The Imperative of a Multicultural Environmental Educator
By: Josh Parker
We stood huddled in a circle outside the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum early on a Friday morning, ready for the day-long experience our professor, Running Grass, had curated for us. One of my classmates led us in a silly song and dance to warm up—it’s such a joy to be with these fellow educators, these friends. Running Grass, who teaches multicultural environmental education, reminds us that as environmental educators, we must also be social historians. “Memory is a moral imperative, always,” he tells us. This bridging of human stories with stories of the land has been a central tenet to our work with Running Grass this winter, and our day together on Bainbridge would again show us that our stories, our histories, are inextricably linked with places.
Inside the museum we filled the backroom and quietly listened as Lily and Francis, two elders from the Japanese-American community, were introduced to us. They are sisters who grew up on Bainbridge. Lily was seven years old when Executive Order 9066 was passed in 1942, calling for the mass incarceration of Japanese-American families. She showed us some of the iconic photographs taken on Bainbridge (the first place of incarceration) of mothers with children and suitcases in tow, pointing out pictures of her and her sister and of their extended family. Lily spoke of memory. She shared the way she’d tried to forgive the U.S. government when she was younger, how she’d tried to prove that she was an “American.” As she grew older, she told us, she realized it wasn’t right to “gloss over” what had happened. Lily also spoke of the present. At 83, her heart is troubled by the fear that drives ICE immigration raids and the assumption that Muslims are “terrorists.” She says “yes” to tell her story to people like us, because it’s so relevant today.
When we expand the definition of environment to include culture, we understand that our cultures, our histories, inform our connections to place. Bainbridge Island shelters this story, among many others, and we educators have a moral imperative to remember it, to ask students what it means to them. As multicultural environmental educators, we accept the responsibility of including the stories that have been left out of mainstream history and separated from environmentalism. By embracing these stories, we hope our multicultural students might better “see themselves in the program” (a Paulo Freire concept) and might better understand how their stories are rooted in place.
At the museum, people spoke their truth. At our next stop, Suyematsu Farm, the place spoke to us. We walked slowly down gravel and grassy paths that wound around the farm, about the size of a city block and once the largest producing farm in the Puget Sound area. In nine decades of existence, the only time the farm went fallow was during the incarceration of the Japanese-American owners. This place holds memories of family, hard work, dreams, injustice, and loss. We stood in front of the peeling white farmhouse, quiet now, and looked at black-and-white photographs of the family who, on March 24, 1942, was told to pack only what they could carry in their arms. I realized then the impossibility of truly knowing this family’s story in their absence, the challenge in telling it on their behalf.
Educator Maxine Green instructs us to “attend” to these stories despite the challenges and seeming impossibility of truly “knowing” them. As a white, male educator, similar to the guide who led us around the farm, I wonder at my own responsibilities and role to play in this work. Running Grass described it as “daylighting” those stories that have been marginalized. In my nearly ten years as a classroom social studies teacher, I’ve been well aware of which stories are highlighted in “mainstream” (code for Eurocentric) history classes and which are relegated to the margins. As an environmental educator, I’m aware of the tendency to either celebrate our conservation “heroes” (again, who comes to mind?) or overlook altogether our complex and multicultural relationships with the land.
Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, where I am doing, my practicum, serves as a place with incredible potential to tell these untold stories, to challenge the dominant myth by highlighting the deep relationships people of color have had with the land. Equally important is to recognize the forces that have excluded certain communities from places like public lands (now used predominately by white visitors). Such recognition is the counter-narrative to the false conception and stereotype that people of color “just don’t care about the environment.” Multicultural environmental educators, armed with the knowledge of a social historian, can lead experiences that renegotiate and expand these concepts. There could be no better example than the experience Running Grass prepared for us on Bainbridge Island that day.
There’s no way to include every experience from our day on Bainbridge, and I’m confronted with the same challenge as a writer as I am as an educator—which stories to tell. I choose to tell the stories that nudge me out of my comfort zone, that go beyond the dominant myths we’re told as children. Running Grass clearly articulated that “Our work is the distance that remains between us.” On Bainbridge, it became clear that the vast difference in our experiences, in our historical memories, might be that distance. What we share is this place, this country. As author Kathleen Alcalá would tell us toward the end of the evening, “To live in this country is to be marked by its ever unfolding histories.” I agree with Kathleen—we are all marked. To know the ways I’ve been marked and how my history intersects with yours and with the land, both painful and joyous, is my mandate as a multicultural environmental educator. I rode the ferry back to Seattle that night full of stories and full of questions. There are many loose ends on Bainbridge, stories still unfolding. History and memory demand that we challenge it, negotiate it, and push it closer to its fuller truth. In this push, we educators also turn our attention to injustice today and to the arc of history that connects us all through time and place.
Photos by UEE graduate students Denaya Shorter and Khavin Debbs.
Josh Parker is an alumni of the Urban Environmental Education program.