Partnering for Equitable Environmental Literacy: A Conversation with Youth Outside

By Alison Cagle|November 20, 2017

When we speak of environmental literacy for all, that “all” encompasses the vast diversity that makes up California’s 6.2 million K–12 public school population. Just as biodiversity creates more resilient ecosystems in the natural world, California’s diversity is one of its greatest strengths, and the Environmental Literacy Steering Committee engages many partners in the fields of science education and outdoor access to ensure that environmental literacy implementation across the state progresses with equity, inclusivity, and cultural relevance.

Students at Glen Park Elementary learning about growing vegetables in their school garden with Education Outside

It is crucial to consider that the way equity is incorporated into environmental literacy depends on each community’s priorities, which can differ widely between school districts. Some districts may see environmental literacy as a path to civic engagement in their communities—which can take the form of environmental stewardship and conservation, or showing up to city council meetings to speak out for social and environmental justice. Others may use environmental literacy as a tool for strengthening teacher professional development, by training teachers to create and apply Next Generation Science Standards-aligned instruction using an inquiry-based, environmental context. Yet others may see environmental literacy as a conduit to science mastery and classroom engagement by working with local, community-based education providers and introducing students to nature as it relates to their specific community.

The Blueprint for Environmental Literacy specifically outlines equity as an essential principle—in fact, it is principle #1—for effectively, sustainably implementing environmental literacy in California’s schools:

“Equity of Access: We must achieve environmental literacy for all California students, not just a few. The diverse student populations of California must have equity of access to learning experiences, in and out of the classroom, that lead to environmental literacy.”

Acting on this priority, the Environmental Literacy Steering Committee has convened an Equity Work Team to help guide its operations. This work team comprises partner organizations, community leaders, and equity experts who bring a diversity of knowledge and backgrounds to accurately represent the needs of California’s entire population. Ranging in expertise from equitable outdoor access for youth to environmental justice, grassroots organizing, community health education, and more, Equity Work Team members are helping to ensure that the activities of the Steering Committee are being implemented with intentionality for prioritizing inclusion and cultural relevance.

I had a chance to sit down with Kim Moore Bailey, Executive Director of Youth Outside, who is the Equity Work Team Lead. We had an enlightening conversation about why environmental literacy cannot be achieved without statewide equitable access to nature, and intentionality regarding cultural relevance. Youth Outside is a nonprofit organization in the San Francisco Bay Area focused on ensuring that the lived experience of all youth is honored as part of the outdoor experience. They connect youth to nature by eliminating barriers, providing resources, and promoting outdoor programming as essential for building healthy lives and inspiring future stewards of our planet. Youth Outside provides grantmaking, capacity-building, and training to support organizations who are looking to deepen their cultural relevancy, and offers programming that teaches teamwork and problem-solving skills, and prepares young adults for the workforce.

The Youth Outside Team (left to right): Maria Catoline, Kim Moore Bailey, Laura Rodriguez, Rena Payan

Here are some excerpts of that conversation with Kim:

ALISON CAGLE (AC), TEN STRANDS: Why did you decide to join the Environmental Literacy Steering Committee, and what role did you see Youth Outside filling to support equity and inclusion in the implementation of environmental literacy in California schools?

KIM MOORE BAILEY (KMB), YOUTH OUTSIDE: When I was initially approached, I asked, Why me? Youth Outside doesn’t work directly with schools. Once I read the Blueprint, and saw the priority it outlines specifically around equity and inclusion, I appreciated the intentionality of implementing the Blueprint’s priorities with inclusivity and cultural relevance, and realized that Youth Outside could help steer that conversation. In the beginning, I joined the Communications Work Team, knowing that this would be an outward-facing, public-oriented committee. That work provided a chance to pay attention to messaging, to craft what it means to have an equitable, inclusive agenda around environmental literacy.

Over the course of time, as I started to hear report-outs from the other work teams, my understanding of how Youth Outside could support the Steering Committee’s commitment to this work became clear, starting with the notion of “environmental literacy” and challenging what that means. It’s not a phrase that’s universally used by members of the public, but they are talking about it; they just don’t frame it that way. Youth Outside grantees may not specifically say they teach environmental literacy, for example, but they actually are, in a culturally relevant way, engaging with youth and community in a nature-based context that connects them to the world they live in, their impact on it, and how their actions influence the environment for generations after. They’re talking about environmental and social justice, and educating the community.

