Social Sustainability Coalition highlights Black leaders in environmentalism

During Black History Month, Social Sustainability Coalition members created a social media campaign to highlight prominent Black leaders in the field of environmentalism and sustainability. These leaders and their contributions were featured on the Office of Sustainability’s Instagram account each business day. This campaign was designed to recenter the historical and present-day contributions of Black individuals in sustainability and environmentalism.

Here are the twenty Black leaders that were highlighted in February 2021:

Dr. Robert Bullard is known as the Father of Environmental Justice. He is an award-winning author of eighteen books that cover a range of topics from sustainable development to environmental racism and urban land use. He is the co-founder of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Climate Change Consortium, a program created to raise awareness about the disproportionate impacts of climate change on marginalized communities and to develop HBCU student leaders, scientists, and advocates. Dr. Bullard is a ground-breaking leader and has made valuable contributions to movements in environmental and climate justice and community resiliency.

Dr. Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement (GBM) in 1977. Since its creation, the organization has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya. In addition to promoting environmental conservation through grassroots, national, and international levels, GBM works to build climate resilience and empower communities, especially women and girls. In 2004, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. When accepting the award, Maathai said, “I believe the Nobel committee was sending a message that protecting and restoring the environment contributes to peace; it is peace work … I always felt that our work was not simply about planting trees. It was about inspiring people to take charge of their environment, the system that governed them, their lives, and their future.”

George Washington Carver was an African American scientist, botanist, teacher, and inventor with a lasting legacy for his work revolutionizing agriculture in the Southern United States. As a child, he was known as “Plant Doctor” for his keen ability to tend to a garden and experiment with different plants. He introduced new protein-rich crops such as peanuts and soybeans to his neighbors as soil-enhancing alternatives to the failing cotton. With informational brochures and the Jessup Wagon, a demonstration laboratory on wheels that Carver designed, he spread his knowledge of crops, practical methods, and recipes to promote self-sufficiency and conservation in the farming community.

Warren County PCB Landfill Protestors: In 1979 the government announced plans to construct the Warren County Landfill to house toxic chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Due to this decision and the response from community members, Warren County, North Carolina, is often considered the birthplace of the modern environmental justice movement. At the time of the landfill proposal, the county had a population that was 60% Black and amongst the poorest in the state. Locals formed “Warren County Citizens Concerned About PCB” in an effort to organize against the landfill and PCBs, which are known to cause birth defects, skin and liver problems, and cancer. Many people joined peaceful protests; they marched with signs and others lay on the road to prevent the entrance of trucks carrying chemical-filled soil. During the six weeks of protest in 1982, police arrested over 500 people. While these efforts did not stop the construction of the landfill, they reverberated into a larger movement, including the election of local Black officials and establishing the link between civil rights and environmental injustice.

Dr. John Francis earned his nickname as the “Planetwalker” due to his decision to give up motorized vehicles after a 1971 tanker collision left San Francisco Bay covered in spilled oil. Later he deepened his commitment by taking a vow of silence that lasted the next 17 years of his life. Francis also dedicated his academic and professional career to environmental protection. He founded the non-profit Planetwalk to raise awareness about environmental destruction and even found the time to earn his Ph.D. at UW-Madison. He has been honored with positions in the U.S. federal government and United Nations. The Planetwalk organization continues to embody his “worldwide pilgrimage that works to transcend cultural, social and political boundaries by fostering communication between young people, scientists and environmental practitioners.”

Majora Carter: In 2001 Majora Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx), an organization that led to many successful environmental and economic projects in her neighborhood. Under Carter’s leadership, the Bronx River Alliance worked to reduce pollution along the Bronx River, and she has become known for her motto: “Green the ghetto!” Carter’s work focused on the connections between the environmental, economic, and social challenges that her community faced. The Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training Program provided a bridge between the fight for a clean environment and job opportunities and training. Under these programs, local Bronx residents were empowered to get involved and take action against the inequitable practices that led to disproportionate pollution in their neighborhood.

Margie Richard grew up just 25 feet from the fence line of a Shell Chemical plant. Her historically African American neighborhood of Old Diamond in Norco, Louisiana, was located in a region known as “Cancer Alley” due to the large number of industrial plants and their adverse health impacts. Old Diamond was plagued with high rates of cancer, asthma, birth defects, and other dangers, such as the pipeline explosion that killed two community members. In 1989, Richard founded Concerned Citizens of Norco to seek legal justice for the hazardous conditions. After 13 years of Richard’s activism, Shell agreed to reduce their toxic emissions by 30%, contribute $5 million to a community development fund, and pay for the relocation of Old Diamond community members. In 2004, Richard became the first Black American to win the Goldman Environmental Award.

MaVynee Betsch, commonly known as the “Beach Lady,” was dedicated to protecting American Beach, which was Florida’s first African American beach and established by her great-grandfather. Betsch gave guided tours of the beach, welcomed guests to her makeshift museum, stood up against development and environmental destruction, and even donated her life savings to environmental organizations and efforts. Her presence made her a local celebrity, but her efforts were nationally recognized as well. Betsch was featured on CBS, CNN, and several other prominent platforms. Even after being diagnosed with cancer, Betsch was involved in the planning of the American Beach Museum, which continues to celebrate the story of this historic beach and the remarkable “Beach Lady” who fought so hard to protect it.

Audrey and Frank Peterman: During a 1995 road trip that allowed them to visit many national parks, Audrey and Frank Peterman noticed that there were not many other BIPOC visitors. Wanting everyone to experience the beauty of these natural landscapes, they dedicated themselves to making outdoor spaces and the environmental movement inclusive and accessible for everyone. They began to write and share stories about their travels with communities of color and pushed predominantly white environmental groups to make these spaces more welcoming to BIPOC visitors. They created the Diverse Environmental Leaders Speakers Bureau to connect environmental leaders with BIPOC working in environmental fields. While they acknowledge that progress has been made, the Petermans say that there is still significant work to be done.

Dr. Warren Washington is a distinguished expert in the field of atmospheric science and climate research. He collaborated with fellow scientists to create the earliest computerized climate models. Warren was the second African American to earn a doctorate degree in atmospheric sciences, and he continues to serve as a role model for young researchers of all identities. During his career, Washington has published nearly 200 scientific papers, been honored with national and international awards, and advised six former United States presidents. In 2010, President Obama awarded Washington with the National Medal of Science. He held a position with the National Center for Atmospheric Research for 54 years before retiring to conduct research as a distinguished scholar.

Heather McTeer Toney: When Heather Toney was just 27, she was the youngest person, first African-American, and first woman to be elected as Mayor of Greenville, MS. After her two terms, she was appointed by President Barack Obama as the Regional Administrator for the EPA of the Southeast region. In this position, she protected public health and the environment in eight southeastern states—including Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee—and six federally recognized tribes, including Catawba Indian Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Poarch Band of Creek Indians, and Seminole Tribe of Florida. She continued her environmental justice work by leading the Moms Clean Air Force team, which is an organization of over one million parents who are fighting climate change and protecting children from air pollution. Today, she is a national figure in public service, environmental justice, and community engagement.

The Buffalo Soldiers were well known for their fighting abilities, exceptional horsemanship, and major role as servicemen and national park rangers. They are an important part of Black history and faced fierce combat, extreme discrimination, deadly violence from civilians, and repressive Jim Crow laws. (Unfortunately, they also participated in the violent actions taken against Native Americans by the US Army.) The Buffalo Soldiers were created in 1866 and originally consisted of six all-Black regiments, but were later consolidated into four: the 9th and 10th Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry. Their initial services were to protect settlers, build infrastructure, and guard the US mail; later, they played a significant part in wars and battles. From 1891-1913, they served as national park rangers and protected the Yosemite and Sequoia national parks from illegal grazing, poachers, timber thieves, and wildfires. Despite being primarily led by white commanders, Charles Young became the first African-American national park superintendent and served as their Acting Military Superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks. Today, the Buffalo Soldiers are remembered as a vital part of our country’s history.

Rose Brewer attended Northeastern State University in Oklahoma where she co-founded her school’s first Black Student Union (BSU). Despite facing criticism and abrasive behavior from the University, the BSU earned official recognition. As she continued through higher education, eventually earning her Ph.D, Brewer began to focus on activist scholarship and community organizing for Black political power. She is currently a faculty member in the African American and African studies department at the University of Minnesota. A few of her many projects include: founding Freedom Winter to address police brutality; developing toolkits to help communities start building movements; using her connection to the university to invite Black voices onto campus; participating in forums and conferences to globalize social equity-related work; and so much more. Today, Brewer continues working as a Minnesota-based scholar-activist to build sustainable communities and an equitable society.

