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Media as environmental education

By Victoria Goff
Special to the Michigan Citizen

This is the first in a series of columns on the 16th Environmental Justice principle, which states: Environmental Justice calls for the education of present and future generations which emphasizes social and environmental issues, based on our experience and an appreciation of our diverse cultural perspectives.

East Michigan Environmental Action Council held its sixth annual Green Screen Youth Film Festival Oct. 10. The event showcased films that focused on various aspects of environmental justice as it pertains to youth in the Detroit area. The event included films about topics as diverse as soil regeneration, the “environment’ of public schools, and what “media” is and why it’s important. Perhaps the most popular film of the night focused on an experiment three young students did examining whether the “protective” lotion that comes with hair relaxer kits actually protects the head of the person having the relaxer applied.

While there definitely was a monetary motivation to enter films into Green Screen (the winner received $200), the bigger goal of Green Screen was connected to the 16th Environmental Justice principle that my fellow justice communicators and I will be investigating for the next two weeks. It reads: “Environmental Justice calls for the education of present and future generations which emphasizes social and environmental issues, based on our experience and an appreciation of our diverse cultural perspectives.”

Principle 16 is important for two main reasons. First, in calling for the education of present and future generations in social and environmental issues, it is interrogating the mainstream narrative that the solution to environmental issues is to simply buy “green friendly” stuff. Principle 16 holds to the idea that care for the earth and environment is an ongoing generational process that must continue indefinitely. Yes, it may prove to make a small difference if we all use our cloth grocery bags when we shop, but the transformative intervention into the current path of environmental destruction we’re on is to entirely change how we are living. The level of change we’ll need to see in order to make a legitimate difference is something that will take constant community-wide education.

The other reason Principle 16 is important is because it highlights the longstanding problem with education (no matter where the education comes from, whether it is schools, the television, books, etc.): that it so very rarely represents problems and concerns that are important to the people most affected by environmental injustice. For example, if you look at commercials and ads that claim to be educating or otherwise continuing the dialogue on the environment, you see that industrial pollution is rarely, if ever, talked about — nor is land theft, soil depletion or how chemicals targeted specifically to certain communities affects those communities (think hair relaxers). What this means is that environmental issues not only get defined in a particular way, but the solutions to those problems almost never address problems facing communities that are marginalized through “education.”

So, the question becomes, if it’s so important that communities are educated about environmental justice as it applies to their lives, how do we go about “education” on a mass, community-wide scale? Beyond a doubt, digital justice is the answer. Digital justice is the belief that communication and access to communication is a human right. Communication as a human right means more than just “bridging the digital divide.” It also means centering the communities that are most marginalized by media as the solutions to problems rather than the “problems” they are always represented as.

Returning to Green Screen, the film festival that highlighted the media work of young people in Detroit, we see how digital justice and environmental justice intersect. By creating films that focus on social and environmental issues, young people are educating current and future generations of people who must learn what the adults never figured out, that we must enter into a healthier relationship with the environment. And by centering the needs and experiences of their own communities, youth have highlighted “issues” that mainstream media simply doesn’t and will never talk about.

But the benefits of communities controlling their own media extend even outside of our traditional understanding of “education.” At Green Screen, the young people featured in the different movies were not just explaining to audience members details of the “issues,” but also demonstrated as active agents in creating the change they wanted to see. Whether it was young people leading a community workshop on how capitalism creates inequality or blossoming scientists explaining their hypothesis and exactly how they planned on testing them, movies like the ones shown at Green Screen (and community-made media in general) show audience members how change can happen.

Digital justice is an important part of environmental justice, although it’s not always clear exactly how. The bottom line is that we have the human right to communicate, just as we have the right to a clean and healthy environment. The activists who worked to create the Environmental Justice principles knew this, and it is a sign of their far reaching vision that they demanded our rights almost twenty years ago. How will we continue to build upon and expand their vision?

Victoria Goff is a justice communicator at East Michigan Environmental Action Council.

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