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A Critical Teaching in Action conference participant gets a photo with (from far left) Julie Feldman-Abe, PhD, director of Mount Saint Mary's Center for Cultural Fluency; keynote speaker Tim Swinehart; and Ron Finley, recipient of the University's 2016 Cultural Fluency Award.

Environmental justice: Educating the next generation of leaders

Cultivating the country’s next generation of environmental leaders was the focus of Mount Saint Mary’s conference, “Critical Teaching in Action: Environmental Education and Social Justice,” which took place Saturday, February 13, on the University’s Doheny Campus in Los Angeles. 

Around 150 students, educators and community activists attended the event, which featured 16 interactive workshops that focused on the intersection of environmental education and social justice issues, such as clean water, food, energy and waste. Workshop presenters included well-known L.A. artist Kim Abeles, Mount Saint Mary's alums and professors, and a wide range of educators from schools and nonprofit organizations, from L.A. and as far away as Oregon and Illinois. Session topics included:

  • How an inner-city elementary school transformed its schoolyard into a native California habitat complete with water storage and filtration systems;
  • Educational resources for studying the Los Angeles River, one of the most environmentally degraded waterways in the world, which extends 52 miles through some of the region’s most underserved communities;
  • California water issues and the link between climate change, water conservation and treatment, energy, health, pollution and the economy; and
  • A look at how the anti-fossil fuel and responsible-investment movement is encouraging clean energy development in places like the United States and Germany.

“This conference brings together educators and activists to encourage leadership development, science literacy and other classroom initiatives that increase student engagement in environmental and social justice issues,” says Julie Feldman-Abe, director of the Mount’s Center for Cultural Fluency and the Elementary Teacher Preparation program. The Center launched the biennial conference in 2008. 

Tim Swinehart, co-author and co-editor of “A People's Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis,” delivered the morning keynote address. As part of his talk, Swinehart had participants play different roles in which they imagined various scenarios where their lives were affected personally by the detrimental effects of climate change. “The story that is most compelling within this issue, is the story of injustice,” he said. 

The University’s Cultural Fluency Award was also presented at the conference, to artist, designer and “guerrilla gardener” Ron Finley. He was specifically recognized for his outstanding work transforming abandoned lots, traffic medians and parkways in South Central L.A. into community vegetable gardens that promote community empowerment as well as healthy eating.

“Add a little color to someone’s garden and you can change a life,” Finley told the audience. His goal is to ensure that children grow up with the option of healthy food as opposed to fried and fattening staples – a vision of a food desert completely transformed into a food forest. “We have to change the design, we have to demand what we need to change our neighborhoods,” Finley said.

To conclude the event, the Mount screened the documentary, “This Changes Everything,“ directed by Avi Lewis, and inspired by Naomi Klein's international nonfiction bestseller. The film, which re-imagines the vast challenges of climate change, took more than four years to complete and involved more than 210 days of shooting in nine countries and five continents.

The Critical Teaching in Action conference was presented by the University’s Center for Cultural Fluency and Education Department. For more information, visit

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