Teaching Activities (Free)

From the New Deal to the Green New Deal: Stories of Crisis and Possibility

Teaching Activity. By Suzanna Kassouf, Matt Reed, Tim Swinehart, Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, and Bill Bigelow.
The stories of twenty people whose lives were touched by the New Deal of the 1930s come to life in this classroom activity, intended to open students’ minds to the possibilities of a Green New Deal.

Time Periods: 20th Century, Prosperity, Depression, & World War II: 1920 - 1944, 21st Century
Themes: Housing, Climate Justice, Environment, Economics, Labor

By Suzanna Kassouf, Matt Reed, Tim Swinehart, Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, and Bill Bigelow

Green New Deal rally in Detroit ahead of the Democratic Party presidential primary debate on July 31, 2019. Source: Becker1999 via Flickr

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determined that global emissions need to be halved in less than 12 years or we will face catastrophically worsening drought, floods, extreme heat, and incalculable suffering. This fact has been repeated by those in the Climate Justice Movement so many times it can feel like screaming into the void. And yet it must be repeated because it is true and urgent. Slashing global emissions in this decade is a necessity, but it will take enormous pressure from below to demand that transformative policies are enacted by the world’s most powerful governments. We need action and action now.

Terrifying scenarios of a scorching future cannot alone propel us forward. We need to be energized and sustained not only by the harm we seek to prevent, but by the beautiful possibilities on the carbon-free horizon. The brilliance of Molly Crabapple’s and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s short film, A Message from the Future, is that it introduces the Green New Deal as a possible path toward a hopeful and humane future, not just an escape plan from a dystopian one. But to get there — to universal health care, a federal jobs guarantee, a transformed energy infrastructure, and an economy where the labor movement is powerful and care work is predominant — we need action and action now.

As K–12 educators already trying to tackle climate justice in our classrooms, we need no convincing about the wisdom of teaching the Green New Deal (GND). But given that the GND is not a single policy or even platform, but a still-developing vision of transformation, what should that teaching look like? In developing this lesson — part of a suite of lessons we are creating for Rethinking Schools — we were clear that we wanted to invite students to be engaged as architects of that vision, not just observers. We wanted students to be able to make judgments about and share opinions on the collection of policies needed to prevent climate disaster and secure a more just future.

“Green Jobs” by Lisa Vollrath, Creative Action Network poster series.

The GND is ambitious. That makes it easy for protectors of the status quo to dismiss it as impractical, impossible, pie in the sky. Without concrete historical parallels to refer to, we were concerned that our students’ imaginations would fall prey to cynicism or defeatism. So we turned to the obvious place: the original New Deal, from which the GND of course takes its name. It was in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural speech that he accurately described what the people, experiencing the emergency of the Great Depression, expected from him: “action and action now.”

In this lesson, students learn about the ambitious and multifaceted plan of “action and action now” through the stories of a wide variety of people who interacted with New Deal policies. The twenty people students will “meet” include:

  • Viola B. Muse, hired as part of the “Negro Unit” of the Federal Writers Project to document the stories of the last living formerly enslaved people in Florida;
  • Martina Gangle Curl, an artist hired to paint murals around Oregon by the Federal Art Project;
  • Fred Ross, hired by the Farm Security Administration to manage a camp in California for migrant workers fleeing the dust bowl and unemployment;
  • James Lowe, hired by the Civilian Conservation Corps to do forestry work in rural Pennsylvania. His story is included in Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement;
  • Emma Tiller, a sharecropper in Texas who benefited from the Works Progress Administration’s jobs program even while criticizing FDR’s agricultural policies;
  • Sylvia Woods, union organizer and public speaker, starting at 10-years-old when she refused to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” at school ;
  • Louise Stokes, raised two sons who became a congressperson and a mayor, in a public housing unit funded by the New Deal’s Public Works Administration;
  • Jesse Jackson, unofficial mayor of the Hooverville encampment in Seattle;
  • Ella Baker, labor and civil rights activist, taught in the Workers Education Program;
  • Woody Guthrie, a renowned folk musician who composed ballads about labor struggles.

Climate Justice More Resources Ad | Zinn Education ProjectWe hoped these glimpses of the New Deal would equip our students, when it came time to talk about the Green New Deal, with historical precedents to dream big, and with plenty of practical ideas about how to transform those dreams into policies.

This lesson is not meant to hold up the 1930s as a “When America Was Great” moment. We are clear-eyed about the New Deal: Its housing policies exacerbated and deepened segregation and the racial wealth gap; many of its provisions left out agricultural or domestic workers — and therefore the majority of Black workers in the United States; although the Indian Reorganization Act halted some of the most genocidal policies toward Native people, many other natural resource-related projects — like dam building — ignored treaties and destroyed ways of life; and it was during the New Deal that the Roosevelt administration oversaw the mass deportation of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

The New Deal, like the country from which it sprang, was poisoned by white supremacy. A number of the roles in the mixer speak to their exclusion from New Deal programs or about its shortcomings.

See the lesson authors’ Rethinking Schools article, “Teaching the Green New Deal: The Prequel,” that contextualizes the lesson.

Share a story, question, or resource from your classroom.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *