Volume 24 Number 2 
Spring 2014

Environment and Justice

Edited by Manuel Reimer and Sara Wicks

The Power of the Narrative Approach in Facilitating Students’ Learning about Environmental Justice

Written by Alexa Stovold, Masters of Arts, Community Psychology Program, Wilfrid Laurier University

I have always had an interest in studying topics like social justice, prejudice, discrimination and oppression. However, my desire to study these issues sparked when I took a course titled: Environment, Psychology and Action. Originally, I was interested in taking this course as I had little knowledge of environmental issues and how they applied to psychological theories. Interestingly, this course focused on current environmental issues such as global climate change, resource depletion, sustainable behaviour, environmental justice, and the human impact on our environment. Additionally, we had a number of guest speakers present on environmental issues relevant to the course, and there was one individual who had a lasting impression on me.

Ada Lockridge is an Aboriginal woman and an environmental activist from Aamjiwnaang, an Indigenous Reserve in Sarnia, Ontario.  Ada was invited to speak to our class about her lived experience of environmental justice. During her presentation, Ada told us that Sarnia has become known as “Chemical Valley” due to the high prevalence of petro-chemical industries within such a small area. She also mentioned that these industries have had devastating impact to her culture, her life and the well-being of her community. The Aamjiwnaang reserve is surrounded by 46 industrial facilities, with an additional 16 industries located across the St. Claire River. Ada went on to discuss the adverse health impacts resulting from high levels of air pollution. Chronic headaches, learning and behavioural problems, various types of cancer, skin rashes, miscarriages, severe respiratory problems, and genetic mutations affecting birthrates are very common in Ada’s community. One of the most powerful things she discussed was the emotional and psychological impact of living in such a hazardous environment. Ada gave many examples, but one outlined her constant concerns regarding sirens that had been installed on the petro-chemical plants. They are a safety measure to signify a chemical release to warn the nearby community, but these sirens go off regularly to ensure that they are working. Every time she would hear a siren, she would not know if it were just a drill or an actual release. She went on to explain that there is poor communication between the plants and the community, so it usually takes a few hours before the community is informed of any accidents or tests. Ada explained that this waiting period is particularly stressful because of the uncertainty of what to do or how to protect her children. On several occasions when a chemical spill had occurred, she and her family had been forced to evacuate their home with no warning and no sense of when they would be able to return. Due to this chaotic environment, Ada shared that she would go to bed every night worrying that she may not wake up the next day.

As Ada presented, she became distraught with emotion, and these emotions were then transferred to the audience. During her presentation, I found it difficult to listen to her traumatic experiences and refrain from crying, as her story was so shocking and surreal.  In addition to feeling helpless, I also felt enraged and completely shocked as Ada described the oppression, marginalization and discrimination thrust upon the Aboriginal community. Furthermore, I was angry and disappointed that his mistreatment is occurring in a well-developed country such as Canada. Prior to meeting Ada, I typically associated environmental justice with developing countries, and it did not occur to me that environmental justice would occur in Canada, let alone two hours away from where I live. Additionally, hearing Ada’s story encouraged me to be more critical of the values and norms that are instilled within our society. Since the petro-chemical industries continue to thrive and little action has been taken, this demonstrates the way in which our obsession with maximizing profits and promoting consumerism has completely dismissed the importance of one’s well-being, culture, traditions and quality of life.

Despite the fact that Ada’s story was distressing, it was also empowering. During her presentation Ada explained that she is an activist and she is continuously working to fight back against the industries. Ada mentioned that she has taken air and water samples for testing, she has participated in documentaries and attended conferences, and she has even created allies within the petro-chemical plants to gain ‘inside’ information. Listening to Ada’s acts of resistance was empowering because she is just one person, and she is fighting to make a difference for her family and her community. Furthermore, despite the fact that the petro-chemical industry is extremely large and powerful, Ada demonstrated that defeat is not an option. Ada promoted the message that ‘even if you’re just one person, you can make a difference.’ Following Ada’s presentation, I can vividly remember leaving class and immediately calling friends and family to tell them about Ada’s story.

When reflecting on my experience, I am grateful that the professor invited Ada to speak to the class and educate us about what environmental justice is and the detrimental impacts it can have on one’s physical, emotional, and psychological well-being.  I believe that learning about environmental justice through narratives was extremely effective due to witnessing someone’s raw emotions as they share their lived experiences.  Due to the impact of Ada’s presentation, I decided to I frame my undergraduate thesis around my experience of meeting Ada and hearing her unforgettable story.

For my undergraduate work, I had three main research objectives: 1) to capture students’ general reactions to the guest speaker’s story, 2) to identify whether the students found the narrative approach effective and impactful as a teaching tool for their learning and 3) to assess whether the students were motivated to learn more about environmental issues and take action as a result of being exposed to the narrative.

Data were collected in the form of qualitative interviews, given the explorative nature of the research and the need for a rich, comprehensive understanding of each student’s experience. Semi-structured, qualitative interviews were conducted with ten participants who participated in the environment psychology class. With participants’ consent, all of the interviews were audio-recorded so that interviews could be transcribed for further inquiry.

The findings from my study revealed a number of interesting themes, however, the area I would like to focus on is students’ reactions to Ada’s story. Similar to my experience, students reported feeling shocked, surprised, angry and empowered. Students also discussed how they were shocked to learn about the number of adverse health effects that have resulted in Aamjwinaang due to prolonged exposure to high levels of air pollution. Furthermore, many students also expressed a lot of anger and frustration toward the federal and provincial governments for allowing this injustice to occur, and that no preventative measures have been put in place to control or monitor the petro-chemical industries. Some students reported that they were overcome with emotion when they heard Ada’s personal struggle and found it difficult to witness her distress when she broke down in class. Lastly, similar to my actions, students became motivated to conduct additional research about environmental issues outside of class and spoke to friends and family to share Ada’s story.

Meeting Ada and hearing her story was a transformational experience for me, as I was exposed to a world of mistreatment and oppression that I did not know existed. Furthermore, learning about environmental justice through Ada’s story, encouraged me to explore other social issues, as well as enhance my knowledge and understanding about marginalization, colonization, social justice, and empowerment. More importantly, meeting Ada and hearing her story allowed me to discover my passion for social and environmental justice. It is because of Ada that I was motivated to pursue my Masters in Community Psychology, and continue to fight for a more just society. 

Leave a Reply

(Your email will not be publicly displayed.)