February 13, 2013

Alumnus Tim Swinehart tackles issues of environmental justice

Tim Swinehart MAT ‘05 is taking a break from teaching to write a book on environmental justice.

Superstorm Sandy crept menacingly across the northeastern U.S. in late October, battering the East Coast from North Carolina to Maine. Gale-force winds, pelting rain, huge waves, and crushing storm surges ravaged the iconic Jersey Shore and New York’s lower boroughs. Heavy wet snow bombarded Appalachian Mountain towns. Millions of people were left in the dark as power failed across a multistate area reaching as far west as Michigan.

Tim Swinehart, a social studies teacher at Lincoln High School in Portland, was disturbed by the monster storm. But as part of a growing movement of educators committed to environmental justice, he turned the weather event into a lesson about climate literacy.

“Hurricane Sandy, and the superstorms that will follow, are not just acts of nature—they are products of a massive theft of the atmospheric commons shared by all life on the planet,” says Swinehart in the article “Stealing and Selling Nature: Why We Need to Reclaim ‘The Commons’ in the Curriculum.”

“Every dollar of profit made by fossil fuel companies relies on polluting our shared atmosphere with harmful greenhouse gases, stealing what belongs to us all. If we don’t teach students the history of the commons, they’ll have a hard time recognizing what—and who—is responsible for today’s climate crisis.” 

Swinehart’s article was the latest in the Zinn Education Project’s monthly series If We Knew Our History. The project is a collaboration between Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.

Swinehart, who is on parental and professional leave from Lincoln High School, is coediting a book about teaching environmental justice through the lens of social justice. Rethinking Schools will publish it this year. The nonprofit organization produces resource books, not textbooks, with classroom-tested techniques and materials.

“I’m thrilled to be working with Bill Bigelow, one of my mentors whom I met while at Lewis & Clark,” says Swinehart. “He’s an adjunct instructor at the graduate school, a prolific curriculum writer, and a retired social studies teacher with 30 years of classroom experience in Portland.”

Swinehart never planned on a career in teaching. Initially, he wanted to be a pediatrician. College courses in philosophy and politics set him on a quest that ignited his passion for social studies and teaching.

“At the high school level, students are still developing their view of the world and discovering their place in it,” says Swinehart. “They’re very hopeful and motivated to effect change.”

At Lincoln, Swinehart coteaches the “We the People” constitution class, which culminates in a statewide competition each January. He’s part of a 10-person mentoring team that includes lawyers and past participants. In 2012, Lincoln’s team won both the state and national championships. This year, Lincoln finished second at the state competition.

“Learning becomes meaningful and relevant to students who participate,” says Swinehart. “They take ownership in a remarkable way, competing both as individuals and as a team. Some have gone on to work on local political campaigns and others founded nonprofits like Mission: Citizen, which helps immigrants pass their citizenship test.”

Swinehart also designed an Indigenous Peoples’ Climate Summit role-play that originated with Lewis & Clark’s Oregon Writing Project and Rethinking Schools’ Earth in Crisis Curriculum Workgroup.

Based on an actual summit, the curriculum was designed to introduce students to the broad injustice of the climate crisis and to make them aware of specific issues pertinent to six unique indigenous groups.

Swinehart is also an adjunct instructor at the Graduate School of Education and Counseling. Each summer, he teaches Geography of Inequality.

He also hopes to educate his own children about environmental justice and pass along his love of the outdoors.

He and his wife, Emily Lethenstrom, began taking their 3-year-old daughter Zadie backpacking when she was a 5-months-old. Swinehart plans to take infant daughter Mira hiking with his family this spring.

“I feel fortunate to live in the Pacific Northwest,” he says. “But climate change is altering the physical and chemical composition of our earth and atmosphere. I want to raise awareness about this issue so that my daughters—and future generations—will be able to experience the beauty and wonder of the natural world that I’ve enjoyed.”

—by Pattie Pace