In the spotlight: Tess Arenas advances environmental justice

October 30, 2012

“Many students of color are not familiar with the depth and breadth of environmental studies; I hope to make a difference in that area,” says Andrea-Teresa “Tess” Arenas, a Nelson Institute honorary fellow and member of the UW-Madison Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies Program.

Arenas leads an undergraduate capstone course aimed at increasing involvement in environmental studies among communities of color. Her class asks students to prepare a curriculum for local youth fishing clubs offered through UW-Madison's Office of Service Learning and Community Based Research, which Arenas directs.

Tess Arenas with fishing club leaders and members
Fishing in the Neighborhood program co-creators
Tess Arenas (bottom left) and Theresa Stabo of
the DNR (top right) with UW-Madison student leaders.

The Fishing in the Neighborhood (FIN) clubs, administered in partnership with the Angler Education Program in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, introduce minority elementary and middle school students to the sport of fishing as a way to learn about regulations and stewardship of the natural world.

For youth members, the club promotes post-secondary education and the field of environmental studies. For participating UW students, the club offers insight into giving back to the community. This is the tenet of Arenas’ work: addressing community needs through the service of UW-Madison students. 

How would you describe the focus of your work?  

Arenas: My areas of interest include environmental justice and racism, preserving and restoring the natural world, and cultivating new stewards of the natural world from communities of color.   

What drew you to this field?

The first environmental studies course I taught was the award-winning service learning course Crossing Borders: Environmental Justice on the U.S.-Mexico Border. I was naturally drawn to these issues, given my longstanding support of migrant health rights.

Once I learned of the negative health issues on the border as a result of poor environmental enforcement, I knew I had to create a service learning course that would attract Latinos to environmental studies. I repeatedly state to anyone who will listen that, as people of color become the majority in the United States, the future of the natural world rests in our hands.

As a Chicana, I am keenly aware of the health and pollution issues that the poor and communities of color experience in the United States. If we are to turn the tide on environmental justice, it requires the university to teach environmental justice courses, offer experience in the field and cultivate new generations of stewards. I am deeply committed to increasing the number of environmental studies major and certificate students of color.

What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned? 

In the Crossing Borders course, the students conducted community-based research. The most interesting finding was that most Chicanos on the U.S.-Mexico Border felt that the pollution was caused by them; in other words, that residents did not clean up their trash, or the residents did the littering. There was little awareness that industries contribute to the pollution.

Fishing in the Neighborhood club participant holds a fish
A club participant holds his catch.

In my current environmental studies course, the students conducted pre- and post-surveys of their fishing club participants. What was interesting is that the youth participants had very little knowledge about fishing regulations or limits, and there was little understanding of the connection between clean water and healthy fishing. Kids seemed to think that fish can live in any kind of water.

After the fishing club, the participants clearly understood the need to comply with fishing regulations and the importance of maintaining our natural resources, and felt a real commitment on their part to become stewards of the natural world. I simply could not ask for better results.

What makes your capstone course and the Fishing in the Neighborhood clubs unique?

The course is unique because the students work with the nonprofit that will host their fishing club. There are currently five agencies hosting clubs: the La Crosse Hmong Association, Bad River Reservation, Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, Urban League of Greater Madison and Centro Hispano of Dane County. This interaction allows the students to work collaboratively with the agency staff.

Furthermore, each club must address the host agency’s priorities. For example, Centro Hispano has a goal to increase college enrollment of Chicana/o and Latina/o students and maintain any second language skills. This is the crux of service learning: to address the nonprofit’s needs and goals. 

Another unique aspect is the collaborative nature of designing the fishing club curriculum. I promote group problem solving in all my courses. Few ideas start or end with only one person at the helm -- my students learn about the benefits of collaborative work rather than competitive work.

Finally, each student is required to explore his or her race and ethnic values, traditions, customs and beliefs and then determine which of these will be infused into the fishing club curriculum. As a result, each club has a unique cultural and language component and they each emphasize different customs and beliefs.  

What are your favorite parts of teaching?

I most enjoy teaching about cultural norms, values and culturally appropriate curriculum development. There is a great deal of talk about being culturally relevant, but in fact, there are very few courses and community programs which actually employ cultural values into the curriculum.

Diversity is a constant quest for knowledge and I love learning more about my own culture and that of others. Once students become excited about their own culture, they are in a much better place to be open and respectful to the culture and language of other communities.

One of my favorite lectures is “Code Switching in the Multicultural Classroom.”  We explore as a team the historic use of code switching [including elements of more than one language or communication style to more closely identify with an audience] from Shakespeare to Omar Salinas, a Chicano old school poet.

Fishing in the Neighborhood club
The fishing clubs help cultivate the next generation
of environmental stewards and mentors, Arenas says. 

Students then explore how they can use code switching in the fishing club curriculum to whet the taste buds of participants to want to learn more about their indigenous language.

What has been the most rewarding part of the summer fishing clubs?

By far, the most rewarding experience has been listening to and observing UW students as leaders, mentors and curriculum developers. It is easy to point to the kids in the program and say “Aw shucks, aren’t they cute?,” but that is a superficial analysis of the clubs’ impact.

Yes, it matters that we are cultivating the next generation of stewards of the natural world. But what really makes my heart sing is watching our own UW students as they evolve into professionals, coaches and mentors to the participants.

This has been one of the most rewarding years of my lifetime. In fact, in late spring I was honored to be inducted as a fellow in the UW Teaching Academy. Shortly thereafter, as some of my students were graduating, I started receiving plaques, thank you videos, and letters of thanks. To date, I have received five awards from the UW-Madison Posse program, the Center for Educational Opportunity, and PEOPLE (Pre-College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence) students. That simply astounds me.