By. Cynthia Thomashow, Co-Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Environmental Education at IslandWood


“If we want to engage all people as urban stewards, practitioners must consider and respond to the diversity of racial, cultural, and ethnic perspectives present within urban communities.” – Dre Anderson, UEE Alum


The Urban Environmental Education (UEE) Master’s Program at IslandWood/Antioch University Seattle prepares educators to engage in urban place-based education through a social justice lens. The graduate students work with city-based teachers and students (grades 4 through 12) using urban schoolyards and neighborhoods as the context to investigate urban ecology, dense infrastructure, and sustainable practices in culturally responsive ways.


“As educators, we need to build stories that young people can imagine themselves in. As urban environmental educators, we help build strong narratives that acknowledge the built environment and put youth firmly into the center of it, bringing value to their engagement in its unfolding future.” – Lenny Haynes, UEE Graduate


With the intent of creating a new generation of urban environmental leaders, UEE educators design lessons and deliver programs in schools and youth organizations aimed at understanding the nature OF the city as well as nature IN the city. Graduate students design lessons by listening to the everyday experiences of children and youth who live in the places where their schools and homes are located. As educators, they build learning experiences that engage youth in investigative processes that lead to understanding how and why cities work the way that they do. They are careful to employ culturally relevant and responsive approaches.


Here are a few examples of the curriculum approaches they are using.


Community Asset Mapping

“We start with what’s around us, the people close to home and the issues they are facing. We work with schools, communities, local organizations, and within complex systems to understand the most important factors of living in an urban environment and what can be done to create positive change.” – CJ Goulding, UEE Alum


The graduate students designed and piloted an approach to community mapping that involved actively mapping assets identified by children in a 4th grade classroom. By listening to the children and following their lead as they provided walking tours of the neighborhood, the graduate students learned to use a very different set of lenses to capture assets (The two graduate students turned this approach into a teacher workshop).


source: IslandWood


The fourth graders identified some of the following assets:

  • A blackberry-covered fence off the sidewalk served as a cover to hide from known neighborhood bullies.
  • Cinderblocks on the side of the road were used to hide cans of soda to be retrieved after skateboarding.
  • An African American gardener growing food in the margin between sidewalk and street, who encouraged kids to sample his abundant vegetables.
  • A low hanging branch on a cedar tree was the perfect getaway from a neighborhood dog.
  • A group of East-African mothers discussing how to grow food that their children recognized from “back home.”


The children built a large map that portrayed a grid of neighborhoods most familiar to them. If houseless, the children told stories of where ‘safe harbors’ existed. The children were given ‘homework’ to record culturally based stories pertaining to their families to attach to the grid, showing the diversity of cultural, ethnic, and racial family patterns in the neighborhood. The stories were attended by poems called “I am From” and read aloud as ‘spoken word’ to the class.


Children captured the rhythms of their day in another piece of writing that included rules about before and after school. What emerged were different rules for being outside and the boundaries of their travel when not in school. They talked about where it was ‘safe’ to walk and what areas they avoided.


The construction of the map and its attributes provided many bridges for conversation among students and their teachers. It served as a venue for talking about the history of the place, identifying and studying the many populations of people who have moved through or stayed in the neighborhood. The children talked about their access to food, how they moved around the city, the work their parents did, and green spaces that they enjoyed. The ecological attributes of the neighborhood were recorded along with the ways that infrastructure has changed the movement of water, plants, and animals through the space. If the children were new immigrants to the city, they compared this neighborhood to where they originated.


Community Portraits and GIS

In working with older students at the high school, the asset mapping went into greater detail and took on an active participatory research overtone. Once a map was filled in with attributes and assets, a more complex assessment of place began. High school students worked with graduate students to use digital overlays of their findings from C-FERST, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency GIS tool that captures the interrelationships between environmental issues like air pollution with racial demographics, health issues, and the socio-economic status of different communities.


source: IslandWood


These tools enabled high school students to better visualize their communities and the political and economic factors that shape them. They asked deeper questions about how and why health, transportation, jobs, and food are accessed in each of their communities. This led to more research and raised more questions to discuss in facilitated discussions.


UEE students learned to design Community Portraits as a teaching tool to capture the unique set of dynamics in a community. They instituted this same process with high school students, creating detailed visual posters of the forces and decisions that shape and influence their lives and the quality of the places where they live.


When small groups of students investigate a neighborhood through ‘foot’ research and do interviews with community businesses, residents, gardeners, decision-makers, and others in a neighborhood, they get a real feel for the ‘nature’ of a place. They learned to capture how and why city neighborhoods work the way they do, including important decisions that have been made, who is responsible for the character and living conditions of a place, and how one’s voice might be heard in making decisions. Below is an example of the work done by one student as she uncovered the decisions made about a housing project in a local community:


source: IslandWood


Our graduate classes are carried out in the city, on the streets, observing and investigating through the perspectives of those who live there. We expect our graduates to create lessons that do the same with youth and adults. Urban stewardship has to account for the people who live in communities as well as the ecological dynamics – they work hand in hand to make safe, healthy places to live.


UEE prepares educators to investigate and navigate the complexity of urban places from the ‘inside – out’ by immersing them in neighborhoods, schoolyards, streets, and communities to develop educational strategies that align with the context and people. Educators are challenged to create a new conceptual framework that incorporates a different set of elements to ‘nature interpretation’, which includes high density residential and commercial infrastructure, transformed waterways, waste streams, managed green spaces, and paved surfaces that create a unique landscape.


In extending our focus to the city and stepping into the places where 70% of us will live by 2050, social justice issues become an integral part of living in ‘the urban environment’. Providing intentional voice to socio-ecological issues means that we are considering the relationship between social and ecological dynamics that impact quality of life for all urban dwellers. ‘Environment’ takes on a broader and deeper definition when it unfolds where people live – it plays out in a social-ecological exchange that is greatly influenced by power, money, and privilege. These issues must also find a place in our environmental education lessons. If ALL people are to be stewards of the environment, the real nature of cities and the critical intersection of social justice and environmental leadership are critical to our success.


About the Author

Cynthia Thomashow is the Co-Director of the graduate program in Urban Environmental Education (UEE) at IslandWood in partnership with Antioch University Seattle. The UEE program prepares educators to work at the intersection of urban environmental leadership and social justice with an approach that embraces equity, diversity, and inclusion. Cindy served as the Education Manager for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education from 2010 to 2013. She directed the Master’s program in Environmental Education at Antioch University New England from 1983 to 2007 and directed the Center for Environmental Education – an online teacher resource center in environmental and sustainability education.