Guest post by Zeeshan Khan
Looking at environmental justice, we must first address racial injustice. Historically African Americans have suffered disproportionate impacts from pollution, climate change, and lack of access to green space. Let’s look at Black luminaries in the environmental movement who have created space and opportunities for the next generation of young Black leaders fighting for environmental justice.
1. Colonel Charles Young: First African American National Park Superintendent
Colonel Charles Young was an army officer, teacher, and soldier. Young was born in Mayslick, Kentucky on March 12, 1864. He was the first Black military attaché, the first Black colonel, and the highest-ranked Black man in the US military during his time. In 1903, Young would become the first African American national park Superintendent.
Charles Young paved the way for Black environmentalists
Young experienced continuing inequality while becoming a leading figure after the Civil War. He’s remembered for his work ethic, academic leadership, and devotion to duty. This all helped him reach his achievements in the face of racism and oppression.
Buffalo Soldiers: the first group of African Americans in the National Parks Service
Buffalo Soldiers were African American men who served on the Western frontier. Indigenous Americans gave the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers” to the all-Black Cavalry Regiments. The Buffalo Soldiers were most known for their involvement in the Indian Wars. While also participating in over 177 other conflicts, Buffalo Soldiers contained wildfires, poachers, and supported infrastructure within National Parks. Young and his Buffalo Soldiers’ work laid the groundwork for park management today.
2. Hattie Carthan: Environmental Justice Advocate for Ending Environmental Racism
Hattie Carthan started something new in her Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY in 1964. She began spreading trees seeds all around her community. Hattie formed an environmental activism project focusing on trees and a community garden. They have now planted over 1,500 trees along barren city sidewalks. Carthan was one of the first Black organizers to regreen a neighborhood. She created a legacy that is still alive today within Brooklyn.
Carthan’s legacy is now shaping a environmental justice movement for young people
Hattie Carthan Garden Youth Corps creates food justice within low income communities through community sharing of skills in gardening, seasonal nutrition, food education, and livestock. This gives youth a strong foundation in agricultural skills and how local food production affects local communities. It also provides youth hands-on experience in owning and operating a community venture.
Raising awareness for healthy food access and community outreach with African American communities
Hattie Carthan Community Farmer’s Market is an agricultural project in central Brooklyn. This project has a vision to cultivate a healthy, holistic, and self-sufficient community systems. These markets give opportunities to rural and minority farmers to distribute what they’ve grown. These markets also benefit community members who struggle to find fresh food.
3. Savonala “Savi” Horne: Environmental Justice Lawyer Saving Black Farmland in North Carolina
Savi Horne has a law degree and is on the board of the National Family Farm Coalition. She is the current Executive Director of NC Association of Black Lawyers, Land Loss Prevention Project. The LLPP provides legal expertise and community education. They also provide advocacy skills to farmers facing legal and environmental challenges.
Savi Horne & the Land Loss Prevention Project
The NC Association of Black Lawyers founded the Land Loss Prevention Project in 1982. The organization seeks to prevent losses of Black-owned farmland in North Carolina. Land Loss Prevention Project’s provides advocacy for farmers in distress and/or with limited resources. LLPP also takes on litigation, public policy, and promoting sustainable agriculture.
Changing policies to help farmers with limited resource in Black NC communities
LLPP keeps land in Black communities by connecting farmers with the right resources. Their most known accomplishment is the 1999 USDA class-action discrimination case Pigford v. Glickman. The case acknowledges Black farmers were denied loans and services.
4. Robert Bullard: Father of Social & Environmental Justice
Dr. Robert Bullard is considered the father of environmental justice. A former Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School,, Bullard holds a PHD and is an award-winning author of 18 books. He has written on sustainable development, environmental racism, and climate justice. Bullard is an educator who teaches his students the truth about environmental racism and justice. Bullard has said:
Well, environmental justice embraces the principle that all people in communities are entitled to equal protection of our environmental laws; housing, transportation, energy, food, and water security and health laws. Environmental justice is nothing more than this whole principle: people have the right to a clean, healthy, sustainable environment without regard to race, color, national origin. It’s just that simple.
Leading in racial justice while defining the environmental racism movement
Robert Bullard has warned that “racism” is not so easily defined and that it can be seen in our environment. Bullard’s wife, attorney Linda McKeever Bullard, brought a lawsuit against a Waste Management company in 1979. This company planned to put a landfill in a predominantly Black (82%) neighborhood. This became the first litigation in US history dealing with environmental racism. This case led to the study “Solid Waste Sites and the Black Houston Community”, which galvanized Bullard to a lifelong quest for environmental justice.
5. Wangari Maathai: Black Environmentalist and Founder of the Green Belt Movement
Wangari Maathai is the founder of the Green Belt Movement. Wangari Maathai was born in rural Nyeri, Kenya in 1940. Maathai is known for her work in democracy, human rights, and environmental conservation. She has addressed the UN on several occasions. She has spoken on behalf of women at the General Assembly during the five-year review of the Earth Summit. She has also served on the Commission for Global Governance and the Commission on the Future.
How did environmental injustice pave the way for the Green Belt Movement?
The Green Belt Movement has planted and re-planted over 51 million trees. This collective operates from the grassroots all the way to the international level. GBM promotes environmental conservation, building climate resilience, and empowering communities. It fosters democratic space and sustainable livelihoods, and the collective takes a special interest in lifting up women and girls.
