An Intentional Walk into the ‘Unknown’ of Urban Environmental Education
By: Cindy Thomashow
It is Yom Kippur and I am reading An Unspoken Hunger by Terry Tempest Williams. Her writing has the power to unravel my soul. Yom Kippur is the perfect time to pick up this inspiring book and study for the day. Terry’s words call into question and shed light on life and the work that I’ve chosen to do.
Yom Kippur is a ‘day of atonement’, a time for reflection and soul-searching. Jews all over the world are fasting, we stop eating and drinking for 24 hours to make our bodies uncomfortable. The ‘soul’ is considered the life force of the body. Our hungry and thirsty bodies make our soul feel discomfort. This day is designed to spark compassion and deep thought through that discomfort, we are supposed to feel the pain that others may be experiencing. As an environmentally inclined family, we extend this to the natural world, paying attention to the pain the planet is experiencing as a result of our actions.
At the moment, I am away from my work and life in the city. I have the privilege that allows me respite yet, ‘city’ is what I am thinking about. I’m sitting in a small house deep in the woods, flush with the yellow and orange of a changing autumn landscape. It is quiet. There is no one rushing me…no cars honking…no rapid movement shooting adrenalin into my veins. I have the space to think outside of the constant barrage of email, texts, questions and demands that are usually paired with the noise and urgency of the city. The comparison of these two life spaces gives me pause.
Recently I shifted a career in environmental education to the urban landscape. I have immersed myself in the complexities of urban density and constructed landscapes. The shift was an intentional act and as I study An Unspoken Hunger, the book compels me to reflect on why I chose to practice environmental education in the city.
Terry’s book is a guide for living a life of greater intention and meaning. In her book, the intentionality of our lives comes from an intimacy with the ‘natural world’. I wonder, if 80% of humans live in cities, what defines our ‘natural world” exactly? She states that our intimacy to ‘place’ and its inhabitants fuels our intimacy to each other and our sense of place and purpose. How does that notion translate to the cityscape?
If I become more intimate with the ‘nature of the city’ will my urban-based relationships deepen? Will a greater intimacy with complex urban systems help me care for, work for, dedicate myself to making the city a better place? Will increased connection and identification with multiple, sometimes colliding, cultures make me become more responsive to the people who live here? Will I develop a new sense of wonder that is born of managed waterways and paved surfaces, canyons of buildings and human-made ecotones?
Answering these questions seems critical to my work as an educator who is preparing a new generation of environmental leaders to work in urban communities. Cities are becoming places of ‘new nature’…a shifting perspective that is not always green. If I reflect on Terry’s message, I must look at cities as a reflection of who we are and how we relate to each other. The ‘nature’ in cities reflects the stressed ecosystem, the managed waterways, social identity and systems of power and influence as well as impermeable surfaces, the changing climate, extraction of ‘resources’ and the hidden enclaves of species we hope are not really there…rats, crows, cockroaches, the homeless and poor.
Understanding the nature of a city requires an intentional shift in environmental perception. It requires a new conceptual frame for organizing professional development, influencing the way theory and practice are conceived and delivered.
The choice I made to extend my educational focus into the city has raised real issues for me about how social justice is connected to environmental leadership. I’m still sorting these questions out with my students. Justice issues can’t be ignored in the urban environment. These issues are vital to the relevance and impact of environmental solutions and to the future work of the students. These are painful issues – as difficult to reconcile as the extraction and burning of oil to heat my house. Providing intentional voice to justice issues means that my students and I have personal work to do…studying our culpability, our entanglement and searching for the resolution of these realities. It means integrating issues of power, access, privilege, and fairness into class discussions and instructional strategies. It means facing the fact that environmental education is more than studying nature in the city. Understanding the role of social justice in environmental education is as important as knowing the plants, birds and animals that live with us in urban places. An ‘unspoken hunger’ guided my intentional walk into the ‘unknown’ with a real sense of knowing that I will come out transformed.
Cindy Thomashow is the Academic Manager of the Urban Environmental Education M.A.Ed. program.