four students holding dirt with plants

eeRESEARCH: Culturally Relevant Environmental Education

By Chelsea Greenhaw Sloggy, eeRESEARCH Library Associate, Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment

This post is part of an eeRESEARCH Library reader engagement series. In collaboration with NAAEE, Duke University highlights recent research on relevant topics to help EE practitioners learn from academic literature. This month, we’re sharing eeRESEARCH summaries about culturally relevant environmental education. 

For many of us, the last few months have been a time of deep reflection on many things, including how we can best be of service to the needs and changes we are experiencing in our communities. In particular, we, as environmental educators, have found ourselves wondering how we can be better for the students, communities, and visitors we serve. We wonder this in the wake of the ongoing injustices that Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) face in our social, justice, economic, and environmental systems. We wonder this while navigating new spaces for informal, formal, and nonformal education as we transition to a virtual world, knowing not all of our students have the same resources and support at home. The environmental education community has rallied behind these causes, offering countless webinars and opportunities for professional development. We are all helping one another to navigate towards culturally relevant environmental education programming.

Culturally relevant environmental education, or CREE, is what many educators have been working to gain more in-depth knowledge of recently, likely without knowing it. CREE is an ever-developing skill set that manifests as educators learn more about students’ unique life experiences and how those realities play out in the way an individual learns, plays, and communicates. It is an educator’s mindful response to our students’ different learning styles impacted by their culture, norms, and values. CREE is how we welcome those things in our learning environment and encourage students to hold on to comforts as they explore new things.

CREE programming can take many different forms but is almost always intentional in its design—and this intentionality pays off: one study found that nature-related, culturally relevant art activities provided an avenue for students to become more involved in their urban communities. The students who participated felt more heard and believed that they were essential contributors to their community. Similarly, CREE programming allows students with culturally diverse home lives, such as immigrant students, to better connect what they’re learning in school and their existing norms. These students ultimately become educators when interacting with their family and community, introduce different ways of thinking into the classroom, and develop a greater identity as individuals.

For students with limited access to natural areas, CREE can nurture a space where they can develop their environmental identity. In seeing themselves as a part of the natural world, they become more inclined to learn about and protect it. An evaluation of one adventure center’s CREE programming showed that their approach increased students’ sense of environmental responsibility, with the most significant change occurring in urban students. This knowledge also speaks to the importance and power of using place-based approaches and incorporating indigenous knowledge and land recognition, helping participants feel more connected to their ecosystems.

As one might expect, making a program more culturally relevant looks different for every educator and organization. While it is important to be mindful in implementation, it’s also important to remember that it is a learning process for all—some discomfort is to be expected and might even be beneficial. Tools like social supports, flexible timing, and acknowledging different kinds of knowledge can help students push past this discomfort. Further, as educators, we can use evaluation tools to better understand the existing gaps in our programming. Culturally responsive evaluation can help us to bridge these gaps in a meaningful way. 

In many ways, CREE comes down to what many of us already intuitively know: People learn better and are more engaged when they feel comfortable, safe, and included. It is a toolkit, though—one that we can all continue to grow. We can all work to be more culturally relevant and responsive in our programming and, ideally, better for our students. How have you adapted or enhanced your programs as you learn more about CREE and the communities you serve?