Updated: Feb 26, 2021
* Photo of an exhibition by John Akomfrah, a British artist, writer, filmmaker, and screenwriter of Ghanian descent whose work focuses on the experiences of global migrant diasporas at intersection of colonialism, changing landscapes, and the climate.
Black History Month invites us not only to celebrate the successes and immense resiliency of the community at large, but also to reflect on how our collective histories have shaped ongoing discriminatory practices and oppressive systems. Delving into our histories, we are urged to reevaluate our current environmental practices in hopes of opening doors to a future of liberation. Two types of movements underscore environmentalism today — one driven by a focus on the land itself, and the other by the advocacy of those facing struggles from exploitation of the land. We must weave together these environmental practices, caring for both the land and those in close relationship with it.
Rather than siphoning these understandings into separate categories, a holistic approach advocates for the protection of people and the planet. On the other end of the spectrum, deep-rooted environmentally exploitative practices have had enduring consequences for Black and Indigenous communities and People of Color, who are disproportionately affected by climate change, toxic pollutants, and environmental degradation.
Reimagining restoration and regenerative ecology that benefits all necessitates thoughtful integration of climate action and racial justice.
The contributions to agriculture at large made by people of color in the US are immeasurable. The wealth of this country was built on the agricultural labor of Black slaves, and the infrastructure of the transcontinental railroad used to transport crops by Chinese immigrants. Out of the entire estimated 2.4 million farmworker population demographic in the US, 83% identify as Latino. Approximately 60% of the world’s food supply comes from crops that were originally cultivated by Native American farmers. Pioneering initiatives of farmer cooperatives and community land trusts were spearheaded by African American farmers, who also created models of some of the first intensive and profitable small farms over five decades ago. Despite this, many of these critical contributions and the communities who developed these practices are openly discriminated against, vilified, and excluded.
We must create a broader understanding of what we consider environmentalism and invite a more inclusive vision of everyday relationships to issues like climate change - whether that be connecting social psychology with climate anxiety, chemistry with environmental pollution, or public health with food insecurity. Environmentalism goes far beyond preserving the natural world. It includes a community need for clean water, breathable air, fertile land, and a livable temperature for those residing in it. To move beyond symbolic gestures and build a sustainable society that is truly equitable and refuses to propagate historical patterns, it is more important than ever to incorporate new narratives and amplify voices that reflect the immense diversity of the world we live in.
Connecting climate work with the acknowledgement and care of communities, particularly marginalized communities in deep relationship with the land, is the definition of intersectional environmentalism. Defined by lawyer and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality focuses on “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” By deepening perspectives of shared lived experience, these principles are critical in building visions of decolonized systems in conservation. Intersectional environmentalism acknowledges the additional marginalization of many groups within the traditional environmental movement. This framework amplifies the lived experiences of people in different communities, seeks their expertise, and recognizes their individual relationships to the land. Fundamentally, intersectional environmentalism provides a lens to create climate solutions that highlight diversity, equitable impact, and community connection.
To honor Black History Month, below are highlights of 5 Black Environmentalists, both historic and present, along with some additional resources to support further learning:
Seen as one of the US’s foundational innovators in agricultural research and education, George Washington Carver was one of the first scientists to look at ecological systems through the lens of biomimicry. Observing that nature is self-sustaining and produces no waste, Carver pioneered regenerative practices such as crop rotation and soil preservation, both hugely important in the world of resource conservation. Though outwardly remembered for his contributions to peanuts, Carver harbored a profound understanding that nothing exists in isolation, land is not a commodity, and that the environment is inextricably connected to its people and must be safeguarded.
Often deemed the “mother” of environmental justice, Hazel M. Johnson was one of the first to document the direct effects of hazardous waste sites and toxicity that surrounded her community in her South Side Chicago suburb. Johnson also helped create the 17 principles of Environmental Justice, which led to President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898 in 1994, which held federal agencies accountable for their environmental impacts on BIPOC and low income communities. Her organization, People for Community Recovery in Chicago, was one of the earliest examples of grassroots organizing, mutual-aid work, and community resistance against environmental injustice.
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, writer and founder of the Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm for conservation solutions grounded in social justice. She is the founder of Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for coastal cities and is the co-creator and co-host of the podcast, How to Save a Planet.She was educated at Harvard and at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Dr. Johnson co-created the Blue New Deal with Elizabeth Warren, a roadmap for including the ocean in climate policy. Johnson emphasizes the inevitable intersection of racial justice and climate justice—calling for the urgent need for active and vigilant anti-racism within the environmentalist movement, specifically from white activists.
Mustafa Santiago Ali is the vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, focusing his efforts on public recognition of the racist legacies within some of the biggest green organizations around the world. Previously, Ali served the Environmental Protection Agency for 24 years, leading programs to increase minority involvement in the environment along with working to counteract the environmental toxicity facing already disadvantaged communities. Through a holistic approach to revitalization, Mustafa generates systemic change for communities through reframing policy development and prioritizing environmental protection through representation.
Dr. Dorceta Taylor is a professor of environmental sociology at the University of Michigan and was the first ever black woman to receive a doctoral degree from Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Her research focuses on the history of mainstream and environmental justice ideology and activism, social movements and framing, green jobs, diversity in the environmental field, urban agriculture, and food justice. She has convened several symposia to discuss the lack of diversity in the environmental field, the consequences of racism in marginalized communities, and how environmental manipulation of minority neighborhoods contributes to cyclical poverty.
Policy & Legislation:
A Terrible thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and its Assault on the American Mind, by Harriet A. Washington
Running document of Black Led Climate Organizations to support: