Environmental Justice School

young activists at EJSThe Environmental School for activists (EJS) sets out to nurture a cadre of environmental justice activists. Its prime aim is to strengthen grass root environmental justice organisations and social justice movements. It draws on the activists’ particular experiences and then expands their knowledge base, understandings of environmental injustices and skills for democratic organising and campaigning.

The EJS is run annually, and it takes the participants through an intensive programme that runs over four weeks in residence, three weeks initially and then a follow up week three months later. The participants are identified in pairs by the fenceline organisations that groundWork works with. These environmental justice activists come from across South Africa, with some students from other Southern African and African countries.

History of the EJS

Early in their history groundWork acknowledged that government was entrenching a neoliberal economic approach that would make the environmental injustices experienced by ordinary people worse. The spark for the EJS came in 2002 at a chance meeting with people from Earth Rights International and hearing about the Earth Rights School being run in Thailand and the Amazon. The EJS itself emerged only gradually and the first EJS design was created in 2007. The design of the school recognises the environmental injustices people face and the need to challenge and shift power relations. In other words, it is concerned with deep systemic change through greater democratic participation.

It was only in 2014 that the first residential EJS was run. It took place over an intense two weeks. By 2015, it was run over three weeks and currently it is run over four weeks. There have been five schools so far, in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic caused the 2020 school to be abandoned until it can be safely run.


The EJ school adopts the radical and critical insights of Popular Education and so takes a See, Judge, Act approach. The aim of the EJS is therefore to build a cadre of informed environmental justice activists who, through mobilising and resisting, will contribute to the transformation to a more just society.

The curriculum is driven by the question, “What do activists need to know in order to act and resist effectively?” Our answer is three-fold. Activists need:

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

Our approach to learning and teaching is participatory and draws on the life experiences and contextual challenges the participants bring with them. Deeper theoretical knowledge is added through videos, presentations, activities and field trips.

The curriculum is made up of three strands that combine theoretical and experiential learning:

  • OUR WORLD starts with the personal worlds and expands to consider the broader context. This includes a critique of the global neoliberal order of the economy.
  • THE GIGANTIC WASTE CREATION MACHINE moves closer to home again to investigate particular environmental injustices and develop deeper knowledge about them and the relevant rights and regulations.
  • BUILDING ACTIVISM FOR ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE addresses activist skills and strategies. It includes planning, undertaking and reporting on an activist project with the support of a mentor.


Working with a mentor

Working with a mentor

Planning a project

Planning a project

Project presentation

Project presentation


The different elements of the school are facilitated by a range of teachers with deep knowledge and practical experience. It includes groundWork campaigners, adult educators, lawyers, and people selected for their specialised knowledge in particular areas.

Alumni network

The graduates of the groundWork Environmental Justice School are a group of inspiring activists. They come from diverse backgrounds and grassroots organisations. They have experienced first-hand the environmental injustices and abuses caused by corporates and governments that affect their communities and livelihoods.

Click on the links below to read about what our amazing alumni have been up to:

Promise Mabilo (HEJN 2016)

Madi Koena, (SAWPA  2019)
Madi was a speaker on a webinar GAIA’s Latin American region hosted titled ‘An Inclusive Recovery: The Social, Environmental, & Economic Benefits of Partnering with Informal Recyclers‘ https://youtu.be/tzNQJssz4pQ

Joanne Groom (SDCEA 2014) in the press:

The Environmental Justice School Resource Page

The EJS is in the process of producing learning resources to consolidate the ideas covered during the EJS. These are valuable for community-based organisations who wish to deepen understandings and creating awareness. They include links to videos that will be interesting for them.

A range of resources are available.