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Laura Stivers, Dominican University of California

Laura Stivers is associate professor of ethics and Chair of the philosophy and religion programs at Dominican University of California. She developed the teaching strategy outlined below at her previous position at Pfeiffer University in North Carolina, where she taught for ten years. Stivers has authored Disrupting Homelessness: From Charity to Community (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011); coedited Justice in a Global Economy: Strategies for Home, Community, and World (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2006); and published several articles in the areas of economic, environmental, and feminist ethics. She holds degrees from Saint Olaf College, Pacific School of Religion, and the Graduate Theological Union. Her writing, teaching, and community involvements address issues of economic and environmental justice. In addition to academic pursuits, Stivers spends summers searching for fields of wildflowers and kayaking around river rocks and winters gliding on skis and camping at the beach.

Seeing is Believing

Miles of torn-up mountain, dump trucks with car-sized wheels, coal dust-covered windowsills, torrential mudslides, and intimidation from coal companies — we experience the devastation of Kayford Mountain in West Virginia as we participate in a walking prayer vigil/protest. Wanting to learn more about the environmental and economic injustices happening within a few hours of where I live and seeking a way to engage students on a deeper level in my “Environmental Philosophy and Ethics” course at Pfeiffer University, I contacted groups organizing against mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining. Put in contact with a former Presbyterian pastor-turned-organizer and the environmental nonprofit organization Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), I planned a three-day service-learning trip for my students (and my children). 

The first evening we helped CRMW prepare for its weekend teach-in for college students. The following day we split up into two groups with one group preparing for the teach-in and the other group painting the home of a grandmother who was caring for four grandchildren. Three of these children attended the local elementary school that sits 400 yards from a massive toxic waste storage facility (e.g., sludge dam) and 150 yards from a coal silo, which funnels powdered coal into waiting unit trains. The next day we drove up to Kayford Mountain to speak with Larry Gibson, an organizer nicknamed “Keeper of the Mountain,” and to participate in a prayer vigil/protest. People from the community who have been negatively affected by mountaintop removal and those who have organized to stop it spoke at different intervals on our walk towards the precipice overlooking the half-torn-up mountainside. In the service my students shared one thing they would do to use less energy, offered a symbol to represent their environmental action, and asked others to make a similar vow. I am now hanging my laundry out to dry and my daughters are regularly turning off lights.  

While I had hoped to make this service trip a mandatory part of my course, a high number of students with demanding sports schedules and work hours made such a requirement unrealistic. Thus, apart from a section on environmental racism and classism, I did not take class time to prepare students for the trip. After the trip, however, the students who went presented a slide show and reflection on their experiences both in chapel and at a local church. In our class they also made a presentation during the ethics section on energy. And the following semester several of them even helped me design a workshop on environmental racism for our university’s Bonner Scholars (a service-based scholarship program). Even more exciting, several of the students met to start a campus environmental group.

While not all of the students in my course went on this educational trip, all of them did participate in service. Since there are no environmental organizations in the vicinity of our university — located in rural North Carolina — for sustained service over the semester, I chose instead to have my students, in three separate groups, develop creative workshops for students in the charter high school on our campus. My students used engaged pedagogy to teach an ecological perspective in relation to food, energy use, and waste. For the sake of space, I will reflect on the West Virginia service/educational experience, although I think a mix of engaged learning pedagogies in a course is beneficial.


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