Environmental Justice, Comic Book Storytelling, and Seed Work

Photo by Nicole Giampietro via Unsplash

In Charlie La Greca and Rebecca Bratspies’ environmental justice comic, Mayah’s Lot, the image of the aspen seed is prominent.  The titular character intends to plant an aspen seed in a garden she secretly tends on a vacant lot, just before finding out a corporation’s plan to transform the lot into an industrial toxic storage waste facility.  The seed growth imagery symbolizes how the work of environmental justice can be achieved: Mayah’s voice is joined by others in her community as they feel increasingly empowered to influence decision-making conversations affecting their collective health.  As Mayah’s neighbor, Mr. Tatsumi, explains to her in a foreshadowing image, “One Aspen seed can create an entire forest.” Beautifully illustrated by La Greca, the comic culminates in a page-length panel of Mayah’s community, imagined through joyful scenes of her neighborhood as a strong root system extending out in an infrastructure of support.

Image via Mayah’s Lot | Center for Urban Environmental Reform

Included in the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of environmental justice is the word “protection”: “everyone should receive the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and should have access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment.”  The “seed work” presented in Mayah’s Lot opened my eyes to the fact that many public health emergencies exist as a result of environmental racism.  Reading this environmental justice comic inspired me to do more in my classroom to help my students understand this connection: people existing in frontline minority communities experience disproportionately the burden of environmental hazards.  The mainstream environmental movement I learned about in my youth had not educated me about the type of cruelty represented by the character Lulu in Mayah’s Lot – a character whose name also functions as an environmental acronym (Locally Undesirable Land Use, or ‘LULU’).  Lulu wishes to site “locally undesirable” toxic waste in the Forestville lot that Mayah has transformed into a garden, even striking down a proposal for an alternative site in Watertown where “way too many homeowners” are sure to fight back.  Learning this term broadened my own environmental literacy and gave me the vocabulary to identify LULUs that exist in Los Angeles, where I teach.

Mayah’s Lot beautifully models how a narrative can stage both a problem and possible solutions.  To help students incorporate storytelling when presenting their research findings, I gave them opportunities to create storyboards: that is, visual narratives where instances of environmental injustice and solutions can be presented.  Telling a story via images can pare down extraneous verbal information, helping the audience understand the storyteller’s explanation in a visualizable form that can be a memory tool.  Storyboard That has a drag-and-drop platform that has been essential in teaching my students how to create sequential narratives about their research.  Through using this web-based digital storytelling tool, my students have created stories about topics that otherwise can seem abstract and complex.  The ability to illustrate concepts and conflicts at the heart of these topics can demystify the ideas central to them.  By using comic storyboards to explain local examples of environmental injustice, they were engaged in acts of rehearsal for conversations outside the classroom.  They were also practicing their storytelling before presenting their research to outside audiences in contexts with higher stakes.

G’s storyboard cell created via Storyboard That

After hearing my students share their initial research findings, it was clear that they knew which environmental burdens harmed communities in Los Angeles, but had merely scratched the surface of telling their audience why.  Learning how to sequence their research data into a story of why environmental injustices occurred and how they could be addressed meant practicing a new prewriting strategy: the “And-But-Therefore” storytelling method. ABT gives writers a structure for plotting a story through its key developments: the situation, the complication, and the resolution.  In his book, Houston, We Have a Narrative, Randy Olson explains that the ABT storytelling method is recognizable in many popular texts, ranging from the structure of  Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” to the plot formula of South Park episodes.  After our initial reading of Mayah’s Lot, I summarized the story using the ABT structure:

A girl lives in Forestville, NY AND tends a garden on the lot off Lincoln and 121st, BUT she realizes a company plans to store toxic waste on the lot THEREFORE she mobilizes community members to speak at the neighborhood council meeting to halt the company proposal.

This summary in ABT form distills the comic’s narrative richness into discrete parts to suggest the structure of causal narratives.  As a mentor text, Mayah’s Lot models how one person can compel others to collectively mobilize in an effort to protect the healthy well-being of one’s community.  The “AND” joins two facts about the subject and presents a situation.  “BUT” shifts the narrative direction due to an arising complication.  “THEREFORE” heralds a consequence after a period of time.  If my students constructed their research presentations using these craft moves, the root causes of an identified environmental injustice would be far more comprehensible.

While planning ABT storyboards about their topics, one student remarked that it was the panel image of Mayah planting a garden in the vacant lot that captured her attention.  When reading the panels that show Mayah’s new friend, Troop, encouraging her to attend a community council meeting, my students wondered why he was wearing an oxygen tube.  As they mulled possible reasons, another student was reminded of an area near Los Angeles International Airport described as ‘asthma town.’  Due to exposure to multiple pollution sources caused by air traffic and freeway commuter traffic, community residents living in South Los Angeles experience harmful health impacts.  My students inferred that Troop’s use of an oxygen tube and tank was possibly due to air toxin exposure in his overburdened community.  This insight directed their attention to the comic’s final panel, where the definition of environmental justice returns the reader to the Aspen seed imagery: “Just like the roots of the aspen, we’re all tied to each other, holding our cities or towns together.”  The comic taught them the necessity of access to green spaces for mitigating harmful environmental impacts.

Through studying its panels showing Mayah in close-up shots or surrounded by speech bubbles, they learned a different model of the hero’s journey: one not predicated on “going at it alone” but on building a coalition of like-minded community members eager to protect themselves.  The emotional stakes of fighting back became clearer and taught them about a broader, intersectional environmentalism where social justice and environmental justice are not siloed.

I’m looking forward to sharing more texts and strategies at my upcoming Webinar, “Reading and Writing as Climate Stewards,” on Tuesday, November 2, at 8 pm Eastern Time.

This link will take you to the webinar registration page.

-Xochitl

How do you use storyboarding in your classroom?  What strategies do you use to prepare students for research writing?  Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter @dispatches_b222.

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