If the goal is to make sure that access to environmental literacy is equitable for all kids in California, their ability to experience nature in a way that feels relevant to them is not a ‘nice to have’—it’s a ‘must have.’

AC: How does Youth Outside proactively integrate equity into its programming?

KMB: We practice and teach equity through our grantmaking. We celebrate the grantee who says, “We know we have work to do to build a more inclusive work environment, board of directors, etc.” The knowledge and awareness of the work an organization has to do must reflect the youth and community it is committed to serve. In order to really change entrenched operational practices, Youth Outside leverages grantmaking as a catalyst for change at an organizational level.

We also provide the Outdoor Educators Institute (OEI), which is focused on cultivating young adults from underrepresented communities who had an outdoor experience that spoke to them, but can’t crack the access nut for employment in the outdoor or environmental fields. We created a curriculum that honors and celebrates the unique nature of all people who want to experience the outdoors. The program teaches both hard and soft skills that are often needed for entering the work force—all within the context of cultural relevancy. For example, they will learn to mitigate their biases as they develop and deliver programming, and to have difficult conversations with confidence and empathy. Now they have the tools to talk to outdoor leaders and participants about cultural relevance, in an equitable and open way that includes all narratives. These young leaders learn to engage in conversations of equity, so that everyone who wants to experience the outdoors can feel welcome to be themselves in nature.

Some of the OEI graduates end up not wanting to apply to outdoor and environmental organizations, but are inspired to return to their communities and become the people who bring outdoor education components to the young people in their neighborhoods. And to me, that’s the outcome of equitable access that I celebrate the most. Youth Outside can bring this expertise to the work of the Environmental Literacy Steering Committee in a way that informs the implementation of environmental literacy to be culturally relevant for, and inclusive of, all California students.

AC: Why is getting youth outdoors a key component of implementing environmental literacy?

KMB: When you’re talking about environmental literacy, being able to introduce an experiential aspect will ground any child’s learning, regardless of the primary language, ability to retain information, how well a child does in math, etc.; it’s a leveling of the playing field for every child, anywhere. Physical connection to nature helps a child understand the environment in her or his world. This is your schoolyard, this is your park, this is nature in your neighborhood. Beginning with cultural relevance, and making that lived experience relevant to how environmental literacy is taught in one’s school, is how environmental literacy really becomes sustainable.

Kim and Youth Outside have already begun to guide the Environmental Literacy Steering Committee in practicing inclusive strategies for implementing the Blueprint’s priorities. At the Steering Committee’s recent November 13 meeting, Youth Outside conducted the first in a series of level-setting workshops aimed at developing the Steering Committee’s language and intentionality around equity and inclusion, while deepening the role of equity in our partnerships with districts and community leaders across the state.

Youth Outside’s first workshop featured exercises in establishing a common language around equity, by exploring how we can describe our narratives with inclusivity and cultural relevance in all conversations regarding environmental literacy. Kim and her colleague, Laura Rodriguez, also facilitated an opening circle, where Steering Committee members gave voice to their questions and suggestions on how to shape our commitment to equitable access for environmental education into impactful, measurable goals. These “brave space” sessions are an essential opportunity to brainstorm ideas, and specifically identify how strategies involving district-wide implementation models, curriculum development and instruction, teacher professional learning, and partnerships with community-based education providers, can be guided by the goal to consciously apply principles of equity and cultural relevance to include all of California’s diverse student population.

Alison Cagle
This article was written by Alison Cagle

Alison Cagle is a communications professional with a strong passion for understanding and protecting the planet. She believes that environmental literacy can be utilized to strengthen all of California’s diverse communities, by creating a deep understanding of and commitment to protect our state’s vibrant natural resources. For nearly three years, she coordinated digital learning resources for environmental science at Pearson Education, and worked in publicity at Random House in New York. Alison is a world traveler, a fierce animal lover, and devoted to working together with communities to teach our children how to nourish and protect the environment, all through the lens of equity and cultural relevance.