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Reaching New Audiences With an Environmental Justice Message

2013 June 27

By Rebecca Bratspies

Environmental Justice, I bet you don’t even know what that means…I had no idea that it actually affects every one of us. That is, until it came to my home.”

Untitled-2So begins Mayah’s Lot, the environmental justice comic book produced by my new research center—the CUNY Center for Urban Environmental Reform (CUER).  I founded CUER in 2011 to connect my scholarly environmental writings with public service to my urban community in New York City. CUER promotes environmental democracy as a critical aspect of social justice, and supports communities seeking to participate in environmental decisions that affect them.

With support from the CUNY Law School Innovation Fund, we began looking for non-traditional ways to bring environmental messages to a generation steeped in highly visual and interactive ways of learning.  I especially wanted a message that would resonate with my very urban daughter and her friends—many of whom think of “the environment” as existing elsewhere, rather than where they live and learn. Our first project is Mayah’s Lot—an environmental justice comic book and video animated by Norman Dillon of Mothermin­d Studios. You can download the comic book here, or watch the video here.

With Mayah’s Lot, we want to create an accessible learning tool for young readers and also to reach non-traditional audiences with an environmental justice message. We collaborated with graphic artist Charlie LaGreca of Comicbook Classroom and a group of middle-school students in Queens, NY, to develop a beautifully-illustrated comic book.  Mayah’s Lot stands alone as a storybook, but it also provides valuable environmental justice lessons. Readers learn alongside Mayah, the young heroine, as she organizes her neighborhood to prevent a hazardous waste facility from coming into her already overburdened community.

With support from CUNY Law, the Forest Service and the Greening Western Queens Fund, we are developing lesson plans for a range of grade levels that work with the Core Curriculum and are suitable for classroom adoption.  These materials will be available from the CUER website.  If you use them—and we hope you do—we ask that you let us know what you used and give us feedback on how it went.

Untitled-1

In fact, throughout this month, I have been using Mayah’s Lot in educational workshops with about 100 fifth graders at PS85 in Astoria, Queens and 120 sixth graders at PS122. Using a curriculum built around Mayah’s Lot, Charlie and I have worked with these students to cultivate their understanding of environmental law and environmental justice. We help them identify environmental problems in their neighborhoods and then the students create their own environmental justice comic book. The response from students so far has been terrific!

“It was amazing to see how engaged our students were using academic skills to tackle a real-world problem,” said Dimitria Kamaris, a teacher at PS122. “We strive to have our students personally invested in their own education, and through Mayah’s Lot and its curriculum, we’ve been able to do just that.”

About the author: Rebecca Bratspies, Professor, joined the faculty of CUNY Law in 2004. Her teaching and scholarly research focus on environmental and public international law, with a particular emphasis on how legal systems govern the global commons and how law can further sustainable development. Professor Bratspies spent a year seconded to the Republic of China (Taiwan) Environmental Protection Administration. Upon her return to the United States, she was a litigation associate with Dechert, Price and Rhoads where she worked with civil rights groups to bring two victorious class action suits challenging Pennsylvania’s implementation of welfare reform.

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50 Responses leave one →
  1. Itzá Torres permalink
    June 28, 2013

    Hola mi nombre es Itzá y vivo en El Paso,Texas y tengo 10 años. Yo creo que deberían seguir enseñando acerca de la justicia ambiental. Me interesó como un grupo unido de ciudadanos detuvieron a otras personas que querían tirar cosas tóxicas que causaban daño a la gente del barrio. Me impresionó el valor de los activistas que defendieron a su comunidad. Gracias por el mensaje.
    (estoy usando el correo de mi papá).

    • kolp permalink*
      July 1, 2013

      Itzá,

      Gracias por tu nota positiva y el interes que estas mostrando en tu comunida a tan corta edad! Recuerda simpre que todos tenemos una voz en la cual podemos inspirar cambio.

    • Rebecca Bratspies permalink
      July 1, 2013

      Itza

      I am so glad you like the story and are interested in environmental justice! We wrote the book in the hopes of finding young people like you! Good luck.

      Rebecca Bratspies
      Charlie LaGreca

  2. Kim permalink
    June 28, 2013

    I’m really loving this blog!!! This is such an innovative tool to help educate not only youth but adults as well about environmental justice. Each time I come to the EJ in Action blog I know I’m going to learn something new that I can share with others. I hope the rest of your Agency catches up with the great things you are doing.

