Graduation Year

2010

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Ph.D.

Degree Granting Department

Anthropology

Major Professor

Susan Greenbaum, Ph.D.

Keywords

Social movements, Youth research, Critical ecological theory, Educational applied anthropology, Formation of activists

Abstract

Recent attempts at developing an environmental education agenda in public schools emphasize the need to foster greater public awareness about environmental rights, issues, and solutions, while producing citizens with the knowledge and skills needed to address the ecological challenges of contemporary society. However, some scholars have argued that the attempt to integrate environmental principles into the school curricula has created a conflict between the politically-oriented goals of environmental education and the more passive practices of uncritical assimilation and reproduction found in many schools today (Stevenson 2007). Moreover, although there is a need for public schools to take on the challenge of prioritizing environmental education, they may not be ready to do so. Ideological conflicts, structural constraints and perceptions about the urgency of the problem seem to affect the ways in which implementation of these new philosophies and practices take place.

One approach that the environmental movement in Puerto Rico is utilizing to fulfill what they perceive as their responsibility to the new generations of Puerto Ricans and society at large is to partner with local elementary public schools in an effort to develop activities and knowledge relevant to local ecological issues and environmental principles. To better understand this complex articulation, I set out to conduct an ethnographic case study of Conuco, a youth-led activist group working in collaboration with four elementary schools in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico. Utilizing an eco-critical approach, this study looks at the multiple-levels in which Conuco intersects as a public organization and a transformative space for its individual members.

By caring for and working with elementary school children, the young people in the study learn to behave in ways that are ecologically conscious while, at the same time, fulfilling their perceived social responsibility as mentors and environmental activists. However, while these practices might improve the performance of individual teachers and the level of awareness and participation of particular groups of students, they raise questions about the ability of the school system to confront these new challenges systematically by transforming the system of instruction and improving its commitment to the environment. How effective these strategies are and what they mean for all involved-teachers, students, and activists-are the primary questions being explored in this study.

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