y name is Tori Derr, and I am a professor in environmental studies at CSUMB. I grew up barefoot and skinned kneed on the shores of Lake Huron. My family did not identify as environmentalists, but they cared deeply about nature. I majored in biology in college, thinking I wanted to do something with the natural world, but unsure what.
After graduating college, I joined the Peace Corps and taught in a rural school in the Gambia, West Africa. As a teacher there, I realized that the stories and books we were using, which came from England, had little to do with Gambian children’s lives. The Gambia had few resources like books but had rich cultural heritage and stories, so I asked my students to collect these stories and to generate their own narratives about what the stories meant and how their own lives were like those of their grandparents, and maybe how they had changed. Many of them shared a story called “the last elephant in the Gambia,” and spoke about how their country had changed environmentally. It was clear the students had never been asked to tell their own stories as a part of their learning, and yet these lessons were among the most exciting we had.
A few years later when I began my doctoral studies, I was interested in building on my experiences in the Gambia and studying children’s sense of place as a way to broaden the academic environmental education discourse, from a predominantly white, Eurocentric, upper middle class lens, to one that was more inclusive of diverse classes and cultures. I worked with three communities in northern New Mexico with children predominantly from Hispano families who have lived in rural NM for generations. And I also worked with parents and grandparents of these children. Working with New Mexico families emphasized the many ways that we shared values for a way of life that was largely more compatible with nature than the dominant societal paradigm. Connections to green chiles, the mountains, high elevation night skies, were all experiences we valued and shared. So while it was not my home culture, I felt very much at home there. After completing my Ph.D., I returned to New Mexico to facilitate community-based participatory research that would contribute to improved livelihoods of Southwest tribal and Spanish land grant communities.
In the Classroom
I specifically left academia after my Ph.D. to work with New Mexico communities because I felt frustrated. At the time, it seemed there was no clear place for valuing diverse community perspectives through participatory approaches within academic environmental research. When I came back to the university setting for teaching nearly 10 years later, it was only natural to me that my course materials should similarly reflect the diverse perspectives and experiences of people out there, like all the wonderful people I have worked with. But I have found this can be hard to achieve because many of the materials for teaching environmental studies still reflect the long term history of the discipline as a white, Eurocentric place of privilege. Courses that focus on social and environmental justice are the easiest places for exploring diverse environmental identities, but this is only one realm of environmental studies, so I have had to work explicitly to bring greater attention to diverse perspectives in other types of courses.
In most of my classes, I intentionally select readings so that students see through the authors and subjects that diverse people are already environmentalists, in myriad ways. I also ask students to actively engage in transformative practices within and outside their own communities. One way that I do this within the classroom is through ePortfolios, which are an online compilation of reflective writings, professional experience, and academic works. In order to develop these ePortfolios, I have students read short essays from diverse authors that get them to think about how to develop their own “personal mission” statements. These samples present diverse perspectives on their relationship to nature or to environmentalism and help students find their own voice in expressing their identity. I have seen that providing students diverse examples, often gives them permission to share their own stories. And after having taught the course now for six semesters, I can share exemplary ePortfolios from prior students who have told their honest stories, not necessarily the ones they think I or someone “out there” wants to hear. In sharing these authentic stories from their peers, I find more students are able to develop and express what their own identities are in relation to the environment. I find that students grow by literally writing their own identities.
There are many ways that I work with students to question the status quo and push for a more equitable tomorrow. The ePortofolio is one of the most self-affirming for students, and an important milestone in helping them literally construct and see themselves, through the images and webpages they build.