New project looks to capture perspectives of Black youth on climate

How much do youth know about climate change? And where can educators do better including Black voices in the climate change discussion?

The focus groups are open to students in Grades 5 to 9

An empty classroom.
An empty classroom is pictured in a file photo. A new project is asking Black youth what they know about climate change and what they are being taught in school. (Tobias Arhelger/Shutterstock)

How much do youth know about climate change? And where can educators do better including Black voices in the climate change discussion?

It's these questions a new project targeting Black Windsor-Essex, Ont., students aims to answer, as a series of focus groups kick off exploring these and other questions about climate change and environmental racism. 

"From my interaction with some of the Black students, I don't think they have adequate knowledge of the environment," said Kenny Gbadebo, the executive director of the Youth Connection Association for Academic Excellence. 

A man sits on a couch holding a plaque
Kenny Gbadebo created The Youth Connection Association to help youth in the Black community. Here he is holding a "Person of the Year award he received in 2006 for his work in social justice. (Aastha Shetty/CBC)

"We just want to be able to tap into that to see exactly what they know. Maybe they know, but we want to know exactly what they know. And through that, we want to see how we can teach them more about the impact of the environment."

Gbadebo is working with Ingrid Waldron, who has been active in environmental racism research for years. They have created a series of 10 focus groups that will be held over the coming months, bringing students in Grade 5 to 9 together virtually. 

Windsor-Essex is booming with development, Gbadebo said — making it a good time to see how aware Black youth are about the ways climate change is affecting them.

"That's what really inspired me when I see the fact that the climate is changing and I want to be able to see how can we start inspiring our young ones to be able to know more about it," Gbadebo said. 

Waldron is a professor at McMaster University and the HOPE chair in peace and health in the global peace and social justice program at McMaster. She's been working on environmental racism in Black communities since 2012. 

This project interested her because it aims to foster climate awareness and change in the next generation of youth, she said. 

"We really want to hear the perspective of Black youth about what did they think about their own curriculum? Do they think that the Black Canadian voice is sufficiently incorporated into the curriculum? What would they like to see? What do they think the gaps are?," Waldron said. 

A headshot of a woman on a white backdrop
Dr. Ingrid Waldron is a professor at McMaster University and founder and executive director of the ENRICH Project. (Submitted by Ingrid Waldron)

"What approaches would they like the teachers to be using in the classroom to teach about the Black Canadian experience with climate change, environmental justice, urban planning, gentrification."

Waldron said a facilitator will be hosting 10 focus groups of eight students each, likely all to be finished before the end of this year. While they currently have the right number of students signed up, Waldron said Black students interested in participating, for a $50 honorarium, can reach out. 

The findings from the focus groups will be collated into a report, Waldron said. And from there, she said Gbadebo's deep connections in the Windsor community will come in handy as they work with policy makers and education officials to showcase their work and make it a reality. 

Waldron said she expects there will be some resistance because the project is anti-racism work. But she said she's excited about working with youth to help make their voices heard in the climate change conversation. 

Youth are the future, Waldron said — those who will be most impacted by climate change, and those most interested in working on it. Plus, they're social media savvy, a necessity in modern activism. 

"I think it's really important for Black youth to have a voice. Typically they're not engaged … Their voices need to be heard because they have very unique and specific environmental issues in Black communities. 

"I think Black youth are kind of uniquely equipped and positioned to do this work. So that's what really excited me."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

With files from Josiah Sinanan