February is Black History Month, and although we think Black voices and stories should be celebrated every month, we wanted to take this opportunity to talk about five Black climate activists who inspire us and why it's important to celebrate them.
As you know, environmental justice is climate justice.
Internationally, the communities who are bearing the brunt of the climate emergency are communities of color, those in poverty, and those in places with a legacy of colonization.
This year, the phrase “I can’t breathe” was prominent on the signs of those protesting police brutality and the murder of George Floyd. These are the same words echoed across the country and the world by folks choked with pollution, toxic waste fumes, and asthma and cancer from years of exposure to harmful chemicals.
According to a report by EPA scientists measuring air pollutants, those in poverty had 1.35 times higher burden than did the overall population, and Black people had 1.54 times higher burden than did the overall population. This is just one statistic of many studies and stories that show how Black communities are both disproportionately harmed by climate change and pollutants and systematically prevented from accessing green spaces, environmental groups, political positions, and legal avenues of justice and retribution.
The mainstream environmental movement also has a history of ignoring and marginalizing the black individuals and groups who have been at the forefront of climate organizing for decades. Going forward, this movement needs to listen to, uplift, and fight for and with Black activists and communities. Our fight for the climate is a fight for anti-racism.
Today, we wanted to highlight 5 Black activists, past and present, who have done or are doing amazing climate and environmental work.
We encourage you to read more about their actions, engage with the work they create, support them, or share their stories!
Richard is an incredible environmental activist and the first African-American to win the Goldman Environmental Prize for her organizing against Shell Oil in South Louisiana, in a region known as Cancer Alley for its high levels of industrial pollution and resulting health crises.
Richard is from Norco, Louisiana, where she and her community lived in close proximity to a Shell oil refinery and a chemical plant. After observing the pollutants being emitted from the plants and the health problems faced by staggering numbers of her neighbors, Richards began working with an environmental group to measure and record the air quality. She found evidence of environmental pollution that had slipped past regulators. After taking her story to the media and the UN, Shell was forced to pay to relocate the surrounding community away from the plants. PRI reports that since then, “toxic air releases In Louisiana are about half of what they were”.
Richard’s inspiring story speaks to a legacy of Black women advocating against the injustices faced by their communities, and the damage caused by structures that put Black communities in consistent physical danger while blocking access to means of retribution or justice. You can listen to a podcast about her story here , or watch a video celebrating her Goldman Prize here.
Dr. Robert Bullard
Considered the “Father of environmental justice”, Dr. Bullard is an author, professor, advocate, and co-chair of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, a human rights coalition of Environmental Justice organizations focused on issues that affect Americans of African descent (more info here!).
Throughout his prolific career, Bullard has worked on racial justice issues related to climate policy, toxic waste, public health, and collective organizing. In a recent interview with the news outlet Public Integrity, Bullard discussed the environmental justice challenges that face the new Biden administration, emphasizing that stronger civil rights enforcement, quick action, and the strengthening of laws that affect public health will be essential in the coming years.
As you can see in his numerous publications and interviews, Bullard highlights how the environmental justice movement is an extension of the civil rights organizing that has been happening for decades in this country.
Jackson made history as the first Black person and one of the first women to serve as the administrator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She was appointed by President Obama in 2009, and made strides to tighten fuel efficiency standards and smog pollution limits, expand the authority of the EPA to regulate CO2 emissions, and develop numerous hazardous waste cleanups.
She committed to focusing on issues faced by vulnerable communities, and worked to include more stakeholders in environmental decisions and policies. She ultimately stepped down as EPA administrator in protest of the imminent approval of the Keystone Pipeline. She now works as the environmental director of Apple!
Speaking of ground-breaking climate policy, Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar Gunn-Wright was a Green New Deal policy advisor, working closely with Alexandra Ocasio-Cortes’s team to develop this groundbreaking environmental legislation.
Drawing on her experience as an intern to Michelle Obama and policy-lead for a Michigan governor, Gunn-Wright worked with the New Consensus think tank to perform research, author articles, and draft legislation about the need for natural and technological solutions to climate change, for a shift in the economy to create sustainable jobs, and for a rethinking of climate policy that addresses concerns of racial injustice and economic inequality. You can listen to a super interesting Bionic Planet episode featuring her here!
Leah Penniman is one of the most inspiring and joyful activists I have had the pleasure to watch; she has impacted the world of sustainable farming and Black land sovereignty in the past few decades and brought so much joy and knowledge to the communities she touches.
Penniman is the co-founder, co-director, and farm manager of Soul Fire Farm, a community farm in Grafton, NY that focuses on rewriting racist narratives in the food system and creating sovereignty among Black and Brown people. In Leah’s bio, she described her commitment to upholding the “inherent right to belong to the earth and have agency in the food system as Black and Brown people”.
Leah spreads awareness about racism in farming and the importance of indigenous connection to the land through writing, speaking, farmer training, and growing food. Check out her book, “Farming While Black” here, and some awesome interviews/talks here and here!
Follow her on Facebook.