Environmental Equity in Urban Schools in the United States. Environmental Lunchtime Discussion

In this talk, Green Schools Education Consultant Wayles Wilson discusses the sustainability and operational priorities for schools in the United States to provide clean air, water, and food, and why it is challenging in the current context. She considers sustainability in urban schools in the US a critical opportunity for environmental equity across the country.

A brick schoolbuilding with a clear blue sky in the background

Photo by L. Wayles Wilson, Camden High School, Camden, New Jersey, USA. New School with Original Facade

About the presentation

For urban school districts located in environmental justice and food desert communities in the United States, students are exposed to more environmental pollutants than their peers in communities that have clean air, clean water, and ample access to healthy food. If those same pollutants and poor nutrition invade the learning space, those students’ cognitive function is likely to be impaired, and the best curriculum and teachers will not break through the fog of poor indoor environmental quality.

Due to funding structures and systemic racism in the United States, education is disproportionately funded, causing urban schools to be underfunded and students left underserved. In addition to being at an economic disadvantage, US schools that educate students that are majority BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) are met with environmental racism, the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. 

Research shows that US governments and corporations perpetuate environmental racism by placing sources of environmental hazards (oil pipelines and refineries, chemical plants, toxic waste dumps, and factories) in low-income, minority communities at significantly higher rates than in white, affluent communities. BIPOC children are therefore significantly more likely to be exposed to poor air, water, or land quality. Their access to high-quality natural resources is subsequently limited, resulting in reduced educational capacity and increased health challenges. 

Typically, students spend a significant portion of their developing years in school buildings, where high-quality learning environments can counterbalance the environmental inequities in their communities. Yet, urban, low-income districts and schools that struggle financially to meet the basic and academic learning needs of children will struggle even more to provide high-quality learning environments, despite their students having the most to gain from such benefits.

Studies show a direct correlation between building design and healthier wellbeing and productivity. In environmental justice communities, students can benefit even more from sustainability efforts, since the opportunity for improvement is so great. For their students, districts can expect to see increased health & productivity; improved sense of personal wellness; increased academic achievement, including improved learning outcomes, social and emotional development, and understanding of the environment; and other lifelong opportunities such as preparation for green careers and environmental stewardship. 

Healthy learning environments and high-quality school buildings can be keys to environmental equity in the United States. By improving indoor air and water quality, reducing solid waste, minimizing non-renewable energy usage, and providing nutritious food, urban schools can ensure environmental equity and close the opportunity gap for students.

About the presenter

L. Wayles Wilson is an author of a new book Environmental Equity: Closing the Opportunity Gap in Urban Schools, demystifies the work of sustainability in schools in the United States. Currently an Education Consultant, Wayles works with the Go Green Initiative (GGI) supporting schools / districts with sustainability projects and prioritization with the focus on improving lifelong outcomes for children in communities most impacted by environmental harm by advancing environmental health, safety, and sustainability at school.

A portrait of Wayles WilsonWayles was previously a client of GGI when she served as Chief of Staff and Chief Operating Officer of School Support for Camden City School District in Camden, New Jersey (USA). During her time there, she supported the district’s Green Team and sustainability initiatives. Previously, she worked with TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) serving in Camden, Baltimore City, and Philadelphia.

Wayles holds degrees in education non-profit administration from the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania, and is a certified School Business Administrator and Green Classroom Professional. She also holds Bachelor’s degrees from Washington College in business administration and international relations.

About the event series

The OSEH Environmental Lunchtime Discussion series consists of short, 15 minute presentations by invited guests, followed by a discussion. We invite speakers from a wide variety of fields, both academic and beyond. The presentations are accessible and are aimed at anyone with an interest in environmental issues. All are welcome.

Tags: Environmental equity, sustainability, green education, environmental justice, Education
Published Apr. 26, 2022 12:09 PM - Last modified Apr. 26, 2022 12:09 PM