Social justice, as a movement, includes the liberation of oppressed people. In 1970, the educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire, added the Earth to the list of who is oppressed. He introduced “ecopedagogy” as an instructional approach aimed at disrupting cultural patterns of environmental oppression. Implementing this approach includes challenging dominant Western cultural norms which have contributed heavily to current environmental problems.
The primary goal of this research was to explore how a unique project implemented at a public school reflects ecopedagogy. Two case studies are presented. Both take place in Escuela Verde (EV), a public charter high school in Milwaukee with a curricular approach that emphasizes sustainability and social justice. The data collection process included multiple observations, 71 document reviews, 29 interviews, and 15 surveys. Persons interviewed included 12 senior high school students, 7 alumni, and 10 staff. The focus of the data collection process was on gathering information about the progression through which students moved through the curriculum. The first case study (Case 1) represents a deep, longitudinal student-centered ecopedagogical example at EV. The other case study (Case 2) represents a broad community ecopedagogical example with some of the same students at EV. Both cases involved teachers who empowered urban youth to address environmental problems that they identify in their community. The process included intentionally acknowledging and addressing systems of oppression.
Case 1 relates to a Senior Thesis graduation requirement designed to give students authentic experiences in realizing and embracing their humanness by making learning relevant to their lives. Students choose the topic for their thesis. Many students choose projects with an environmental theme. One example reviewed for this study focused on food, the environment, and community. The student who chose this topic did so for the positive impact it might have on people and the Earth. Case 2 relates to participation in a community science fair which the school holds each year in collaboration with an outdoor learning center. Unlike a traditional science fair, this project emphasizes the involvement of community as participants, venue, and solution makers. Some of the activities supported by this science fair engage students in inquiry-driven investigations of water in their immediate surroundings. These investigations include critical thought about water quality issues affecting the local community.
Three distinct themes related to ecopedagogy emerged through analysis of the data: (1) critical theory and curricular ideologies; (2) ecojustice and planetary citizenship; and (3) care and participatory dialogue. Elements embedded in the first theme (critical theory and curricular ideologies) included social justice, confidence to enter into the dominant discourse, and taking action to create positive change. Elements embedded in the second theme (ecojustice and planetary citizenship) included care for Earth, sustainability, and empathy. Included in the third theme (care and participatory dialogue) were elements of learning to value and have dignified interactions and meaningful dialogue with others. The two cases presented in this study demonstrate that “experiential education can be implemented as a part of ecopedagogy in an urban secondary context.” The ecopedagogies adopted by the educators empowered urban youth to critically examine issues of environmental justice in their community.