WORDS BY ASHIA AJANI
In an essay for The Frontline, queer Black writer and educator Ashia Ajani raises questions about the U.S. school system and its role amid the pandemic, the climate crisis, and gun violence. What are we growing? What are we wasting away?
When I enter my role as educator, I’m teaching a group of black squares on a screen. The lockdown has been lifted for the spring semester, but schools in the Bay Area have yet to open for in-person instruction. Names, pronouns, and the occasional cartoon profile picture are all I have to identify my students (aside from old yearbook photos). We don’t have a camera-on policy in my classroom—the tiredness as older students become caretakers for their younger siblings, support systems for extended family members, and overwhelmed children simply attempting to stay safe during a pandemic is palpable daily.
This exhaustion remains though it manifests itself differently now that students are back in the classroom. This semester, we’re planting seeds to address indoor air pollution: rosemary and dill. My kitchen is a veritable garden overrun with clay pots, charcoal-enriched soil, and plants in various states of growth. I turn my camera toward my bag of soil, where all life begins, and instruct my students on how to care for their freshly planted seeds. We stress the difference between soil and dirt: soil is alive, brimming with microorganisms and nutrients. It is alive, and it gives way to life. Dirt is displaced soil. It is not alive, and you cannot plant a productive garden from dirt. A couple of my high schoolers turn their cameras on, some for the very first time: “Is this right?” they ask.
I’ve been an environmental justice educator with the Mycelium Youth Network since January 2021. The network is a climate-resilient schools organization dedicated to preparing predominantly Black, Brown, and Native Bay Area youth for climate change. Our current education system is failing youth, especially youth of color. Finding ways to integrate nature into the classroom can help support them, especially in light of all the trauma they currently face, but is that enough?
Starting a career as an environmental educator online was bizarre, to say the least. Instead of taking the students out to the garden, we brought the garden to them in preparation kits and small baggies of soil. We learned how to create our own at-home compost and chemical-free surface cleaners. We learned how to purify collected rainwater and how to assemble a climate policy proposal for our local government. We saw what replenishing groundwater could look like in West Oakland. We put together go-bags in case of a wildfire or flash flooding.
There is a certain wisdom (and patience) in planting. So much growth happens beneath the surface away from our view.
Yet our lessons always came back to the practice of planting. There is a certain wisdom (and patience) in planting. So much growth happens beneath the surface away from our view. After my students received their gardening kits, some turned on their cameras for the first time all quarter. They wanted to show me how cool it felt to put their hands in the soil and feel life flowing through it.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit I felt a certain sense of relief starting my teaching career with virtual learning. Being an active classroom member puts you at unnecessary risk—even if that shouldn’t be the case. We’re halfway through 2022, and the United States has already seen 27 school shootings and nearly 250 mass shootings.
Residents in Buffalo, New York, are still grieving their dead after a white supremacist drove over 200 miles to “kill as many Black people as possible,” per officials. The poor babies hunted during the Uvalde shooting in Texas are being laid to rest. During my classroom’s unit “Water Is Life,” whose title is borrowed from the Lakota phrase Mní Wičóni, I present my students with a hypothetical scenario: what would they do if a massive earthquake disrupted the city’s water supply? Some giggle and answer, “Probably pass away.” Only a few are actually joking.
It’s no secret that mental health has suffered due to the pandemic and subsequent government neglect—but the combined atrocities of COVID-19, intensifying climate burdens, and gun violence have left students and teachers alike terrified. In a landmark survey published last year, 45% of youth aged 16 to 25 said that their feelings about climate change impacted their daily lives. In a recent poll of 362 school counselors by the New York Times, 88% said students were having more trouble regulating their emotions.
Mask mandates have been lifted. Eviction moratoriums are over. Teachers are told to keep COVID-19 case numbers quiet. Underfunded school closures amplify the trauma of living through a mass disabling event. Securing a permit to break ground for a community garden requires more steps than buying a gun. We are trying to grow in dirt, not in soil.
Securing a permit to break ground for a community garden requires more steps than buying a gun. We are trying to grow in dirt, not in soil.
Months after our leaders have forced students to return to the classroom without protective measures, our youth are contracting COVID-19, sweltering in un-air conditioned classrooms, and keeping one eye on the board and another on the door in case an active shooter tries to break in.
Similarly to how youth of color have been the sacrificial lambs for COVID-19, they are forced to bear the brunt of climate disaster and increased domestic terrorism by white supremacists. Every day they show up to the classroom is an exercise in risk analysis. They are throwing away their innocence for a society that doesn’t even care about the daily traumas it inflicts on its recipients. There are more attacks on trans youth and critical race theory than there are efforts to restrict gun access.
Our current education system is failing youth, especially those on the frontlines of the climate crisis. And while finding ways to bring nature and ecological knowledge into the classroom can help support them, it isn’t enough to address larger systemic issues of neglect.
We are undoing so many systemic lies about water access, fossil fuels, pollution, disaster preparedness, and more. Nature is a salve, but when the state makes gathering in public spaces hazardous for communities of color, how can we truly appreciate what we are trying to protect? Asking young people to be the canaries in the coal mine for climate emergencies and to self-direct as their world crumbles around them makes zero sense.
We need comprehensive climate policy, resources directed away from policing vulnerable populations, and climate education that reaffirms a mutual relationship with nature. We need to treat our youth as though they were worth protecting—as though they, too, are worthy of growth.
There are more attacks on trans youth and critical race theory than there are efforts to restrict gun access.
There is so much rooting beneath the surface. I tell my students that many indoor plants used to purify air, like rosemary, are hearty and can withstand just about anything. Does this mean they are deserving of less? The leafy greens that emerge from the soil are only a fraction of what it means to survive harsh conditions. The plants adapt but do not thrive.
So while students show up to class, attempting to focus while carrying so much grief within, I wonder what they can actually take away from our instruction. I wonder what gets buried at the end of the day. During our final closing circle of the school year, one of my students tells me she is grateful I have made space for her to process her feelings about climate change, that the fear she has felt most of her young life has been validated.
Our mycelial network extends. There is resistance brewing beneath the surface waiting to be unearthed. We are rehabilitating the soil.