Principles behind Sunday school Ecojustice class

Here are some of the principles behind the Ecojustice class taught at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA) for the past five years.

Ecojustice class is a Sunday school program for gr. 6-8. Ecojustice class is a learner-centered program, with a flexible curriculum that can follow the interests of the teens and the teachers. We have a firm commitment to making the class as hands-on as possible — an emphasis on doing, rather than discussion. Rather than just projects done by one individual and intended for themselves, our projects tend to be done as a group and intended for use by the class, congregation, or a wider community. Ecojustice class can best be described as a “emergent curriculum,” meaning we’re often making it up as we go along; nevertheless, we have evolved some pretty firm organizing principles which may be of use to others.

Our definition of “ecojustice”:
A sign is posted in the classroom which gives our definition of “ecojustice”:

Ecojustice =
— humans treating other humans with dignity & respect
— humans treating other organisms & the whole ecosystem with dignity & respect

If teens ask: “Why can’t we just say ‘Ecojustice means humans treating each other and the rest of the ecosystem with respect’?” — we can explain that white environmentalists have been criticized because they worry more about non-human organisms than they worry about humans who have a different skin color. So we want to make sure we always remember that environmental action cannot be separated from human justice.

Basic class plan is the same every week:
I/ Attendance & chalice lighting (typically indoors)
II/ Check-in (typically indoors)
III/ Reading (typically indoors)
IV/ Project for the week (most often outdoors)
V/ Closing circle (often outdoors)

Reading: Each reading is related in some way to ecojustice. We adults can read the reading, or ask the teens if one of them would like to read it. Then maybe have a brief conversation about what the reading tells us about ecology, ecojustice, or the natural and human worlds.

Project for the week: Projects may last from 1-4 weeks. Teachers pick projects based on their interests and abilities. We try to include a conversation with each porject about why we are doing the project: “what does this project have to do with ecojustice?” This can take place while we’re working, or as part of the closing circle.

Closing circle: During closing circle, have the teens say one thing they learned, or one thing they’re taking away from this class. End with the UUCPA unison benediction (used in all classes); the unison benediction is posted in classrooms in 4 languages, reflecting languages spoken by people in our congregation (English, Spanish, German, Hindi; working on a Mandarin version).

Topic areas:
We relate any project that we develop to one of seven topic areas. Those topic areas are listed below, along with sample projects that we have either completed or plan to carry out (in parentheses).

1. Food
Tire Garden — based on the UUSC Haiti tire garden project
Ongoing Gardening — digging, planting, weeding, watering, etc.
Cooking projects — using, e.g., organic ingredients

2. Energy
Rocket Stoves — based on a design by Larry Winiarski
Solar Cooking — using various solar ovens (solar s’mores esp. popular)

3. Water
Rain Barrel — installed a rain barrel; use the water to irrigate the gardens
Clay Pot Irrigation — low-water use irrigation method
(Bucket Drip Irrigation — low-water method for irrigating garden)

4. Waste
Composting — assembled two composting bins; maintain them
(Build a composting toilet)

5. Habit and Shelter
Wildlife — “tracking pit”; invertebrate observation; building birdhouses
Native Plants — tour of church’s native plant garden
Habitat for native pollinators — making “bee houses”
Support local homeless shelter which stays at our church in Sept.
(Using Natural Herbs — planned visit from a local herbalist)
(Natural Dyes — tie-dye using redwood cones and fennel)

6. Earth and Air
Disaster Plans — making a personal “go-kit” in case of wildfire evacuation
(Global climate change project — but how to make it hands-on?)

7. Toxics in the Environment (new category added in 2018)
(Phytoremediation — using plants to remove toxics from the soil)

More info about each of these topic areas is below.

Update, June, 2022: See the updated curriculum online here: The curriculum has been completely restructured, based on several years of teaching.

1. Food focuses on the food web from the human viewpoint — food for humans.
(Food for non-human organisms is covered in Habitat and Shelter.)
When thinking about food for humans, here are some questions we can ask:
— How is our food grown?
— Which humans have easy access to food, and which humans find it hard to get food? (food security)
— What is it like to grow our own food?

