned!

Back-to-school checklist

Although the weather continues to be hot here in Washington D.C., summer has come to an end for the students and workers of Howard University. I attended the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting just as school was beginning. This conference is spectacularly ill-timed to take place right before or during many schools’ first week of classes every year. I cancelled  my first day of classes and taught two days later after getting off a red-eye from the West Coast at 6am.

Regardless of  how you spend the last few days of summer, you may feel overwhelmed by the administrative details associated with resuming classes and committee work each fall. Because I think there are few life-problems that a good list can’t help address, I created a Back to School Checklist this year to help me remember some of the details that need to get taken care of for a smooth start. Feel free to adapt it for your own purposes as you like, I know I’ll be adding things as I remember them. And if you’re really list-crazy, take a look at the fun ones available at Knock-Knock (I find their “Pack This!” list particularly helpful). Or check out Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto – if nothing else, it’ll make you glad you don’t have to worry about whether you left a pair of scissors inside the last person you did surgery on before sewing them up.

 

Back to School Checklist

Classes

  • Confirm class time and space
  • Check audio-visual supplies: screen, projector, speakers
  • Finalize Syllabus
    • Update readings
    • Add new dates for each class meeting that correspond to this calendar year
    • Look at campus academic calendar and add dates to syllabus as needed (campus closed, last day to drop, etc)
    • Update assignments
    • Schedule guest-speakers
    • Schedule office-hours
  • Create course website (Blackboard, etc)
    • Make sure that enrolled students are in the system
    • Add syllabus
    • Upload readings
    • Set up places for students to turn in work for each assignment
    • Set up gradebook
    • “Publish” site so it is visible to students
  • Create attendance sheet
  • Create sign-up sheets (for example, if students will each facilitate a day of classroom discussion)
  • Order required books at campus bookstore
  • Put required books on reserve at campus library
  • Add chalk, eraser, or whiteboard pens to teaching bag as needed
  • Add paper and pens for big nametags on desk as needed
  • Prepare lesson plan and slides for first day of class. Make time to:
    • Do names and/or ice-breaker
    • Introduce self
    • Introduce class – with hook!
    • Review syllabus – use screenshots of book covers when possible
    • Sign up for assignments that are date-specific
    • Take attendance
    • Collect information of students hoping to get in to class

 

Research Assistants

  • Get students signed up for independent study classes as appropriate
  • Create proxy library accounts that let students check out books to my library account
  • Schedule first team meeting with students
  • Reserve room for team meeting
  • Prepare for first meeting
    • Review and organize prior student work
    • Prepare list of projects and tasks to be divvied up amongst group. Decide how many people are needed for each project
    • Create agenda
    • Create sharable to-do lists and timesheets
    • Update IRB “how to” document that details what students need to give me in order to be approved by the IRB as research assistants
    • Update all other “how-to” documents as needed to support student tasks
    • Select and upload introductory readings to help frame research tasks
    • Add students to Google Drive folder that houses group files
  • At first meeting
    • Introductions
    • Background on research projects and descriptions of tasks
    • Divide up tasks
    • Describe optional events happening this semester that students can participate in as part of their weekly hours to supplement their learning
    • Share contact information
    • Assign background reading
    • Give overview of the IRB and the describe the documents students need to provide to be approved by IRB as research assistants
    • Get familiar with the documents in the shared folder on Google Drive
    • Review project communications and tracking (to-do list, hours sheet)
    • Schedule training for students with librarian on how to find scholarly articles
    • Pick weekly meeting time
    • Schedule meeting between each project group and myself to provide training about how to get started with their task

 

Other

  • Add campus calendar dates to personal calendar (due dates for grades, last day of classes, etc)
  • Add dates on department calendar to personal calendar (faculty meetings, report due dates, etc)
  • Make work plan for year/semester
  • Post office hours on door
  • Return or renew library books
  • Clean office!