LaDonna Redmond is currently a food-advocate in Minneapolis, but her work has crossed state borders. Her work began in Chicago, where she faced our unfair and racist food system. This motivated Redmond to begin converting vacant city lots into city lots and making local, organic, and healthy food more accessible to her community. Eventually this led to her co-founding the Chicago Food Systems Collaborative, which partnered four universities and three community based-organizations to address food access and public health in low-income communities. Now in Minnesota, she is the founder and director of Campaign for Food Justice Now, which focuses on inequities within the food system and its intersection with race, class, and gender.

Shelton Johnson has worked as a park ranger in Yosemite National Park for over 20 years. Johnson grew up in Detroit, but discovered his love for nature while living in Germany, where his father was stationed in the army. He received his B.A in English Literature from the University of Michigan and served with the Peace Corps after graduation. Johnson then began working as a park ranger and was soon inspired by the work done by the Buffalo Soldiers at Yosemite in the early 1900s. Johnson thought of his own upbringing in Detroit and decided to focus his efforts on bringing people of color to the great outdoors. He recognized the disconnect experienced between Black Americans and natural spaces, saying “one of the great losses to African culture from slavery was the loss of kinship with the earth.” Johnson advocates for representation and inclusion in National parks and still works as a park ranger at the age of 63.

Dr. Beverly Wright founded the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice to address environmental and health disparities in Cancer Alley and the Gulf Coast region, which include some of the most environment-  and climate-impacted communities in the country. The Center focuses on everything from education and health to job placement. It has supported impacted residents following the disasters of Hurricane Katrina, the BP Deep Water Horizon oil spill, and Hurricane Sandy. Using the “Communiversity Model,” the Center starts by listening to the community and then providing research, education and training on identified issues. Dr. Wright’s research has been instrumental in highlighting issues of environmental injustice and has led her to create curricula, author multiple books, and receive many distinguished awards and honors.

Van Jones: You may recognize Van Jones as a host on CNN, but he has decades of supporting urban communities off the camera as well. He has been instrumental in the foundation of several organizations, including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Color Of Change, Green For All, Rebuild The Dream, and the Dream Corps. His efforts focus on the promotion of an economic recovery that is both socially and environmentally just. Additionally, Jones has been a leader in the fight for criminal justice reform. He has authored three New York Times best-selling books, served as green jobs advisor to President Obama, and has received many distinguished honors, including making TIME’s 2009 list of “100 Most Influential People in The World.”

Hattie Carthan: In 1964, Hattie Carthan began a decades-long campaign to protect, preserve, and plant trees in the Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy) neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. She became known as “The Tree Lady of Brooklyn” as she mobilized community support with efforts grounded in urban ecology, neighborhood aesthetic, and community empowerment. More than 1,500 ginkgo, sycamore, and honey locust trees were planted throughout the neighborhood. Carthan was later awarded a distinguished service medal from the city and was elected to the governing committee of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Today the Magnolia grandiflora of Bed-Stuy that Carthan fought hard to protect is an individually designated landmark that recognizes Carthan as “the person who, almost single-handedly, has been responsible for arousing local appreciation of the tree and in directing this appreciation towards practical steps for its preservation.”

Hazel Johnson has left a lasting impact on her community and the world as the “Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement.” As an activist on the southside of Chicago, Johnson brought attention to urban environmental pollution. After her husband passed away from cancer in 1969, Johnson began documenting the illnesses linked to the pollution that burdened her neighbors. She described her Altgeld Gardens community as “the toxic doughnut” because the surrounding industry and landfills engulfed them with environmental degradation and hazards. She pushed city officials to test the water, and when reports showed it contained cyanide and other toxins they installed improved sewer and water lines. Her tireless efforts took her to Washington D.C. where she met George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and played a role in pushing Clinton to sign an order directing federal agencies to consider environmental impacts on BIPOC communities.

Rue Mapp is widely recognized for founding the organization Outdoor Afrowhich seeks to address the legacy of violence and discrimination that has impacted the relationship between many Black Americans and the outdoors. By supporting Black leadership in conservation and building a more diverse community in stewardship and outdoor recreation, Mapp is leading a shift in the representation of who benefits from, protects, and enjoys outdoor spaces. Outdoor Afro has over 35,000 participants and volunteer leaders in 30 states and reaches more than 50,000 online followers each day with stories, photos, and events. The organization has been highlighted by Oprah, while Mapp herself has been recognized by the National Wildlife Federation and invited to the White House. Mapp is also engaged in public policy work and served as a California State Parks Commissioner.


By: Brooke Bowser, Hannah Franzblau, and Marina Minic