Research Summary

Our School at Blair Grocery: A Case Study in Promoting Environmental Action Through Critical Environmental Education

Urban Farming School Promotes Critical Reflection and Environmental Action

The Journal of Environmental Education

To what degree is it appropriate for teachers to promote specific environmental actions and behaviors? This question is a contentious issue in environmental education. Scholars who support an “interpretive” approach argue that promoting specific actions—eating organic food, for example—is a form of advocacy, not education. Critical environmental education (critical EE), on the other hand, encourages critical thinking about the current social order, and aims to empower students to take action to create a world that is in line with their values. Critical EE emphasizes a two-way discourse and egalitarian relationship between teacher and student, as a means of encouraging the student to deconstruct knowledge and question the status quo. This case study examines a critical EE approach developed at an urban farming school in New Orleans, Louisiana, called Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG).

OSBG started in 2009, with the aim of using urban farming as a means to address environmental racism in an impoverished area of New Orleans called L9. The environmental racism that is of particular focus for OSBG is the lack of access to healthy food in L9; the only stores to purchase food offer convenience store items, and rarely fruits and vegetables. OSBG also hopes to make students aware of how the social and natural worlds are interconnected using critical EE. The mission statement of OBSG is: “We’re here to engage in and build upon a model of urban farming and community organizing that can combat systematic and internal oppression both here and at home for all humanity.” High school and college students come to OSBG in groups of about 10-20 and stay on average a few weeks, but some continue for up to four months.

The author collected data through interviews and participant observation in the program every weekend from January to May 2010. This included engaging in farm work with the students by day, participating in student meetings, and eating and staying in the student housing at night. Group interviews were conducted at student meetings. The collected data were analyzed for specific themes, such as “work,” “stress,” and “youth-centered culture.”

The egalitarian ethic of the school—what the students called a “community of practice” ethic—was one of the primary factors that seemed to promote student learning and engagement. The community of practice was described as “a tight-knit community working together with a shared goal,” which allowed the students and teachers to develop close bonds and work toward an egalitarian ideal, where neither teachers nor students were in charge. Decisions were reached by consensus, and teachers aimed to give students as much responsibility as possible, including organizing their daily schedule. However, this ethic was challenging to maintain: In reality, the school wasn’t perfectly egalitarian. For one, teachers often did less farm work than the students, which was noticed and perceived as a form of age inequity by the youth. The teachers were also often stressed by their responsibility of trying to find funding for the school, which prevented them from being fully engaged in the school’s daily activities.

Another factor that seemed critical to meeting the goals of OSGB was its focus on engaging students in local, real-world environmental and social problems. In addition to working on the urban farm, students took up projects in the L9 community, including creating a small farmers market and doing a food accessibility survey. The farmers market initiative wasn’t successful, but the food accessibility survey was found to be influential in students’ learning. Specifically, the survey created an awareness about the food desert effect and made environmental racism tangible rather than simply a theoretical idea.

Overall, the author found that the students in the program developed greater awareness of their ability to enact pro-environmental actions as individuals and as a group. Several students also noted changes in their environmental behavior, such as changing their eating and purchasing habits.

The author noted several main challenges faced by the program, including maintaining the egalitarian ethic of the school and securing funding so that the teachers can focus on teaching rather than fundraising. The author points out that future research is needed to determine whether the critical EE model can be maintained in a more institutional setting.

The Bottom Line

Critical EE aims to empower students to think critically about the current social order and their role in creating change. Our School at Blair Grocery, an urban farming school in New Orleans, has had some success in implementing critical EE pedagogy through its program. Key to its success is creating an egalitarian ethic among teachers and students, which empowers students to question authority, take action, and feel compelled to change their own behaviors. Being involved in food accessibility issues in a community also engaged the students and helped them develop a deeper knowledge and understanding of ecological and social justice issues.