Do You Know These Black Environmental Activists? You Should

When Black History Month rolls around each February, the media tends to highlight notable African American contributions in sports, politics, art and music. Who gets left out? Black environmentalists.

Recent cases like the Flint water crisis and lawsuits against the EPA involving toxic coal ash and landfills illuminate the intersection of pollution and racism.

Sadly, environmental injustice isn’t anything new. The movement gained a national spotlight in 1982 when a North Carolina community protested the disposal of contaminated soil nearby. Residents of Louisiana’s infamous “Cancer Alley” have also pushed for reform since the early 1980s. In 1987, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice released a national report entitled “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.” This document–the first of its kind–demonstrated the undeniable correlation between race and toxic waste facility location in the U.S.

But it would be ignorant to think that black American achievements in the “green” field are restricted to environmental justice advocacy. From outdoor recreation to research science, black environmentalists continue to lead groundbreaking initiatives.

So let’s take a moment to recognize just a few of these environmental activists for defending their communities and the planet.

Majora Carter

Notorious for her TED Talk, “Greening the Ghetto,” Majora Carter served as the executive director of Sustainable South Bronx before taking her work national with a consulting firm. She’s credited with bringing Hunts Point Riverside Park and the South Bronx Greenway to her neighborhood and received a MacArthur “genius” grant in the process. Her unique vision of urban development integrates ecological, economic and social challenges. With each new endeavor, Carter strives to draw attention to the “disproportionate environmental and public health burdens” placed upon so many urban communities.

Tyrone Hayes

Tyrone Hayes wants to warn you about atrazine, and he has the scientific data to back up his concerns. Hayes, a biologist and professor at UC Berkeley, has studied the U.S.’s most popular herbicide for fifteen years. His findings suggest that the chemical interferes with endocrine system development in amphibians, resulting in hermaphroditic, demasculinized frogs. What does that mean for humans exposed to atrazine? Well, some studies point to low sperm counts and elevated breast cancer risks. In spite of significant pushback by both Syngenta, atrazine’s manufacturer, and the EPA, Hayes continues to advocate for a ban on the dangerous herbicide.

Paul D. Miller

Paul D. Miller, or “DJ Spooky,” will be the first to tell you that the arts have a critical role to play in addressing climate change. His installation “The Book of Ice” draws inspiration from melting glaciers in Antarctica, while another composition focuses on the challenges faced by the South Pacific island of Nauru. Outside of these creative pursuits, Miller serves as the founder of the Vanuatu Pacifica Foundation in Melanesia. The organization aims to fund “cross disciplinary approaches to smart solutions for climate challenges,” including youth empowerment training. In 2014 National Geographic recognized Miller as an “Emerging Explorer” for his innovative, multimedia take on defining environmental and social issues.

Will Allen

Will Allen operates one of the most impressive urban agriculture centers in the country. Based in Milwaukee, Growing Power creates organizational units called “Community Food Systems” to offer healthy and affordable food to local residents. But Growing Power isn’t simply a handout service. Instead it acts as a training hub, providing technical assistance and demonstration gardening to anyone with an interest. Vermicomposting and solar power cells are just a taste of the sustainable practices underway at the main farm. Allen’s accolades are many, including an invitation to take part in Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign, a MacArthur Fellowship and a James Beard Leadership Award.

Karen Washington

When “urban farming’s grande dame” speaks, you listen. Another James Beard Leadership Award winner, Karen Washington’s work as a physical therapist in the Bronx put her in direct contact with overweight patients struggling to access fresh produce. This was the only spark needed to set Washington on her pursuit for food justice. “When I go to wealthy neighborhoods or [visit] my friends who are white, I don’t see a McDonald’s on every block. I see nice restaurants and fruit stands. Why is that? I’m asking for the urban planners and city officials to sit down and look at the demographics,” she told Civil Eats. Washington became well-versed in environmentally responsible food production during an apprenticeship at the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology. Today she remains dedicated to protecting land and promoting soil health as a farmer at Rise & Root Farm.

John Francis 

A 17-year vow of silence coupled with a literal walk around the Earth makes John Francis one the greatest environmental heroes of our time. After witnessing an oil spill in San Francisco Bay in the 1970s, Francis felt compelled to claim responsibility for his own impact; naturally, he abandoned his car. Francis’s pilgrimage led to the creation of Planetwalk, an international network “promoting environmental education and responsibility and a vision of world peace and cooperation.”

Peggy Shepard 

Peggy Shepard knows the dangers of urban environmental toxins all too well. She’s the cofounder and executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT), New York’s first environmental justice organization. Shepard also serves as a leader at Columbia’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health where she’s charged with translating the scientific jargon of research findings into practical community applications. A pioneer in her field, Shephard became the first female chair of the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. And in recognition for her impressive work, Shepard has received awards from the Heinz Family Foundation, the National Organization for Women and the Audubon Society.

Rue Mapp

Rue Mapp founded Outdoor Afro in 2009 to reconnect African Americans with outdoor recreation and conservation. To date, more than 11,000 people across the country have participated in Outdoor Afro hikes and other adventures. “Minorities need to see that these places belong to us, too. Sharing experiences creates a sense of ownership and permission,” Mapp explains. Training sessions for Outdoor Afro leaders emphasize the deeply rooted links between black history and the natural world.

Need more inspiration? Follow these environmental scientists on Twitter. Do you know an environmental activist doing incredible work in your community? If so, comment below.

Photo Credit: Majora Carter


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

william Miller
william Miller1 years ago

thank you all for doing your part

Margie F1 years ago

Is this not racism?

Loretta Pienaar

Simply lovely people!

Peggy B.
Peggy B1 years ago

Chris Ringgold, minority simply means fewer in the overall numbers. I do think it's a word that sometimes gives off negative connotations and it shouldn't. We're all people. The colour of the skin or the nationality of the person shouldn't be considered and then there wouldn't be any 'minorities' just people as it should be. Sadly that isn't the case for some.

Chris Ringgold
Chris Ringgold1 years ago

However, why are Blacks like myself still referred to as "minorities" when we have a president who looks like us running the country?

Chris Ringgold
Chris Ringgold1 years ago

I'm so proud of not only these Black environmentalists mentioned here, but of All the Black environmentalists making a difference in the world. It's nice to know that anybody, no matter their skin color, can become an environmentalist.

D.E.A. C.
D.E.A. C1 years ago

Is anyone else experiencing delays getting their points ("Butterfly Rewards") posted?

D.E.A. C.
D.E.A. C1 years ago

I know them now. But why is Ms. Carter described as "notorious" (which has a negative connotation)?

Kate R.
Past Member 1 years ago

Kudod to everyone fighting to save the planet, whatever their race, colour, religion or gender.