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NAAEE- Cultural Proficiency in Environmental Education

Notes and resources from the Cultural Proficiency in Environmental Education workshop at the North American Association of Environmental Education Confernce in Oakland, CA 10/11/2012


Culture is the full range of learned human experiences. It provides membership to the "in" club and casts individuals as outsiders when they don't fit the dominant culture's mold. In our diverse, multi-cultural society, cultural proficiency skills are an essential aspect of any educator's toolkit.

A 2006 report from the Barr Foundation detailing findings and recommendations from its Cultural Competency Assessment Project in the Boston, MA area gave the following definition of cultural competency in relation to environmental education: "An ongoing process of developing awareness, behavior, structures and practices that allow an organization or program and its members to reach or engage diverse groups and communities in relating to the natural and built environment and in environmental stewardship." Understanding Cultural Competency in Experiential Environmental Education Programs

Cultural competency is distinct from cultural relevance. Cultural relevance focuses on what is taught, while cultural competency focuses on how educators engage students. Examples of cultural relevance in environmental education might include showing examples of different styles of dress by people living in different environments, examples of people from different ethnic groups involved in environmental issues, or brief examples of different words from different cultures for common phenomena. While cultural relevancy can provide important touchstones for diverse audiences, it can run the risk of tokenizing or trivializing groups outside of the dominant culture.  At worst cultural relevancy can perpetuate stereotypes and falsehoods ("Hey, did you know the Inuit have 400 different words for snow?")

Cultural competency's self reflection and organizational introspection can help individuals and groups understand themselves both in relation to the dominant culture and in relation to diverse populations.

Cultural competency focuses on how we teach, how we talk, how we organize groups, and how we distribute power and responsibility. It provides a framework for developing and using cross-cultural skills while bridging differences among groups.

Culturally Proficient Inquiry: A Lens for Identifying and Examining Educational Gaps, by Lindsey, Graham, Westphal, and Jew provides a range of tools in a framework to help individuals and organizations advance culturally proficient practices. One key tool is the Cultural Proficiency Continuum with 6 key indicator points:

  • Cultural Destructiveness
  • Cultural Incapacity
  • Cultural Blindness
  • Cultural Pre-competence
  • Cultural Competence
  • Cultural Proficiency

Environmental educators must engage in range of sometimes difficult reflective conversation to identify the best and worst practices in our field. Through this reflective study, we will discover categories of cultural fault-lines that require cultural proficiency training.

Key Questions for EE to consider:

  • What is the dominant culture of environmental education?
    • What are the values of this group?
    • Who is included?  Who is excluded?
  • What is the relationship between humans and nature?
    • What is the role of spirituality and science in understanding our relationship with nature?
    • Who does nature belong to?
    • How can we best navigate the challenging interactions with nature experienced by some students ("nature is dangerous" "bugs (cockroaches, lice, bedbugs) are pests" "we have rats where we live")
  • Which environmental practices are assigned power and privilege?
    • How can we best navigate consumer culture messages about buying a green lifestyle?  Is more environmental esteem assigned to the choice of buying a $30,000 hybrid car compared to taking public transportation because you have to?
    • Why are similar actions from diverse groups perceived so differently?  How do we view a single mother shopping at a thrift store compared to a "hipster?"
    • Why is recycling valued, but scavenging for recyclables frowned upon?
  • How can we best navigate confounding questions of race and social class?
    • How can we learn from and celebrate diverse environmental cultural practices? 
  • How can the dominant culture transition from viewing others as having environmental deficits to be fixed, to having environmental assets to be nurtured?


Session Resources


The following resources and ideas were shared at the North American Association of Environmental Education conference October 11, 2012 in Oakland California.

ppt PowerPoint Slides 878.00 Kb

What Kind of Citizen (Joel Westheimer and Joe Kahne) In this article, Kahne and Westheimer argue that everybody agrees that "citizenship" is important, but there is wide variation in understanding what citizens should do. They lay out a framework for personally responsible, socially responsible and justice oriented citizens.

The Power of Narrative- An important tool for self and cultural understanding is narrative.  What is your story? How do others view you? What experiences, values, and associations influence who you are. FInd your voice and find ways to allow others to tell their own story. See below for two uniquely "Oaklandish" stories about young people with unique approaches to environment and community.

The EAT GRUB story:

EAT GRUB from Storytellers For Good on Vimeo.



Scrapertown from California is a place. on Vimeo.


Understanding Cultural Competency in Environmental Education Programs:

Additional Resources

Slides from the October 16, 2013 CREEC Region 4 & the San Francisco 4S Collaborative workshop: 

ppt 2012CREECUnpacking Privilege.ppt 1.44 Mb

Resources from September 19, 2014 Marin Environmental Collaborative meeting:

pptUnpacking Priviledge PowerPoint2.65 MB

Iceberg Model of Culture - PDF

Equity vs Equality Cartoon: