Monday, December 12, 2016

Synthesis Curricula - Creative Organizing: Envisioning Environmental Justice


@SiDstudents - envision a new world!(view) by taking this interactive environmental justice engagement class!  Register creativecurricula #JUSTCREATIVE


*PROPOSAL - CREATIVE ORGANIZING: ENVISIONING ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE*

I am excited to present an innovative curriculum to the Semester in Detroit (SiD) program.  I have been teaching environmental justice and community organizing in the Detroit context for the last three years.  I strongly feel that this revised take that emphasizes creativity will not only help the students understand and learn environmental justice, but will be a tremendous asset to the Residential College that SiD resides.

Traditionally this course has heavily focused on the problems and injustice surrounding environmental degradation facing communities.  Without compromising the real threat on communities I would like to take a new approach this year where students can creatively engage in imagining a society and future without injustice.

Below please you will find the Sp/Su Semesters (7 week course) outlined by 7 trans-disciplinary creativity themes of observing, perceiving, patterning, abstracting, embodied thinking, modeling and playing. And I look forward to discussing this new exciting endeavor

In addition to the Playbook for Progressives the text, Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People (Root-Bernstein 1999), will be added as a required reading.  This new course will be called Creative Organizing: Envisioning Environmental Justice.

SiD transforms U-M students through reciprocal relationships with the people, organizations, and neighborhoods of Detroit. By living, learning, and working in the city, our students engage with community leaders in transformative work - strengthening themselves as well as the wider region.  Adding this curricula will help prepare these students who are learning and planning alongside community members truly envision a better Detroit for the People.


Week 1 - Observing:

Students will be assigned the Observing chapter of Sparks of Justice to be prepared to participate the first class.

This class will involve observing ‘what is environmental injustice’.  “We must be able to perceive our world accurately to be able to discern patterns of action, abstract their principles, make analogies between properties of things, create models of behaviors, and innovate fruitfully.”  I do not want to dismiss the number of injustices that are happening to communities in Detroit, Nationally and Internationally.  This first day is about observing environmental injustice accurately.  We will hear a historical perspective and from the voices of those that have been involved in the movement for decades.

This week we will be setting the groundwork for working creatively in the class.  There will be three sheets on the wall.  The first sheet will state “Observed injustices”, the second “Bridges we’ve built” and the third “Possible New Visions”.  Today is all about filling in that first sheet of “Observed injustices”.   We will watch a few videos from Environmental Justice organizations that are currently operating and I will speak directly about my own experience as organizers in Detroit.  I will then go over to the first sheet of “Observed Injustices” and ask for the students to help me fill in this page.  What were the main themes or issues they heard from the presentations?

I will then explain that the remainder of this course will be filling in the “New Visions” and “Bridges” sheets.  All three sheets will be left up for the seven weeks of the course.

Discussion Questions and Homework:  What are different ways that you can observe justice?  How will these new observations lead to new visions and solutions around justice? At the beginning of the next class we will take their answers and see where they fit into the “Bridges” and “New Visions” sheet.

Students are assigned the perceiving chapter of Sparks of Genius to prepare for the work on discussion next week.

Week 2 - Perceiving:

‘Sparks of Genius’ describes artist O’Keeffe looking at familiar objects in new ways - dissecting a jack in the pulpit creating a life long, almost obsession, for this artist and the details of flowers.  As an ode to O’Keeffe and her flower obsession, we will be visiting a Detroit community garden in the North End (off Oakland street).  I frequent this neighborhood garden during farmers markets and often take comrades from other cities and students here to show them part of the vision of what community resilience can look like.   

Gerry Newton will be giving us a tour of the farm and gardens.  After the tour we will use our sense of taste to try some of the food in the garden.  What do liberated spaces like this garden mean when we think about justice?  Think back to our first class and our observations about the Environmental Justice Movement.  If this garden is an example of what justice can look like for a community how does that reinforce our assumptions and observations about environmental justice and how does it challenge it?

We will be viewing a number of artist expressions of justice.  Below is an example of one of my favorites from the Beehive Collective.  Their artist expression invites us to think about the world we live in, where our energy comes from, and what that means for the communities we live in and surround us.   The picture invites us to “LOOK” and “Listen” to the world around us.  Can we start perceiving a new world?




Discussion Questions and Homework:  What are different ways that you can perceive justice?  How will this new perception lead to new visions and solutions around justice?  At the beginning of the next class we will take their answers and see where they fit into the “Bridges” and “New Visions” sheet.

Students are assigned the Patterning chapter of Sparks of Genius to prepare for the work on discussion next week.


Week 3 - Patterning:

In the patterns chapter of Sparks of Genius we read how difficult breaking patterns can be if we are acculturated to preferring particular methods, as described in the book, “[in European music] The patterns and melodies we hear are preplanned and intended.  Some tribal music however results from collaboration by the players on the spur of the moment.” (Root-Bernstein 1999)




We are probably all familiar with patterns within Environmental Justice of oppression and protest, oppression and protest.  We will be listening to some of the music and watching a few videos of Detroit MC’s Sacramento Knoxx and Will See who within there music put forth a vision for breaking the patter of oppression and protest – which they call liberation zones through decolonization. 

Knoxx’s work is very multi media.  While he raps, his beats, which incorporate powwow music, are in the background and a video (of his creation) is synchronized to the beats.  His videos are all superimposed images.  Video of him, his collective, pictures of modern day Detroit, and other Detroit hip-hop artists are juxtaposed under footage of traditional Anishinaabe dance. 

Both Knoxx and See are very clear that “taking back” land, spaces and houses is a form of decolonization.  They both do community work were they have been able to secure a building to create art and for non-profits to operate.  We have also experienced a few “liberated” spaces with in Detroit.  Community made gardens and centers we have begun to imagine new patterns that disrupt patterns of oppression.    

Discussion Questions and Homework:  What are different ways that you can imagine breaking the patterns of colonization and oppression?  What kind of liberation zones can you imagine?

In addition to the Abstracting chapter in Sparks of Genius, students will also be assigned the Huffington Post article on gentrification and creativity that states, “Anyone interested in social justice and building the economy of Detroit does not have to be a pawn in the gentrification and displacement game.  Participants at Idea City came up with a tool kit for artist that want to subvert the traditional course of development” (Huffington Post 5/16).[1]

Week 4 - Abstracting:

Just as the key to understanding Picasso’s abstraction of Mari-Thérèse is to, “realize that abstractions may not represent whole things but one or another of their less obvious properties” (Root-Bernstein 2001)

I will show my two pieces of “abstracting justice” in photography and song at the beginning of class.  I took on the concept of justice – and identified one of its less obvious properties.   To me cultural preservation is a less obvious property of justice.  I looked at abstracting justice in multiple ways. For my two pieces of abstract art I took on two ways of looking at the arguable center of Anishinaabe culture – the hand drum.  Both of my pieces have a way of incorporating water justice into them as well.  For the Anishibnaabe (the people of the Great Lakes) water is very central to our culture. 

For the rest of the class period I will have the students get into small groups and choose

Discussion Questions and Homework:  What are different ways that you can perceive justice?  How will this new perception lead to new visions and solutions around justice?  Students are assigned the Embodied Thinking chapter of Sparks of Genius to prepare for the work on discussion next week.

Week 5 - Embodied thinking:

In sparks of genius body learning and understanding was expressed through Helen Keller’s delight in understanding “jump”.  She immediately translated the movement expression to how we learn – or jump from one idea to another.  Even though it was only briefly mentioned in Sparks of Genius Charlie Chaplin is a master of expression just using his body.  In art and expression sometime we can only “think” through doing a movement.  We have to “try it out” and learn by doing.  If we don’t move we may stay stuck in our heads.

This week students will try out an exercise around healing from oppression.  To warm up I will call out different words (such as peacock, ocean etc.) and the students will have to work together to create a sculpture of that word expression.  Below are their collective sculptures.  Below is an example from a past class.




For the rest of the class period students will work in small groups to create different forms of oppression and liberation.  One group will be given the theme, “Power within”, another “Power Together” and the last “Power Over”.  After each group has show the others their group sculpture we will dissect the different parts of each sculpture and how they were able to convey liberation and or oppression and what that means towards building our Bridges and Visions for a Just Future.

Discussion Questions and Homework:  What are different ways that you can embody justice?  How will this new perception lead to new visions and solutions around justice? Students are assigned the Modeling chapter of Sparks of Genius to prepare for the work on discussion next week.

Week 6 - Modeling:

What kind of community can we create together? 

Today’s lesson is all about modeling.  Much like the embodied thinking – sometimes we need to get out of our heads and just start building what we want to see in the world.  The whole class will be broken up into three group and each group will be given a large cardboards surface to create your city and lots of materials, anything from ‘arts and scraps’, of egg cartons, shoe boxes, yarn etc. to build their city of the future.  Each group will also be given a list of requirements that each city must have (way to dispose of trash, community center, school, roads, …).

After each group has presented their city to the others they must each discuss what was similar to communities and cities they are familiar with and what was much different.

For this lesson Geller, in Sparks of Genius, inspired me and how, “she learned her 3-D skills from her father, a crystallographer at Bell Labs, who bought any kind of toy that had anything to do with geometry.  Geller’s experience suggests that playing with any type of 3-D puzzle can be useful.”

The rest of the time will be a presentation on models that have been created for new visions of environmental justice.  I do think it is very challenging to depict environmental justice in a model.  One of the first models around Environmental Justice that comes to mind (that I loved pulling together and pulling apart again) is a model I helped to create with my organization and the network we work within called the Just Transition.  The concept of the Just Transition is to end the era of extreme energy: by creating transition pathways to end the era of extreme energy like fossil fuels, nuclear power, waste and biomass incineration, landfill gas, mega-hydro, and agro fuels, and implement a Just Transition to Local Living Economies in which good, green, and family-supporting jobs are created for unemployed, and underemployed people, and workers formerly employed by extreme energy industries.  You can view the model below:



Discussion Questions and Homework:  What are different ways that you can perceive justice?  How will this new perception lead to new visions and solutions around justice?

Students are assigned the Playing chapter of Sparks of Genius to prepare for the work and discussion next week.


Week 7 - Playing:

For this weeks themes of Playing we will be acting out the timeline of the Environmental Justice movement and the story of the birth of the Social Forum (WSF) in Brasil (2002) that found its way to Detroit (USSF 2010).   Using this weeks reading on “Playing” in Root-Bernstein’s’ Sparks of Genius and from the journal of extension blog, “Creative Teaching: Simulations, Games, and Role Playing” I was really inspired to revisit an idea I had a few years ago but never implemented fully.  We will be taking this week’s class period and will turn the EJ timeline and story into a play or interpretive kind of dance.

The steps for implementing this exercise are as follows:

1   I’ll take the EJ history/ timeline and WSF/ USSF story and shorten both to one page or less
2   Look for descriptive words to highlight.  Also look for words that are describe key moments or concepts and make that phase or word as descriptive as you can.  What would someone have fun dancing, playing or acting out.  I.E. instead of saying such and such movement started, or the organization was formed used phases liked “birthed” or “busted onto the scene”.
3   Once you have your written statement run through it with someone that can be a “insider” – that will have a little familiarity with the material and help move the group through the scenes.
4   Find some fun music without words (maybe something that fits the mood)
5   During the event or class, recruit several volunteers to dance, act or play out the scenes you have chosen.


Discussion Questions and wrap up:  What are different ways does playing help you to understand justice?  How will play lead to new visions and solutions around justice?

Look at our three boards and review the bridges and solution we built over the term.


FINAL PROJECT: Students will also present their group projects this week which is to work with a group of 3 – 4 students to come up with a creative and interactive activity, inspired by one of the activities they did this term, to express their concept of what a just and creative world could look like in the future.

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