2. Energy comes from several different sources, each of which has different impacts on humans, other organisms, and the environment:
— Human energy is when human beings do the actual work, as when you ride a bicycle to get from one place to another.
— Animal energy is when animals do the work for humans, as when a human rides a horse.
— Solar energy is when the sun provides the energy. This includes both human technology like solar ovens, where heat from the sun does the cooking — and natural processes, like photosynthesis, where energy from the sun allows plants to store chemical energy in carbohydrates.
— Energy from petroleum products is when we burn coal, oil, gas, etc. for heat or power. Using this kind of energy contributes to global climate change.
— Energy from biomass is when we burn firewood, buffalo chips, etc., for heat or power. Using this kind of energy does not contribute to global climate change (unless you use a chainsaw or other power tool to cut up or transport the wood), but smoke from fires can lead to respiratory health problems.
— Other types of energy include: wind power; power from rivers and streams (hydroelectric, water-wheels, etc.); geothermal power; etc., etc.

3. Water is essential for life.
— Humans need about a gallon of clean fresh water a day for drinking and bathing.
— Water is necessary to grow food crops.
— Most human communities in North America rely on water to flush human excrement away.
— Non-human organisms also need water to live.

But in many parts of the world, there is no longer a reliable supply of clean fresh water that can supply all of these needs. For example, in California nearly all water sources in the state have been tapped to supply human agriculture or human communities — so much so that many rivers and streams no longer have enough water to support native species.

Which gets priority, the human or the non-human uses? Should humans have to cut water consumption (i.e., by reducing water supplies for agriculture, by installing composting toilets that do not use water, etc.) in order to provide water for non-human species?
Both global climate change and the growing human population are affecting water supplies around the world. In many cases, wealthy white people have easy access to water, while poor non-white people do not, so we might ask: Does every human have a right to enough water, or should water be allocated to those who can pay for it?
We might also ask: Do humans have a greater right to clean fresh water than non-human organisms?

4. Waste: Every organism produces waste products.
— Humans excrete feces and urine, they leave behind the parts of food plants and food animals they don’t eat, and they breathe out carbon dioxide: these are waste products.
— Humans also leave behind other things: trash, smoke and exhaust, chemicals, etc.

When we think about human waste, we should ask at least two questions:
a. How can we dispose of human waste so as to have minimal negative effect on other humans and on non-human-organisms? and:
b. Are there waste products that we produce that are both harmful (to us, to other species) and not necessary (i.e., there are better ways to do things)?

5. Habitat and Shelter includes both human habitat, and habitat for non-humans.
— Habitat means a place an organism can live, so habitat includes (at a minimum) reliable sources of food, shelter where the organism can have enough safety to live and raise the next generation, and reliable sources of fresh clean water.
— Habitat always includes interactions with other organisms: organisms that want to eat us, organisms that we want to eat, and any other kinds of relationships we have with other organisms.

When looking at human habitat, we will want to ask: How much food, water, and shelter is enough? and Why do some humans have no shelter while others have more than enough?

When looking at the relationship between human and non-human organisms, we will want to ask: When humans change their habitat to make it better for them (making farms, roads, houses, etc.), how does that affect other organisms?

6. Earth and Air means the earth we live on and the air we breathe.
The ecojustice issues under Earth and Air include, but are not limited to:
— Disaster preparedness and disaster response, because global climate change is leading to more natural disasters.
— Air pollution, from the ground level to the ionosphere, including pollution from particulate matter caused by car tire wear, to ozone (smog) at ground level, to the hole in the ozone layer, to the changes in the atmosphere from fossil fuel emissions.
— The damage done by invasive species.

7. Toxics in the environment are a major concern for many people.
Toxic chemicals and substances — heavy metals like lead, carcinogens like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), endochrine disruptors like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) — may be found in soil, plants, ground water, human-made landscapes, and even in products like toys and food.

Toxic chemicals and substances may already be present in your environment. For example, lead is often present in the soil around houses built before the 1970s, because these houses were once coated with lead point, and the lead may have leached into the soil. Various toxic chemicals have leaked into the ground from underground storage tanks located throughout Silicon Valley (see the Web site of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition,

Toxic substances may also be released into the environment, either by accident or illegally but on purpose.

Communities of color, and less affluent communities, tend to have more problems with toxics in their immediate environment. These communities lack political power, and thus are less likely to get resources for cleaning up existing toxics, and are more vulnerable to accidental or illegal releases of toxics since they receive a lower level of enforcement of laws and regulations.

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