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Community-Based Learning Makes an Impact

Posted in: Religion

photo of a group of students standing side by side in a large greenhouse
Students in the greenhouse of Munsee 3 Sisters Farm with Chief Vincent Mann (far right).

Mark Clatterbuck, an associate professor in the Religion Department, had his syllabus for his “Indigenous Voices Today” (RELG 382/HONP 301) course ready for the Spring 2022 semester, complete with readings, lectures and assignments. However, one week before the start of the semester, Clatterbuck joined other Montclair State faculty on a tour led by Chief Vincent Mann through the Ramapough Turtle Clan community in Upper Ringwood, NJ, and saw, firsthand, the devastating environmental impacts that the Tribe has endured for decades.

On the first day of class, Clatterbuck shared his experiences with the students and proposed scrapping the syllabus, taking a risk and partnering with the Turtle Clan in their fight for justice.

“The title of our course was ‘Indigenous Voices Today,’”said Clatterbuck. “Why study Native communities in Arizona, South Dakota, or California when we could work alongside a Native community right here in New Jersey?”

With the students up for the challenge, Clatterbuck and his students began planning the next sixteen weeks of their course which turned into a justice-oriented, community-based learning experience.

photo of Do Not Enter sign on fence. Behind the fence, a large piece of construction equipment sits, covered in snow
Warning Signs at the Ringwood Superfund Site, Home of the Turtle Clan Ramapough

History of Environmental Injustice

The Turtle Clan’s core community of the Ramapough Lenape Nation has lived in Ringwood, NJ, and the mountains of Passaic and Sussex Counties in New Jersey, and Warwick and surrounding areas in New York for centuries. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Ford Motor company purchased the land that the Tribe called home, and used the local Ringwood Mines as a disposal for paint sludge and other toxic waste materials. The resulting contaminants lead to the entire community being named a Superfund Site.

To this day, the Tribe continues to fight for proper cleanup of the toxic site which has put the community’s land, water, air and public health at risk for decades.

“This is a classic case of environmental racism, unfolding just 20 miles from campus. It’s also a reminder that the genocidal & land-grabbing legacy of US settler colonialism toward Indigenous people is not a relic of the past. It continues today,” says Clatterbuck.

Work Begins

Through conversations with Turtle Clan Chief Vincent Mann, Clatterbuck’s students organized into two teams, both with goals and objectives aimed in direct response to the Superfund Site.

A student Clinic Team was developed to explore the steps the Tribe could take to form an Indigenous Wellness Clinic to address the serious health concerns of the community while also promoting Munsee (a subtribe of the Lenape) traditional knowledge, culture, language, and spirituality.

After hearing that Chief Mann was interested in language recovery for the Ramapough, Anna Stalenyj, a Family Science & Human Development major, set a goal to create a language revitalization binder for Chief Mann. Through online research, attendance at campus language revitalization workshops and coordination of a virtual class workshop with an Apsáalooke language expert with rich experiences of work among the Crow Tribe in Montana, Stalenyj was able to provide Mann with a wide range of resources to continue the work of restoring the Turtle Clan’s language, culture and customs.

The other half of Clatterbuck’s students formed the Archive Team, dedicated to laying the groundwork for a digital archive of materials to aid the Tribe in their ongoing legal battle against both Ford and the federal government for a livable future. One of the prime issues the Ramapough were having with their progress in their legal battle was organizing their files and accounting for all relevant documents.

“My role in the archive team was to create what essentially became an annotated bibliography for a series of documents the tribe was having difficulty organizing,” said Amanda Quintana, an English major and Religion minor. “Our group went through the “motherload”, a large compilation of documents, and added information that allowed for easy navigation as well as a brief understanding of the contents in each file.”

Students stand outside, masked, sorting and scanning documents
Students sort through and scan tribe documents to create a digital archive.

Stepping out of the model of the traditional classroom experience, like Clatterbuck’s students have, puts the student in the driver’s seat as co-creators, working together to solve real-world challenges. Through field trips, volunteering with the Ramapough community, meeting with tribal leaders, and holding zoom sessions with experts in Native cultural ways, the students were able to see and experience the actual stakes at play for the Turtle Clan Community.

“One thing I discovered about myself during this experience and semester was my love for this unconventional method of learning,” says Stalenyj. “I believe that education is important, but being able to get an education by assisting those in need and actively working to address current injustices is far more important.”

In a class with students hailing from different academic majors, a break from the traditional classroom experience allowed students to find a project within their assigned teams that they could relate to their own educational experience while still contributing to the larger team goals.

Yazemin Yilmaz, a Film and Television major, captured the course experience in an eleven minute documentary. Through videos and photos from course field trips and on-camera interviews, the students discuss the course projects they worked on and the experiences of the hands-on learning approach.

“No matter the movement, whether or not you are affected by the injustices, more voices travel further than few,” said Yilmaz. “The underlying goal [of the documentary] is ensuring that this class, or similar ones, continue to exist. We need as many hands to support our Native community.”

Quintana highlights the conversations with Chief Mann, as the most impactful parts of the course, noting that the passion and frustration behind his words was especially moving.

“It is difficult to become completely invested in an issue when it is limited to an academic setting, however, by learning about Indigenous experiences directly from tribe members and taking part in their tribe’s activities, our class was able to strongly connect to the importance of their problems,” says Quintana. “Interacting directly with the Clan and learning about their experiences allowed us to develop a strong “why” when it comes to creating real change.“

The impact of the course is tangible as Clatterbuck notes that several students have kept in touch to see how they can remain involved in the projects with the Turtle Clan, even though classes ended in early May.

Looking to the Future

As a scholar of religion, Clatterbuck says his goal is always to help students understand the deadly serious consequences of how unexplored assumptions and core beliefs profoundly shape decisions and behaviors, both individually and collectively.

“I personally believe that community-engaged, justice-oriented, problem-based classes like ‘Indigenous Voices Today’ might be the best response we have to the perennial question: why study the Humanities? At their core, the Humanities challenge us to ask hard questions about the kind of society we’re creating together, and what concrete steps we can take to shape a more just and compassionate world.”

Clatterbuck intends to continue the project with future students in this course and says the work is really just beginning. One of the projects the class completed in the spring was acquiring a large, multi-purpose, military field tent for the Turtle Clan, which was donated and installed at the Tribe’s Munsee Three Sisters Organic Farm in Newton, NJ.

“We want this tent to serve as a community-based learning space for MSU classes to volunteer at the farm, build relationships with the Ramapough, and learn about organic farming, food justice, contemporary Native lifeways, and Indigenous sovereignty.”

Montclair State’s newly established Native American & Indigenous Studies Minor is already exploring possibilities to make use of the outdoor space. This Fall, Clatterbuck’s students in “Native American Religions” (RELG 254) will visit the farm to discuss the role of traditional medicinals in Ramapough spirituality and learn from tribal elders about the sacredness of the natural world.

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