I smiled and replied, “Of course not.”
“Well what about the other elective teachers? What about the piano instructor?”
“I don’t know. I’m sure some of them do.”
“Then why would you do it?”
“I enjoy being around you all, and its my way of giving back. I’d hope that you all will feel inclined to do the same…Right?”
We all laughed.
This was the second classroom exchange in which my high school students questioned my incentive to work with them. Perhaps it won’t be the last. But I guess it is a fair question. Why would a graduate student training to teach at the collegiate level volunteer his (fleeting) time to work with high school students?
In all honesty, I’ve dreamt about doing this for quite some time. The school that I teach at isn’t random—I had the privilege of attending for two years when my family made the trek back to R.I. from Texas in 2006. It is a small charter school with a track record of placing its students, mostly black and latino, from low to middle income households, in great colleges around the country. Moving from a large, suburban Texas school to a tiny Rhode Island charter school proved less challenging than one might immediately assume. Though I’d always been an accomplished student academically, Blackstone Academy’s emphasis on community engagement ignited my passion and commitment to social justice. On top of my academic pursuits, I was on the indoor track team, soccer team, student council (Vice President), debate team, Students for Darfur Club, and Latinos Helping Hands, among other commitments. I was really able to flourish at Blackstone and I knew that when I graduated if I ever found myself back in RI I’d have to get involved somehow. Graduate school at Brown provided the perfect opportunity.
Teaching high schoolers is hard work. They demand your attention and constant engagement. Unlike at the collegiate level, you cannot simply assign a bunch of readings and come together in class for a lecture or conversation. When it comes to sociology, it is also a challenge to find readings that aren’t too abstract as to be completely untenable. Instead, I focused my efforts on developing my students' sociological imagination, and capacities to think sociologically, with emphasis on exploration of social inequality.
As young people growing up in the midst of many of the issues that sociologists explore on a daily basis, much of what we talked about wasn’t news to them. Of my 13 students, 2 are white, and 1 is male. Many of them are daughters of immigrants, or immigrants themselves. They know what it is like to see their parents struggle with finding work, and they know what it is like to have unfair expectations placed upon you just because you are a girl, or your skin has a certain pigmentation. They already had the experiences, I simply offered the language and conceptual tools to think through and understand them. Having these tools is critical for young people of color, women, the poor, because they are the foundation of any real emancipatory project. While sociology by itself cannot change the material conditions that infringe upon our collective welfare, it provides the tools that can lead to cognitive liberation, upon which we can build movements to challenge structural conditions that limit our individual and collective possibilities. Imagine, for instance, how learning that gender isn’t biological, and thus that women aren’t inherently any weaker than men, could influence a young woman’s development in life. Women can and should be just as powerful as men, social structures are to blame for the lack of women in politics. Perhaps learning that race is a social construct might encourage young people to stop viewing themselves and others in essentialist terms. People of color aren’t lazy and don’t find living on welfare very comfortable, social structures are to blame for the amount of folks struggling to get by.
So, no I don’t get paid to work with the high schoolers as a graduate student, and I’m not sure how long I will keep it up. However, no amount of monetary compensation, nor school credit, could ever amount to the satisfaction I feel in knowing that maybe—just maybe—I’ve helped one of these students better understand his or her own life and the freedom that that entails. Who needs to get paid when you’ve got that? I’m convinced that one day the students will understand that too.
I've been working on a means to measure environmental privilege, using and index and ArcGIS. Here are some notes on my progress and a couple maps to go along.
It is no secret that we live in a world riddled with inequality. This is a world in which access to clean, safe, and healthy environments is distributed unequally both socially and spatially. Yet inequality as such rarely goes unchallenged. In the United States, and increasingly across the globe, people are calling attention to the normative notion of environmental justice, forming a global social movement around the idea that all people, regardless of any defining social characteristics, are entitled to freedom from environmental hazards and risks and access to amenities like green space (Gottlieb 1993; Pellow 2007). Climate change, for instance, has spurred organization around the notion of climate justice and the necessity for the most privileged within the global social system to recognize their part in the unfolding crisis and to do something about it (Petit 2009). The notion of climate justice points directly to the ethical problems that climate changes poses, given that the world’s most vulnerable are also least responsible, but suffer the greatest damage in terms of climate related disaster (Roberts 2001; Roberts and Parks 2006).
While scholars have spent a great deal of time describing, and identifying, the mechanisms behind environmental inequalities, they have spent far less time exploring the other side, that of environmental privilege. Wherever there is environmental inequality, there must also be environmental privilege, which allows for certain groups to have access to safe environments to live, work, and play in, while others do not. This privilege is the result of interlocking systems of political, economic, and cultural power, that allow for freedom from hazards, such as air pollution from toxin releasing manufacturing facilities, and access to amenities such as coastal property or national parks. Therefore, to better understand environmental inequality, it is important to focus on both sides of the coin, addressing both the negative (unequal exposure to hazards and risks) and positive (unequal access to amenities) aspects that environmental inequalities necessarily entail.
I measure environmental privilege by considering both social and environmental factors:
Using a points system, I calculate the Environmental Privilege Index score at the block group level, and map using ArcGIS. Here is an example of Rhode Island and Providence (the largest city and capital of RI).
At the state-wide level we see disparities between various municipalities in levels of environmental privilege, but there are also disparities within cities too. It is important to point out that the areas shown in red with little or no environmental privilege are concentrated in Rhode Island's urban areas, with high concentrations of minority and working class people. Here is a map of ethnicity in Rhode Island to help give you an idea.
Below, I have another map, this time showing Providence. We see a disparity between the east and west sides of the city. Not coincidentally, the east side of Providence is home to Brown University, and many wealthy and white residents of Providence, while the west and south side of the city are composed of mostly minority residents.
Finally, we have a map of Providence showing the environmental burdens overlaying the EPI Scores of each census block group. From this map, you can see that the areas high EPI scores in green are mostly free from high volume roadways, hazardous material sites, and industrial areas. They are also the most affluent. On the other hand, the areas shown in red and orange are areas close to industrial areas, hazardous material sites, and high volume roadways. In sum, I think that Environmental Privilege Index is a productive way to think about environmental privilege, other means (perhaps historical or ethnographic) are needed to assess the mechanisms that create and maintain it.