Diversity and Democracy

Becoming Civically Engaged in Environmental Science

I grew up with an eye for scientific observation. I always knew intuitively that we human animals interact with the environment in critical ways. But as a kid, I wasn’t good at academics; I wanted to spend my time doing things that I found interesting, not what I was told to do. I learned this disdain for authority from my parents, mostly my mother, who was extremely active in the Civil Rights Movement.

My mother grew up a white, working-class girl in Texas. Although pressures abounded for her to adopt Jim Crow perspectives, she resisted, understanding that a black father and a white mother can give birth to a spectacularly viable human being like me. Thanks to my mother’s influence in particular, I always knew that people are who they are because of their experiences and choices, not their appearance or demographic profile.

Although I began acquiring civic, social, and political knowledge in my youth, my disdain for the unjust status quo (its social, political, economic, and educational inequities) complicated my success at almost every level of my schooling until I went to Kingsborough Community College. At Kingsborough, where my professors welcomed my perspectives and questions, I found that I enjoyed my classes and felt engaged in the learning process. As I excelled, faculty invited me to become involved in extracurricular programs and activities, including the Salzburg Global Seminar, the National Model United Nations Conference, and lobbying trips to the state capitol at Albany, to name only a few.

One program in particular connected my sense of civic engagement and my interest in environmental issues. With funding from Kingsborough, I attended the Global College Summer Abroad in Costa Rica, designed to help students consider intercultural conflict resolution while gaining exposure to another culture and language. I spent the month of July 2007 living with a Spanish-speaking host family and travelling to various locations throughout Costa Rica with other New York area students and program faculty members.

I will never forget the day we visited a banana plantation. As we hiked through rows of massive plants stretching to the horizon, I noticed a filmy white powder on the blue bags encasing each bunch of bananas. A spokesman told us that the bags protected the bananas from pests and aided in their maturation. He said that the workers, mostly young local people, were able to support their families because of the plantation, which paid them a dollar a day—higher than most wages in the area. But he never explained the powdery film on the plants.

Later that day, at another location, we spoke with a former plantation worker. He explained that the film I had noticed on the plants was a pesticide. In fact, he said, over the years, many of the plantations’ workers had suspected that fertility issues they experienced were a result of pesticide exposure.

I later learned that most of Costa Rica’s banana, pineapple, and coffee plantations were built on clear-cut land, taking the place of richly biodiverse forests that had sustained vegetation, animals, and people since time immemorial. As I travelled, I saw the contrast between the country’s natural ecological abundance and the development that replaced it. This experience sparked my interest in understanding the interactions between humans and the environment.

Back at Kingsborough, I began taking classes focused on science and the environment. The first one I took, Chemistry and the Environment, had a profound effect on me, solidifying my goal to pursue environmental science academically. After graduating from Kingsborough with an associate’s degree, I earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Mount Holyoke College. Now, I am back at Kingsborough again, teaching the very class that affected me so strongly. Having blossomed when my professors invited me to view course material through multiple real-world perspectives, I hope to invite others to awaken their desire to learn and grow.

To learn more about Kingsborough Community College’s efforts to encourage civic engagement among students, see Reza Fakhari, Brian Mitra, and Paulette Dalpes's article in this issue.

China Moore is an adjunct lecturer at Kingsborough Community College.

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