Wangari Maathai fought for environmental education during a climate crisis
Maathai’s passion was teaching women how to grow seedlings, plant, and sell them. She also helped develop environmental classes that taught forestry techniques. Graduates of the classes then become tree nursery managers, Green Belt promoters, and rangers.
6. John Francis: Environmental Justice and Climate Change Advocator
In 1971, John Francis witnessed firsthand the great oil spill of the San Francisco Bay. It deeply affected him. He joined volunteers who cleaned up beaches and helped birds and sea creatures who the spill poisoned. Francis still felt a very real personal sense of responsibility, so he committed to stop driving and only walk. As part of his commitment, he also took a vow of silence that lasted 17 years. To raise environmental awareness, Francis walked all across the US and sailed all around South America and the Caribbean.
How did the San Francisco Bay oil spill created a profound change?
This was the largest oil spill the Bay Area had ever experienced. It threatened sensitive natural habitats within all surrounding ecosystems. The spill galvanized activism against pollution. In one of the largest volunteer turnouts in San Francisco history, thousands of residents showed up to clean up beaches and rescue oil-soaked animals.
Environmental education for future generations
Francis founded Planetwalk, a nonprofit environmental awareness organization that has a network across the globe. Planetwalk sponsors walks that foster “environmental education and responsibility and a vision of world peace and cooperation”. Through Planetwalk, Francis creates a curriculum for K-12 students on environmental literacy. Planetwalk believes behavior to one another can be a mechanism for how we treat the Earth.
7. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Environmental Justice Scholar
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, and writer from Brooklyn, NY. She is the co-founder of The All We Can Save Project and the nonprofit Urban Ocean Lab. She is also the co-creator of the podcast How to Save a Planet.
Taking climate change and environmental issues head-on
Urban Ocean Lab recognizes the importance of our coastal cities and the urgent danger they face from climate change. The organization develops and implements science-based, practical climate solutions for the problems these coastal cities face. The All We Can Save Project nurtures climate leaders and strives to create a connected climate community. The organization’s model is rooted in the work and wisdom of women, especially Black women.
Johnson’s environmental advocacy never ends
Johnson’s How to Save a Planet podcast asks the big questions about climate change. What do we need to do to solve the climate crisis? How do we get the work done?
8. Dr. Beverly Wright: An Environmental Justice Scholar & Advocate
Dr. Wright is an environmental justice scholar, advocate, and civic leader. Wright’s career has addressed environmental harm and health inequities. Dr. Wright has done significant research in environmental justice. She developed an environmental justice curriculum for the New Orleans Public Schools system.
Wright’s impact on environmental and health inequities
Wright was the founder and Executive Director of Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. DSCEJ investigates the impacts of environmental inequality in the Lower Mississippi River Industrial Center. This area is so polluted that it’s now known as Cancer Alley. Wright’s research looks at population and demographic data within Toxics Release Inventory reports. Her research shows the direct connection between race and pollution. In fact, Wright has proven that nearly 80% of African Americans live in polluted neighborhoods.
Environmental justice leader of Mississippi River Chemical Corridor
The DSCEJ provides opportunities for communities, scientific researchers, and decision-makers to collaborate together. It promotes the rights of all people to be free from environmental harm and have a better quality of life. The Center develops leaders within BIPOC communities along the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast. These areas and BIPOC communities disproportionately suffer from pollution pollution and the effects of climate change.
9. Lisa P. Jackson: Black Environmentalist Who Broke Barriers for the Environmental Justice Movement
In 1987, Lisa P. Jackson first started working at the EPA. In 2006 Jackson was appointed the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. During her time at the EPA, Jackson focused on climate change, community wellbeing, water and air quality, climate justice, strong tribal partnerships, and so much more.
President Obama appointed Jackson as EPA Administrator
President Obama appointed Jackson the EPA Administrator in 2009. Jackson was the first Black person to serve as the EPA Administrator. While in the EPA, she protected those most vulnerable to climate change.
10. Angelou Ezeilo: Changing Environmental Education for Black Youth
Angelou Ezeilo is an author, lawyer, social entrepreneur, and environmental activist. She first practiced law as a Legal Specialist for the New Jersey State Agriculture. This sparked her journey to embark upon a career as an environmentalist. Ezeilo also worked with the Trust for Public Land in New Jersey and Georgia.
Ezeilo: founder and CEO of “Greening Youth Foundation”
Ezeilo founded Greening Youth Foundation (GYF) in 2007. Its mission is to engage underrepresented youth and to support them getting to enjoy the outdoors and in finding conservation jobs. GYF’s takes a cultural-based environmental education perspective. It engages children from local communities and exposes them to healthy lifestyle choices.
An environmental movement changing how environmental racism affects youth today
Ezeilo is addressing the disconnect between BIPOC and the environment. She looks at cities like Atlanta, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, and Black youth in these areas face higher unemployment rates than the national average. Ezeilo is: “cultivating a generation of youth of color to be stewards of our land and natural resources and ultimately shift the demographics of the environmental conservation movement.”
We hope this list helps you get familiar with some men and women who have served the Black community. They all have contributed to breaking barriers and creating policy changes to end systemic racial oppression and create a healthier environment. These leaders have made sure that Black voices are represented in the fight for racial and environmental justice.
A mountain climbing enthusiast, Zee is a Communication Studies Senior at Appalachian State University and Dogwood’s newest intern. He is passionate about creating understanding and awareness about climate justice. On his weekends, he enjoys trail running, cooking, and caring for his fifteen house plants.