A question I’ve always disliked when meeting people in professional or even casual spaces is: “What do you do?” Because where should I start? Like all of us, I wear many hats: I’m a graduate student, an orchard intern, an aspiring community educator, a writer, a life partner, a brother, son, and uncle, among other things. But the subtext of that question, of course, is “What do you do that has use or exchange value within our capitalist economy?”
My answer to that is: “Who cares? And why do you even wanna know?” To me, and probably to many of us, that answer is far less important to our everyday lives. Why should my economic value be separate from my value to family or community?
As a school teacher, I eventually came to the realization that what I was doing in the classroom was fundamentally disconnected from the material concerns of my students. Like many, I bought into the mythology of schooling as an investment into some undefined future, where all these “standards” and “competencies” would eventually “pay dividends”. The perennial question, “Mister, why we gotta learn this?” led to any number of contrived answers on my part, until eventually it became: “You don’t. It actually doesn’t matter at all.” This became especially clear at my last school, where students were forced to choose between coming to class or doing things that were more essential, like raising their own kids, caring for family, or working to survive.
We attempted a participatory action research (PAR) project around the local impacts of climate change, and I was very intentional about helping students make connections to their lives here and now, rather than polar bears standing on shrinking ice caps hundreds of miles away, ten years from now. We made connections between redlining and urban heat islands, between disinvestment and environmental racism, between higher temperatures and increased asthma rates. Yet still, on a good day, I saw maybe 20% of my students. Not because they didn’t care, but because the system demanded they spend their time elsewhere, for more immediate returns on their labor.
Sustainability can’t simply mean a “green” continuation of the current system — cleaner, more efficient ways to squeeze out just a bit more: labor, energy, resources, blood. It’s not enough to “reduce our carbon footprint” or get to “net zero”, some neutral zone where harm and repair cancel each other out. Our work needs to be net-positive: to be about healing, regeneration, reparations — of centuries of harm done to people, communities, and the planet — and replacing systems of oppression and extraction with collective lifeways that uplift and liberate all of us.
This has to start with those who have borne the largest share of the burden: Indigenous, Black, Brown, and immigrant communities — dispossessed of land, exploited for labor, and forcefully situated at the nexus of environmental racism, state violence, and carceral control. And let’s not forget the poor white folx: ground up by the mechanisms of production and spit back out with chronic illnesses like black lung, or endemic hatred, for the very same people with whom they should find common cause.
The moment demands a mass mobilization of people and collective will, which means bridging gaps in knowledge, resources, understanding, and empathy. In our conversations, and in our work around sustainability, we have to integrate those things which support and affirm our rights to healthy, dignified lives, so we even have the capacity to take on something so grandiose as “saving the planet”.
As one concrete example, consider urban agriculture. Converting hardscape to food-bearing green spaces, as we see through the work of North Philly Peace Park, the Philadelphia Orchard Project, Urban Tree Connection, and others, tackles several problems at once: 1) mitigating the heat island effect, 2) absorbing excess groundwater and cleansing watersheds, 3) improving air quality, 4) capturing carbon, and saving the most obvious for last: 5) feeding hungry people — here in the “poorest big city in America”.
Last count, Philly has around 40,000 vacant lots. How much additional acreage controlled by universities — ever more gobbled up through gentrification and the false promise of “opportunity zones” — could be committed to projects that restore people and planet? Imagine the opportunities for real, life-affirming education, jobs, and food, at a time where access to all three have been severely crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
I don’t want a student to ever again ask me “Why we gotta learn this?” Because I am determined that any work we do, and whatever we’re learning together, be firmly intertwined with the experience of prosperous living. Not just for ourselves, but for our communities and the environments in which we’re all situated. Not just in the moment, or in the short term, but forever.
This, to me, is real “education for sustainability”.
Kermit O is a fourth-generation Philadelphian and longtime educator. A former teacher turned school abolitionist, he has set his sights on the infrastructure and sociopolitical systems placed between people and land, tying up our labor, polluting our environments, disrupting ecosystems, driving desperate migrations, and fueling the climate crisis. He is exploring land-based pedagogy and participatory action research, toward a practice of justice, regeneration, and liberation.
You can find more of Kermit O’s thinking and work on his blog.