Linda Villarosa and Ursula Wolfe-Rocca

In April, the Zinn Education Project hosted a curriculum workshop for Teaching for Black Lives study groups and other social justice educators to introduce a new classroom activity, “Water and Environmental Racism.” Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, who co-authored the lesson, facilitated the workshop and opened the session by asking participants: What is environmental racism?

After posing the same question to high school students, Wolfe-Rocca realized, “If you don’t have a robust definition of racism, you are going to have a much harder time understanding what environmental racism is.”

Wolfe-Rocca shared geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition, from Golden Gulag:

Racism is the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.

Wolfe-Rocca suggested educators might need to rewrite the definition for their students’ level of comprehension. For example: 

Racism is the collection of different ways a society organizes power and resources so that some groups are more likely to die prematurely than others. 

Next, workshop participants were assigned one of 26 mixer roles related to the struggle to access safe water in the majority-Black cities of Flint, Michigan; Jackson, Mississippi; and Newark, New Jersey. In breakout groups, they were instructed to share:

  • What specific knowledge or experience does this person have related to the water crises in Flint, Newark, or Jackson?
  • According to them, who or what is causing the crisis?

And to listen for:

  • Patterns, connections, similarities, differences 
  • What factors are causing these crises?

As Wolfe-Rocca and Matt Reed write in the lesson:

Ultimately, the stories included in this activity suggest that the injustices faced by the residents in Flint, Newark, and Jackson will not be addressed by merely swapping out pipes or building a new water treatment plant. There is a water crisis; but there is also a housing crisis, a health care crisis, a governance crisis, a funding crisis, and yes, a white supremacy and capitalism crisis. This activity helps students identify key causes of environmental racism so they are better equipped to demand and enact lasting solutions that will add up to a more just world for us all.

Read key takeaways from workshop participants below.

The most important thing that I gained from today’s lesson is how much teaching students about environmental racism and racial justice is important to incorporate into our instruction. It is necessary to allow students to have a voice about this in the classroom.
The most important thing I gained was how environmental racism is prevalent in all aspects of life. And how there are many entry points I can add environmental racism into my classes.
A solid example of how to weave together different crises to help students teach each other about systemic racism.

The following week, as part of the Zinn Education Project’s Teach the Black Freedom Struggle online people’s history series, Linda Villarosa joined Rethinking School’s editor Jesse Hagopian to discuss Villarosa’s latest book, Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation, which exposes the persistent and deadly racism in the U.S. healthcare system.

Participants shared what they learned and additional reflections on the session:

I really loved the stories Linda Villarosa shared with us and her activism. I would like to be able to share these narratives in case studies within my classroom. I would love to start the conversation with the visuals of different people and neighborhoods and how it impacts the person, group, society, and the idea of “weathering” and survival.
The intersection of race and health and the profound level of inequity is far wider and more deeply rooted in racist constructs, institutions, and systems than I ever realized. Attending this Zinn Education Project session was so beneficial to my role as a teacher educator, my work as an educator activist, and my commitment to my own evolution as an informed Black woman.
I learned so much from Linda Villarosa and from the outstanding resources shared in the chat. The history that Villarosa shared about the Relf sisters really stood out to me. I look forward to reading more.