    Kim

  3. Nazrul I. Khandaker permalink
    June 28, 2013

    What a great way to draw attention by using comic books? Really entertaining and I would love see this flourish by leaps and bounds and bring awareness for environmental justice.

    • Rebecca Bratspies permalink
      July 1, 2013

      Nazrul

      thank you for your thoughts. We have been thrilled with the feedback so far and are optimistic that Mayah’s Lot will help spread awareness about environmental justice.

      Rebecca Bratspies
      Charlie LaGreca

  4. Becky permalink
    June 29, 2013

    Is there a way to order several copies of the comic book?

    • Rebecca Bratspies permalink
      July 1, 2013

      Becky

      contact me at my office (I am easy to find online) and we can see if there is a way to help you.

  5. Deborah permalink
    July 1, 2013

    What a wonderful suprise when I clicked on the link and found this incredible way to educate everyone on an issue that deserves so much attention. I will definitely share this with as many people as I can. I will also second the comment that Becky made, “I love the EJ in Action Blog” maybe the Environmental Jusice Office should create a t-shirt to help spread the word! :)

    Deb Huffigton

    • rebecca bratspies permalink
      July 3, 2013

      thanks Deb. glad you liked it. Please do share widely. I will third Becky’s comment about this wonderful blog. I would proudly wear an EJ in Action shirt!

  6. Carlton Eley permalink
    July 2, 2013

    Thanks for inspiring the next generation of community leaders and environmentalists. As well as urban/city planners. I love the “Forestville Permit Hearing”. The permit hearing and the city council meeting is “where the rubber meets the road” on the topic of environmental justice. The Green Solutions representative certainly had her “talking points” ready ;)

    • rebecca bratspies permalink
      July 3, 2013

      thanks Carlton. One of our goals is to teach people how to generate and organize information so that they can present “data” to decisionmakers rather than merely relating anecdotes. Our hope is that Mayah’s Lot can be a tool for community empowerment, helping concerned individuals and groups be more effective advocates.

      • Carlton Eley permalink
        July 3, 2013

        As you suggested, citizens sometimes need to improve their “capacity” to organize information, etc. I have found that professionals (like planners) need to improve their “proficiency” in working with vulnerable populations or even working on environmental justice. Perhaps, a comic book story about “city planners who encourage environmental justice” would be a good sequel to Mayah’s Lot!

  7. Paul Hull permalink
    July 2, 2013

    How long did this take to develop??

    What was the total cost of this project??

    Who is paying for the printed copies??

    How many hazardous waste facilities were planned, constructed and put into operation within the boundaries of NYC during the period that the comic was in development?? NIMBY seems to be the usual operating proceedure.

    • rebecca bratspies permalink
      July 3, 2013

      This project took a year to develop. We did it on a shoe-string, the artist Charlie LaGreca was incredibly generous with his time because he believed in the project. We have a small grant from the Greening Western Queens Fund that is paying for printed copies that we are using in the public schools.

      Environmental justice is not about NIMBY. It is about recognizing the profound structural injustices that divert polluting activities to poor, often predominantly minority communities as the path of least resistance.

      • Mike Ewall permalink
        July 3, 2013

        Environmental justice isn’t about NIMBY, but it’s also not just about “recognizing” injustices. It’s about NIABY (not in ANYone’s backyard). Read the EJ Principles (www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.pdf) and you’ll see that it’s not about just acknowledging environmental racism or about spreading pollution around equitably (as if that’s possible). It’s about redesigning our industrial society so that toxins are no longer being made… so that no one is poisoned with industrial pollution… so that we have democratic decision-making (principle #7) and much more.

        It’s important to recognize that the visionary leaders who wrote the EJ Principles were not just aiming to redistribute the damage, but to stop the damage at a more fundamental level to protect all people.

  8. DouGlas Palenshus permalink
    July 2, 2013

    Sure think you’ve gotten a good EJ message out in a way that many ‘voiceless and invisible’ urbanites and kids may relate to. I’d urge a redo of the audio track for the video and may be able to help.

