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Doorway to Wonder: Charting New Environmental Education and Place-making Pathways in Urban Los Angeles


Mainstream American environmental education (EE) programs often place undue privilege on inquiry-based scientific epistemologies and settler colonial wilderness ideologies (Cronon 1995b, Wolfe 2006) as the primary drivers in determining program design. Those programs in the urban setting add an environmental justice layer to these frameworks, by focusing their efforts on underserved minority youth. Specifically, they take them to nature and teach through science in an effort to provide an informed, equitable experience that might cultivate a love of nature and future environmental stewardship. In Los Angeles, the programs offered by the century-old Los Angeles Audubon Society (LAAS) and a few other local non-profits and nature centers pride their innovative (though increasingly common) focus on local place-based nature excursions for underserved youth, often seeking to foster environmental experiences within the source schools.

This project examines these questions through the primary lens of LAAS programs and their intentional focus on science-based environmental education within the Ballona Creek Watershed. To understand their work and its impacts on the communities they hope to transform, I draw on literatures in urban anthropology and political ecology, knowledge production, settler colonialism, and the racialization of nature. I focus on the following four aspects embedded in these programs: 1) construction of “real” urban nature, 2) the centrality of rational and inquiry-based science content, 3) the precarious potential of embodied nature experience, and 4) racialized natures and their relationship to place-based community-building.

Despite the transformative potential of urban environmental education, educators tend to (unwittingly) reproduce potentially restrictive hegemonic environmental values, knowledges, and practices without considering the historical context and ongoing socio-political inequities enabling them. This results in significant gaps and friction (Tsing 2005) between educators’ environmentalisms and their desires for inclusivity and justice in the environmental movement by targeting low-income communities of color. It is in the generative friction of these gaps that I suggest a rhizomic (Ogden 2011) environmental education paradigm forefronting the layered histories of local place, with an intentional integration of epistemological diversity, cultural history, and community experience to re-center environmental education as a key access point for a socially critical and ecologically aware urban citizenry.

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