Teaching Environmental Inequality: Boat Tour of the Anacostia River

This is the third post in a series about the Environmental Inequality class I finished teaching earlier this month. The first post shared the syllabus and class project, and the second described how I’ve used the documentary Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek. This post describes the first of two field trips we took – a boat tour of the Anacostia River.

Who: Our tour-guide was Jim Foster, executive director of the Anacostia Watershed Society. We were also joined by the person who organized the trip for us, Tony Thomas, the Education Coordinator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum and board member of the Anacostia Watershed Society. A few other faculty joined in for the fun, as did one of our class research project partners from Empower DC, one of the residents whom the students would later interview for the class project, and the executive director of Energy Justice Network.

What/Where: The tour began and ended in the Bladensburg waterfront park in Maryland. We got on one of the Anacostia Watershed Society’s boats and drove slowly up the river into Washington D.C. and back. The first half of the tour was largely spent listening to Jim Foster describe what we were seeing as we went. On the return trip conversation broke into smaller groups and the students enjoyed just being out on the water. After the tour, Tony Thomas took a smaller group of us to see two trash-traps that divert trash from the river.

When: We took the trip about a third of the way into the semester. I wanted to do the trip relatively early in the semester as a way to help the students learn about some DC issues before diving into our off-campus research project. We also needed to get the trip in before the weather got too cold.

Why: I organized the field trip as a way to help the students connect some of what they were learning inside the classroom to Washington D.C. I also hoped the trip might be informative for our class research project (the Anacostia River forms one of the borders of Buzzard Point, the neighborhood at the heart of our project).

How:  I assigned the following two readings to prepare the students for the trip. The first gives a socio-ecological history of the river that begins before European colonization and continues through the end of the 1990s. The second is an 11 minute video about efforts to clean up the river, which was historically one of the most polluted in the country.

Outcomes: Several themes somewhat in tension with each other emerged amongst the students as we reflected on the tour in class the following week. Because of the stigmatization of the Anacostia River as both dirty and dangerous, many  of the students who grew up in Washington DC and the surrounding areas described being pleasantly surprised at how scenic the river was, and how many people were out enjoying it. At the same time, some were a bit shocked by the spare tires they saw here and there in the river as real-life, visible examples of pollution (for my part, I didn’t think there was much trash on the river at all, spare tires or otherwise). Our tour-guide’s discussion of how raw sewage flows directly into the river when heavy rains overflow the local sewage infrastructure also made quite an impression. So did the discussion of how poverty leads people to eat the polluted fish they catch from the river, despite the signage warning them against doing so and sometimes visible lesions on the fish.

An encounter with a baby deer that had gotten stuck in the water and couldn’t climb over the low wall at the river’s edge also was memorable for many of the students. Jim Foster used this as a teachable moment to make a point about the need to take down some of the old walls along portions of the river’s edge. (For those of you concerned for the deer’s fate, you’ll be glad to know, as my students were, that a passing group of boaters later ushered the deer to a safe exit further down the bank.) The students were also very interested to learn about the history of the Seafarer’s Yacht Club, one of the country’s oldest black yacht clubs. Several expressed interest in participating in the Yacht Club’s annual river cleanup for Earth Day.

There were a few conversations that interested me greatly but my students mostly missed because, 1) many had broken up into smaller conversations by then, or 2) they were unfamiliar with the technical language being used, or 3) were not yet well equipped to quickly recognize common areas of environmental conflict. One was a debate between one of our hosts and an environmental justice activist on board concerning the pro’s and con’s of waste-to-energy facilities/incinerators. We read about this topic later in the semester through this short piece on the multiple meanings of renewable energy that I co-authored with Lindsey Dillon. There was also some tension in a conversation about the relationship between river-clean up efforts, riverside redevelopment, and and the threat of displacing current residents due gentrification. My students read about this subject later in the semester through the lens of “green gentrification.”

Overall, the experience was a great way for all of us to learn more about how the issues we read about in class play out in the city beyond our classroom walls. On the last day of class, when I asked my students to reflect on what they learned that was most interesting, surprising or memorable, things they saw on the boat tour were a central theme. Take a look yourself below.