    Regarding the NIMBY comment, yep–its true that no one wants the waste all of society produces and some are really well-‘armed’ and funded to assure that such materials NEVER come their way. So because it must go somewhere, the easiest locations have historically been where there are fewer people paying attention to such issues–often because their struggles to subsist consume so much of their energies. Perhaps a more equal distribution of the negatives of our marketing/production/profit/consumption models among everyone would result in greater location in the ‘backyards’ of those who so far have not taken on their share of ‘the burden’ and less on the already ‘over-burdened.’ Or we could eliminate the toxics so that any by-products had value that would be welcomed as resources instead of wastes.

    • rebecca bratspies permalink
      July 3, 2013

      I agree that we need to redo the audio track, but that will have to wait until we get some more funding.

  9. Jane permalink
    July 2, 2013

    Yes Yes Yes! I showed this comic book to my nephew and he loved it, so I decided to show it to my husband and he loved it too. We both agree that this is an excellent tool for educating every age.

    Jane

    • rebecca bratspies permalink
      July 3, 2013

      thanks for your positive feedback. glad that you folks liked the book. We are in the process of raising funds to develop a curriculum that will be aligned with the new core curriculum. we intend to make the curriculum available without charge for teacher adoption. please share widely.

  10. Mike Ewall permalink
    July 3, 2013

    Very nicely done. Some things that could use improvement, though:

    1) The end has a definition of environmental justice, and it’s EPA’s definition, which is their environmental “equity” disguised as justice (“poison people equally”) definition. The movement defined EJ as 17 principles (see http://www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.pdf) and the EPA has no right redefining it, no less blunting the meaning of it by turning a radical “stop poisoning people, period” definition that calls for deep structural changes into a “spread it around better and we’re cool with it” definition. See my article on EJ law for more background on this “equity” vs. “justice” distinction and EPA’s hijacking of the EJ concept: http://www.ejnet.org/ej/SDLP_Ewall_Article.pdf I’d be happy to link to this comic from http://www.ejnet.org/ej/ (which is #2 in Google for environmental racism) if the EJ principles were respected and referenced instead of EPA’s definition.

    2) It doesn’t tell people experiencing these problems where to get help. Listing links to government agencies doesn’t cut it, since EPA and DEC aren’t about to tell a community how to fight corporations and agencies to win. There are several great organizations working nationally (and many more regionally and locally) to support grassroots resistance to noxious industrial facilities. Providing links to some of them would be much more helpful. Some to list are: energyjustice.net (my organization), chej.org and perhaps even http://www.ejrc.cau.edu (though they’re probably more set up as an academic resource than a grassroots support operation).

    3) The story ends with a quick and easy victory where local decision-makers listen to the community and vote the waste facility down. I’ve been involved in this non-stop for 23 years and it almost never plays out this way. I know it’s easier and more empowering to make a comic this way, but perhaps future ones can deal with the reality of what happens when the decision-makers ignore the public and approve the facility anyway. These battles aren’t usually easy and people should be prepared with other tactics (legal and otherwise) to step up pressure and to take power (run for office) where necessary.

    4) The solutions mentioned on page 17 stress finding a “legal” solution. This shouldn’t discount the role of civil disobedience in the movement. Not all activism necessary to stop polluters is legal.

    • Rebecca Bratspies permalink
      July 3, 2013

      thanks for your critique. you point out some issues we struggled with in putting together the comic book. I will read your article with pleasure

  11. Liam permalink
    July 3, 2013

    I personally want to thank everyone involved in the creation of this great educational tool. I think it is a great way to introduce some of the issues that communities with environmental justice face and one of the many ways that local communities can work toward resolution. I can see students actually using this tool because it is fun and educational at the same time.

    Liam

    • Rebecca Bratspies permalink
      July 3, 2013

      thanks for your comments. glad you like the book

  12. Mirabel Weriwoh permalink
    July 3, 2013

    I love everything about Maya’s Lot! It is a very educational tool with respect to the definition of Environmental Justice.

    Also, I believe that Asthma was the most important health outcome that was projected…I believe that this educational tool depicted the various types of environmental exposures that are hazardous to one’s health in a given community. Do you think that other major health outcomes could be depicted? It is true that on the appendix page, Environmental Justice is defined as the ‘fair treatment…’ and this fair treatment means ‘ no person or group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental impacts…’ Maybe ‘negative environmental impacts’ also includes all the adverse health outcomes….

