Climate change and the environment may not sound like priority issues for communities of color, but they should be. Consider this: Because communities of color are more likely to suffer the health effects of pollution and are less likely to have access to fresh foods—which in turn leads to health issues such as asthma, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure—caring about the environment is just as important as fighting for equal rights. After all, without clean air, water and healthy food, we won’t be around long enough to reap the benefits of those social-justice fights.
Fortunately, there are a number of black activists who have been fighting for environmental justice and ensuring that people of color have access to healthy food, clear air and clean water. In honor of Earth Day on April 22, here are 15 environmentalists who are helping to make planet Earth a better place.
Silvestri was recently named executive director of Green for All, a national organization founded by activist Van Jones that’s dedicated to creating a green economy to lift people out of poverty. Prior to her promotion, she was the executive director of People’s Grocery in Oakland, Calif., where she was an advocate for providing access to healthy foods in impoverished communities.
Thompson, one of The Root’s 2014 Young Futurists, is a co-founder of the Philadelphia Urban Creators, a youth-driven organization that turns abandoned city lots into urban farms. PUC has helped build food security in the inner city while also creating jobs through the distribution of locally grown organic food.
Freilla is an environmental-justice activist and founder and coordinator of Green Worker Cooperatives, an organization that helps develop green and worker-owned businesses in New York City’s South Bronx neighborhood. GWC has even developed a training program, the Green Worker Cooperatives’ Coop Academy, an intensive five-month course that helps entrepreneurs turn green-business ideas into reality.
Fields, a South Bronx mother of five, is executive director of the nonprofit BLK Projek, which addresses the issue of food justice and economic development by creating opportunities for women and youths of color. One of the organization’s current projects is the South Bronx Mobile Market, an environmentally friendly, refurbished bus that brings fresh fruits and vegetables to an area with limited access to grocery stores.
As founder and president of the African American Environmentalist Association, McDonald is working to preserve the environment, heighten awareness of environmental racism plaguing inner-city neighborhoods, and increase African-American participation in the environmental movement. In 2012 McDonald was named to Ebony magazine’s Power 100 list of the nation’s most influential African Americans.
Wright is an environmental scholar and the founder of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University in New Orleans. She’s been a leading advocate of environmental education and fighting environmental racism, especially after Hurricane Katrina, which significantly affected communities of color.
Fulton is interim director of the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, a social- and environmental-justice advocacy group. As a student at Howard University, Fulton was able to see the connection between the environment and poverty while working as a volunteer in the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She was soon named coordinator of the national campus campaign for EJCC, through which she mobilized students across the country to get involved in environmental causes. In 2009 she co-founded Checktheweather.tv, an online community that helps young people of color advocate for environmental justice.
Allen, the son of South Carolina sharecroppers, is founder and chief executive of the Milwaukee-based Growing Power Inc., an organization that champions urban farming to provide affordable, healthy food to underserved communities. Allen won a MacArthur Foundation ”genius” grant in 2008 and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2010.
Anthony, an advocate for social and environmental justice, is the founder and former executive director of Urban Habitat in Oakland, Calif. The organization acts as a bridge among communities, environmental activists and government agencies to foster social and environmental justice. Anthony is also a co-founder of Race, Poverty and the Environment, one of the country’s few environmental-justice periodicals.
The native New Yorker is a community activist and gardener who has worked to turn empty lots into community gardens throughout the Bronx since 1985. She is co-founder of the Black Urban Growers, an organization that helps build networks and communities between urban and rural growers.
Bullard, dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston, is often described as the father of environmental justice for his pioneering work in calling attention to environmental issues plaguing poor and minority communities. He has written several books on the topic, including Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality and The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers African American Communities.
The educator and activist grew up in the shadow of a Shell Chemical plant in a predominantly black neighborhood in Norco, La. Years later she would secure an agreement from Shell Chemical to reduce its toxic emissions by 30 percent, contribute $5 million to a community-development fund, and finance the relocation of her Norco neighbors. In 2004 she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, one of the most distinguished awards given to grassroots environmentalists. She was the first African American to win the award.
Even before climate change became a topic of debate, Washington—a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research—was creating tools to help scientists understand its impact. As only the second African American to earn a doctorate in the atmospheric sciences, Washington is one of the world’s pre-eminent experts on climate research. In the 1960s he was one of the developers of groundbreaking atmospheric computer models that scientists still use today.
Fed up with the unhealthy environment plaguing his Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood, John-King founded Project GreenUp as student president at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School. The organization recruited volunteers for neighborhood cleanups, hosted a green festival, and assisted in Hurricane Sandy relief. John-King, one of The Root’s 2014 Young Futurists, is now at Harvard and serves as an adviser to the group he founded at his high school.
Davis is the president and founder of Blacks in Green, whose mission is fostering a green economy to help build self-sustaining black communities everywhere. BIG advocates educating black communities through “green-village building” as a way of addressing many of the issues that plague communities of color.