Environmental Justice School

The Environmental School for Activists (EJS) aims to foster a cadre of activists based in grass root environmental justice organisations and social justice movements who have rich knowledge and skills for democratic organising and campaigning.

By 2002, just three years after groundWork’s birth, it had become evident that the ruling political party was entrenching a neoliberal economic approach that would exacerbate the environmental injustices experienced by ordinary people. This had generated a sense of frustration among environmental justice activists. By chance and around a fire one evening during the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the spark for the Environmental Justice School occurred. Earthrights International’s described their EarthRights School run in Thailand and the Amazon. We at groundWork knew at once that this was something we wanted to pursue.  The first EJS design was created in 2007; yet it was only in 2014 that the first residential school was run over an intense two weeks. By 2015, it was run over three weeks and currently it is run over four weeks.


The EJ school is conceptualised within the radical and critical approach of Popular Education and it is concerned with shifting power relations. It aims to engender deep systemic change rather than superficial reform. The greater democratic participation they strive for would ensure that people could exercise more control over their immediate environment. The aim of EJS is therefore to build a cadre of informed environmental justice activists who will contribute towards the mobilisation, resistance and transformation to a just society. 

The curriculum was driven by the question, “What do activists need to know in order to act and resist effectively?” We believe that the answer to this question is:

  • To acquire a strong knowledge base pertaining to contemporary environmental justice challenges (incorporating knowledge of the broad economic and social contexts, both local and global, that give rise to environmental injustices);
  • to develop the skills appropriate for working within social groupings or communities to conceive and manage campaigns and resistance strategies against environmental injustices; and
  • to act creatively and strategically to foster social justice within a democratic framework.


Approach is participatory in the first instance and draws on the life experiences and contextual challenges the participants experience. Deeper knowledge is added through videos, presentations and field trips.

Three major strands of learning constitute the curriculum design:

  • OUR WORLD starts with the personal worlds and moves to viewing the larger picture. Looking at the global order of the economy enables a critique of the neoliberal capitalist order of the economy.
  • THE GIGANTIC WASTE CREATION MACHINE  moves closer to home again, particular environmental injustices under the broad heading, the. These provide the opportunities for seeing and judging.
  • BUILDING ACTIVISM FOR ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE - the experiential dimension requires that they link the ideas and knowledge to their own worlds

As mentioned previously, the ‘three e’s’ (externalisation, enclosure and exclusion) are employed to explain the workings of capital and are consistent with Harvey’s notion of 'accumulation by dispossession'. They are introduced early in the process the different facilitators revisit them in relation to different topics.

Strand one, our world, rehearses the aspects of seeing and judging, first at a personal level, but then at a global level. ‘This is my life!’ calls for participants’ personal histories and narratives to be presented and displayed on the walls, to be returned to during subsequent conversations. Over the course of the schools, we recognised the need to make this more central to the activist process, and this stage has expanded to include the creation of maps of their worlds, which they add to at different stages and which later inform their presentations, of and reflections on, their activist projects.

To facilitate ‘judging’, the global ordering of the economy and societies is introduced through the prism of the three e’s to pose the question ‘Why is the World this way?’ and consider how power works in society. The history of capitalism, particularly imperialism and colonialism, and the attendant questions of what constitutes development, patriarchy and race are the broad focus here before the next question, ‘How did South Africa get to this point?’ turns attention to the colonialism, capital expansion and the emergence of the mineral-energy complex (Fine and Rustomjee, 1996) in South Africa. The final element of this strand relates to rights and regulations relating to environmental degradation in South African.

Strand two moves to seeing and judging more specific moments of environmental degradation and injustices as the consequence of this economic ordering. Capitalism is viewed both as a ‘gigantic accumulation machine’ and ‘a gigantic waste creation machine’ (Hallowes and Munnik 2008:79). ‘Waste’ is viewed as produced through the neoliberal economic order which is dumped and contaminates the commons. Strand two addresses the topics of environment and people’s health; waste in the air; waste in the water; waste of land and food; solid waste: people and justice. Both strands introduce complex sets of ideas which are incrementally introduced and developed through games, case studies, film, toxic tours of industrial and urban degradation, and various practical activities.

Strand three, the activist strand, draws on these ideas and is threaded throughout the course and it is to this end that the EJS is designed. Prior to EJS, the participants consult with their organisation about possible activist projects to work on. Linking to Freire’s notion of praxis, the strand stresses constant reflection using see, judge, act. The interactive sessions draw on certain advocacy models that require identifying the problem, clarifying the purpose, knowing the facts, understanding the system, timing, identifying target groups, anticipating obstacles, developing and delivering messages, building support, mobilising resources, and monitoring and evaluation. Here personal experiences are central to the process. Equally important is the introduction of a broad repertoire of potential activist strategies to introduce an expanded range of possibilities fit for different contexts and circumstances. The strand culminates in the specific projects worked on during the course of the school with the support of mentors appointed from groundWork staff.

A core component of the EJS are the projects students plan and carry out.

The Environmental Justice School Resource Page

A range of resources are available on the dedicated EJS Resource Page. Click here to visit that page.