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All aboard!

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Students Cameron Clarke and Amanda Bonnam settle in for the tour.

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Standing: Tour-guide Jim Foster, Executive Director of the Anacostia Watershed Society. At right: students Tyla Swinton and Brittany Danzy.

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Wildlife sitings were a big hit, here’s our first egret of the day.

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Kari Fulton, environmental justice organizer with Empower DC.

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The Anacostia River flows under several DC thoroughfares.

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We saw a bald eagle!

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This baby deer trapped in the river by a low wall along the river bank prompted great consternation among the students (the deer was later rescued).

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One student even took notes!

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Student Joseph Dillard taking it all in.

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Plenty of pretty scenery…

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… with a few abandoned tires here and there.

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Riverside signage warns people against eating the fish they catch here, which pick up unsafe levels of pollution from the water.

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Benning Road Trash Transfer Station.*

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New construction designed to resolve the problem of raw sewage flowing into the river during heavy rains.

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These will line the wall of a giant tunnel being built to contain runoff during heavy rains, which now mixes with sewage and overflows into the river.

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Metro!

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We passed lots of other groups out on the water, including this crew team and their coaches.

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After the river tour, Tony Thomas took a smaller group by car to see two trash-traps.

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Whatever is on the road eventually ends up in the river.

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Trash-trap #1.

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Tony Thomas, Education Coordinator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.

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Howard faculty-member Vernon Morris at the top of trash-trap #2.

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When this tributary into the Anacostia River is flowing, the water flows through these bars and the trash stays behind.

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Lots of the captured trash could have been recycled but ended up on the streets instead, and from there makes its way into the the river.

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Leaving trash trap #2, near the now-closed Kenilworth landfill. The landfill was built next to the historically black neighborhood of Deanwood.

* Mike Ewall, Executive Director of Energy Justice Network, e-mailed me the following when I sent a note asking him to jog my memory about this photo: “This is the Benning Road trash transfer station — one of two large trash transfer stations that the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW) operates. The other is at Fort Totten.  It also used to be the home of DC’s trash incinerator, from 1972-1994, and is the place that the leaders at DPW were nearly certain to have tried to locate the new incinerator they were exploring a few years ago before we derailed that conversation in 2013. We = Energy Justice Network, Sierra Club, ILSR, and DC Environmental Network. The community around it is 98% black and 52% of the people are below the poverty line. That site also hosted the oil-fired Pepco power plant that shut down in June 2012, and was torn down in more recent years.  That plant left behind a toxic waste site that remains to be cleaned up and won’t be fully cleaned up. Ash from the old incinerator there is in the Kenilworth Landfill just north of there, next to public housing. The landfill is now a Superfund site that the National Park Service plans to “clean up” by merely dumping two feet of soil on it. It’s currently used as a ball-field / park by local residents.”

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!

“Toxic tour” of Baltimore

Last fall Mike Ewall and Dante Swinton of Energy Justice Network led my students and me on a “toxic tour” of Baltimore. Toxic tours are one way that environmental justice activists do political education. They involve bringing politicians, environmental agency staff and others into the communities where activists live and/or work to build awareness of the problems there and find ways to support local activists in trying to solve them. In our case, Mike and Dante led the students in my fall Environmental Inequality classes to see some of the contested sites where they work. This gave the students a better way to visualize the things we had been reading about, and to learn about their local applications.

We started at the Wheelabrator Baltimore trash incinerator. We were immediately reminded of the environmental justice slogan that defines the environment as “the places we work, live and play” by the sight of families picnicking at the park directly adjacent to the incinerator. We moved on to the site of a proposed new incinerator (for trash, tires, shredded cars and wood waste), a coal and steam-fired electrical generating station, a closed hazardous waste landfill, the port (piled high with coal), the nation’s largest medical waste incinerator and a municipal waste landfill, among other industrial sites.

Since our visit, the proposed new incinerator that we learned about has been defeated, at least for now. Baltimore resident Destiny Watford, co-founder of the student group Free Your Voice, became the 2016 recipient for North American of the international Goldman Prize for her leadership role in the campaign.