    Furthermore, on page 16 of cartoon book, ‘Mayah’s Lot’ which I love so much, there is a typo with the word ‘decision.’ This typo repeats itself…

    Lastly,I think the language is simple to understand…It is a very great tool to educate everybody about Environmental Justice regardless of their literacy level…I love it!

    Great job!

    Mirabel

    • Rebecca Bratspies permalink
      July 3, 2013

      thanks Mirabel. And, thanks for pointing out the typo. we will definitely fix that!

  13. Candace Thompson permalink
    July 3, 2013

    I thought the comic book story was good. It was enlightening, encouraging, and informative. I think it would be a great initiative for middle school kids in affected areas to read these types of correspondence.

    However, as the interface of life becomes more electronic, it maybe smart for the distribution of this comic to fit this electronic mold; otherwise, this important information will be lost.

    Candace

    • Rebecca Bratspies permalink
      July 16, 2013

      thanks for your feedback and suggestion. we are working on e-distribution.

  14. Liam permalink
    July 8, 2013

    I shared this with the children in my family who were visiting over the holiday weekend and they loved it!

    Liam

    • Rebecca Bratspies permalink
      July 16, 2013

      thanks–so glad to know that they enjoyed the book

  15. Emilio Nehme permalink
    July 15, 2013

    Good work. It will be an outstanding tools to reach all the community including the youngest age. Far away from NYC & US, I will try to share this article and comic book for all who I know in my social betworks. Hoping that one day we’ll implement such eductional method here in Lebanon.
    All the best for a future issues, and keep us up to date about,
    Emilio

    • Rebecca Bratspies permalink
      July 16, 2013

      Emilio–best of luck to you! Please share widely.

  16. Devorah permalink
    July 16, 2013

    What a fantastic tool for environmental education and I love that the planning process is apart of the story. So many people forget how the planning process can be a positive or a negative in the design of communities and lead to health impacts when not done in a collaboratinve way. Thanks again to Rebecca for creating this tool and to the EJ in Action Blog for highlighting this wonderful tool. I will share it widely.

    Devorah

    • Rebecca Bratspies permalink
      September 24, 2013

      thanks for your kind words.

  17. Cesar permalink
    August 8, 2013

    Whooo I definitely was not expecting such a fantastic tool when I clicked on this blog. I really like this comic book, what a great tool for education.

    • Rebecca Bratspies permalink
      September 24, 2013

      glad you liked it. Please share with your friends.

  18. Timothy Jakes permalink
    August 15, 2013

    As a student I can tell you that this is something that my friends and I would actually read.

    • Rebecca Bratspies permalink
      September 24, 2013

      thanks Timothy–that is what we are hoping for. The students who have participated in our workshops have overwhelmingly said they would read a sequel, even if not required by their teacher to do so. Now all we need is the sequel .. . .

  19. Glenn Farber permalink
    August 16, 2013

    Disparate environmental impacts is an important topic, too important to be treated this way.

    “Dumping toxic waste”? Where do you get this stuff? 1960’s science fiction movies? That’s not just unrealistic, but simply a ridiculous fabrication, completely removed from reality.

    Facilities that handle hazardous wastes spend millions of dollars to comply with specific requirements for safely treating and recycling those materials. It’s stunning that this comic is on the same website as those extensive EPA hazardous waste management regulations, designed to protect surrounding areas from the most minute levels of harm.

    Just because the information is done in a comic book format doesn’t mean that the presentation has to be so… cartoonish.

    This is not information: it is classic disinformation,harmful in most every way. It’s certainly a disservice to necessary education about EJ.

    [And, incidentally, I love the way Anna (the token white character, except for the evil corporate villains) is such an airhead, interested only in going shopping. Nice touch. ]

    • Rebecca Bratspies permalink
      September 24, 2013

      sorry we struck a nerve with you. Unfortunately there is still plenty of illegal dumping. To be clear, Green Solutions was not trying to do anything illegal in Mayah’s Lot–they just wanted to site their waste facility in an already-overburdened community because they thought it would be easy to put it there. That was the point–there these kinds of locally-undesirable land uses too often wind up in already-overburdened communities. This is the environmental justice message. With the undesirable consequences of through-put production hidden in communities with little power, there is little incentive for reducing our overall footprint.

  20. Tim permalink
    August 18, 2013

    I shared it with some of my rugby club members and they enjoyed it as much as I did. I have seen different types of illegal dumping in communities. What should someone do if we see or know about illegal dumping?

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