My students got a lot out of the trip. They had read about the problems of industrial pollution and the people who live right next to polluting industries, but walking those landscapes seemed to make the issues much more real for them. For my part, I was saddened to see again in Baltimore many of the same problems I am familiar with from my research in California. It’s one thing to know about national trends, and another to see for oneself that they are, indeed, national.

The photos below show some of the places we went. They depict Mike Ewall and Dante Swinton from Energy Justice Network, as well as my students from Howard University – Olivia Byrd, Jesse Card, and Gerlene Toussaint. Sign up for the Energy Justice newsletter or “like” the Free Your Voice Facebook page to find out how you can plug in.


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Film Screening and Discussion

This Thursday I’m hosting a screening of Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek at Howard University. The event is open to the community so please join us if you live in the area!

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.”

After the screening, the following speakers will help us discuss the film:

  • Leslie Fields: Director of the Environmental Justice Program, Sierra Club
  • Brentin Mock: Staff writer, The City Lab
  • Terri Adams-Fuller: Department of Sociology and Anthropology, NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences, Associate Dean of College of Arts and Sciences, Howard University.

The screening is timed to honor Earth Day (the next day), and also to promote Howard’s new Environmental Studies undergraduate major, which begins in the fall of 2016. Please join us!

When: Thursday April 21st, 6-8pm

Where: Screening Room West, CB Powell Building, School of Communications, Howard University

Co-sponsors: Department of Sociology and Anthropology, NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences, School of Communications, Environmental Studies Program

 

Trash as a renewable resource?

Over the last few years I’ve been involved with a multi-campus group thinking about the many different ways that the concept of sustainability is used. Under the able leadership of Miriam Greenberg, this group recently launched an collection of digital essays called Critical Sustainabilities: Competing Discourses of Urban Development in California. It features short case-studies to show how the idea of sustainability is used for competing political purposes. It also features essays about key-words that underpin sustainability debates. The project’s focus on Northern California complicates the ways in which the area is often seen as a model of sustainability efforts.

My contribution, with co-author Lindsey Dillon, analyzes efforts to create a policy mechanism by which energy created from trash could qualify for sale as renewable energy in California. This poses the strange prospect of categorizing trash as a “renewable resource.” We locate this debate in the small farmworker town of Gonzales. A proposal to locate what was alternatively called a “waste-to-energy plant” or an “incinerator-in-disguise” was recently defeated there. Though the case center on Gonzales, the broader conflict is happening nationwide. You can read our piece here.

Those of you with overlapping research interests may be interested in submitting a paper to the group’s proposed panel at the 2016 annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers.

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Workers cover the existing landfill at the site of the proposed “waste-to-energy” facility in Gonzales.

Goodbye, UC Santa Cruz. Hello, Howard University!

This summer I graduated with my Ph.D. from UC Santa Cruz, packed up my home, and drove across the country to Washington DC. Since August 16th I have been working as an Assistant Professor at Howard University‘s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. The department is in developing an area of expertise in environmental justice scholarship, and next year the campus will launch a major in environmental studies. So, it’s an exciting time to join Howard’s faculty. I’m also looking forward to helping to bridge the new emphasis on environmental justice with the department’s existing expertise in medical sociology through research on environmental health. I hope to continue to collaborate with environmental justice/health scholars and activists in California and also make new connections here in Washington D.C.

When I left UC Santa Cruz, the campus was in the final stages of becoming a federally designated “Hispanic Serving Institution.” In the Sociology department, about 65% of the undergraduate majors were part of the first generation to go to college in their family. I enjoyed working with first-generation college students and the campus’s growing population of undocumented students, and am proud to now work at a historically black university also committed to populations underserved by higher education.

This year I am teaching “Introduction to Sociology” and “Environmental Inequality.” Over the next few years I plan to develop new courses in “Sociology of Environmental Health” and “Sociology of Food and Agriculture.” We are in our second week of classes already and the students have been great. But, I’ll miss being able to say that my school mascot is a banana slug!

If you are in the area, drop me a line to say hello!

My new professional home - Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall.

My new professional home – Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall.