Black History Month: 10 Environmental Justice Groups & Leaders We Celebrate Today—& Every Day

Each February, Black History Month is celebrated in the U.S. to honor African Americans and African American contributions to global society and culture. It’s also a time to celebrate and reflect upon Black resilience in the face of unjust social discrimination, and uplift Black voices and stories. Importantly, Black History Month serves as an opportunity to learn how you can take action to end the cycle of racism—not just once a year, but every day. 

This year’s Black History Month theme, chosen by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), is “Black Resistance.” Despite major gains in addressing racism, challenges remain on societal and systemic levels. Black communities in America are one of several underserved groups that have historically and presently face widespread environmental injustices, being disproportionately and unfairly targeted by polluting industries, activities, and infrastructure—especially those connected to plastics and fossil fuels.

Each stage of plastic’s endless toxic existence, from extraction of its fossil fuel ingredients to production, use, transportation, and disposal, poses significant risks to human health and life through multiple streams of pollution and constant risk of industrial- and waste-related accidents, such as fires and explosions. Residents of fenceline communities face serious physical and emotional health risks linked to constant exposure to stress and chemicals. 

Black communities and leaders in the U.S. have long spoken out about environmental injustices, and have shown us there are solutions. This Black History Month, we want to shine a light on 10 organizations and leaders bringing an end to environmental and other forms of racial injustice.

1. Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group (BLARG)

https://www.instagram.com/p/CNtU1tYHvK8/

Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group (BLARG) is a a community-led coalition committed to exposing and rectifying the harms caused by the Brookhaven Landfill and other harmful environmental injustices inflicted on the primarily Black, Latino/a/x, and Indigenous community of North Bellport, on Long Island, New York. BLARG was started in 2020 by core members Abena Ansare, Monique Fitzgerald, Michelle Mendez, and Dennis Nix, Dr. Kerim Odekon, and Hannah Thomas, following the murder of George Floyd, and in recognition of environmental racism as another form of violence against Black people. BLARG works to hold governments accountable on local, state, and federal levels, as well as stop the industries and corporations that seek to continue polluting the North Bellport Community. As BLARG works for necessary systemic change to stop continued polluting development and organizes and advocates for landfill closure and long-term solutions for remediation of the health-harming pollution the landfill causes, the community leads the way to stop pollution at the source with zero-waste solutions, such as composting, community gardening, and waste audits.

2. Dr. Robert D. Bullard “The Father of Environmental Justice”

Dr. Robert Bullard is known as “The Father of Environmental Justice,” due to his decades of work advocating for people in frontline communities who have long advocated and acted against pollution and environmental injustice. He serves as Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy and Director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University, where he formerly served as Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs (2011–2016). Before coming to Texas Southern University, Bullard worked as founding Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. He is the award-winning author of 18 books that address problems and solutions to environmental injustice, pollution, and the climate crisis. He is co-founder of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Climate Change Consortium, launched in 2011 with Dr. Beverly Wright of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. He serves on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. Dr. Bullard has earned much recognition and numerous awards for his impactful work advancing environmental justice, including the AASHE’s 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award.

3. Concerned Citizens of St. John

Concerned Citizens of St. John is an environmental justice organization based in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, focused on ensuring the health and safety of residents while holding government officials and industries accountable for the unjust pollution burdening their community. Their advocacy and action has prompted research and further investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, and Louisiana Environmental Action Network. Concerned Citizens of St. John has collected extensive video and other valuable testimony from residents who face the serious consequences of industrial pollution, including harm to their physical and emotional health, risk of serious accidents, and diminished quality of life, shedding much-needed light on the environmental injustices they face—and action they are taking to bring forth solutions. UPDATE: On February 28, 2023, following the community’s actions, the U.S. Department of Justice (on behalf of the EPA) filed a complaint toward Denka Performance Elastomer’s neoprene plastic facility as allegedly violating the Clean Air Act, presenting an “imminent and substantial endangerment to public health and welfare due to the cancer risks from Denka’s chloroprene emissions.”

4. Catherine Coleman Flowers (Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, CREEJ)

https://www.instagram.com/p/CkSKYcvjXfs/

Catherine Coleman Flowers is founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. She is an environmental and climate justice activist bringing attention to inadequate waste and water infrastructure in low-income rural communities in the United States, especially in her home state of Alabama. She is a speaker, and author of Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, in which she sheds light on how systemic neglect has led to a lack of sanitation and clean water in Lowndes County, Alabama, a hotspot for environmental racism. Flowers is Vice Chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. She serves as a board member of the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Climate Reality Project, Center for Constitutional Rights, and the American Geophysical Union. She has won numerous awards, including the 2020 MacArthur Fellow for Environmental Health Advocacy.

5. Jerome Foster II

https://www.instagram.com/p/ClOoxHHL5eJ/

Jerome Foster II is a Plastic Pollution Coalition Youth Ambassador, climate activist, and the youngest member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, at 20 years old. Jerome is co-founder of W.A.I.C.U.P., a “communication-to-impact” nonprofit organization amplifying the voices of people who are oppressed and underserved, while empowering readers to participate in actions that bring forth systemic change. He is also director of strategies and operations of the Global Brain Foundation, a creative group offering consulting services to catalyze social and environmental change. He has studied International Environmental Governance, Policy, and Social Justice at Harvard University and was invited to speak at the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights; interned for Congressman John Lewis at age 14, and helped to pass the Clean Energy DC Act, which has been touted as one of the most comprehensive pieces of de-carbonization legislation in the nation. Jerome has helped organize for Fridays for Future, and Fire Drill Fridays.

6. Tonya Gayle (Green City Force)

Tonya Gayle is an environmental justice advocate and executive director of Green City Force, an organization creating a model corps in New York City that enlists and trains people from low-income housing communities to help build a more just and equitable economy. Green City Force utilizes service as a path to greater well-being, and means to prepare young people to become contributors and leaders in the movement to build a healthier, more equitable, and more just world. Tonya is a board member of The Corps Network focused on national service, and Environmental Advocates of NY. Tonya previously worked in public–private partnerships at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) Career Program, and other nonprofit organizations focused on economic justice for young people of color. She is associate producer of the 2006 documentary The Perfect Life featuring young adults from Harlem. She is a member of The New York Women’s Foundation Circle of Sisters for Social Change.

7. Sharon Lavigne and RISE St. James

https://www.instagram.com/p/CnyMHf7NEzA/

Sharon Lavigne founded faith-based, grassroots environmental justice organization RISE St. James in 2018 to protect her community in St. James Parish, Louisiana, from further harm from polluting industries. At that time, St. James Parish was being targeted by Chinese chemical company Wanhua, and the $1.25 billion plastics manufacturing facility it proposed was fast-tracked by the parish council—despite community opposition and the fact that a dozen polluting facilities are already in St. James, harming predominantly Black and low-income neighborhoods throughout the Parish. So, Lavigne left her job as a special education teacher to focus on advocacy and action full time, rallying her community to hold corporations, local representatives, and the U.S. government accountable for enabling and escalating life-threatening injustice. In 2019, RISE’s work compelled Wanhua to abandon its project, an achievement recognized in Lavigne being awarded the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize

Currently, Sharon and RISE are asking for your support to tell President Biden to stop Formosa Plastics from building in St. James. RISE has succeeded in keeping Formosa out of St. James Parish for years—but the company continues to attempt to move forward with its proposed $9.4 billion factory, which would more than double the surrounding community’s cancer risks from toxic emissions, even in the face of Formosa’s factory being identified by United Nations Human Rights experts as perpetuating environmental racism.

8. Jacqueline Patterson – The Chisholm Legacy Project

https://www.instagram.com/p/CkydcvrOpeT/

Jacqueline Patterson is founder and executive director of the Chisholm Legacy Project: A Resource Hub for Black Frontline Climate Justice Leadership, connecting Black communities facing climate injustice with resources to realize their visions for change. The Chisholm Legacy Project provides frontline leaders, especially Black women, with support to build a living economy to replace the current economic system focused on exploitation and extraction with “regenerative, cooperative, democratic systems.” Before starting the Chisholm Legacy Project, Patterson was senior director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, a role in which she assisted hundreds of frontline communities and supported development of the NAACP’s political education and organizing work. She serves on the Advisory Boards for Center for Earth Ethics, the Hive Fund for Gender and Climate Justice, the Governance Assemblies for Mosaic Momentum, Environmental Justice Movement Fellowship, and the Equitable Building Electrification Fund. She also serves on the Boards of Directors for the Institute of the Black World, the Bill Anderson Fund, the American Society of Adaptation Professionals, the Movement Strategy Center, the Just Solutions Collective, and the National Black Workers Center Project.

9. Peggy Shepard – WE ACT for Environmental Justice

https://www.instagram.com/p/Ckv4QysDxdt/

Peggy Shepard is executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, New York City’s first environmental justice organization, which she co-founded in 1988 with two other advocates—Vernice Miller-Travis and Chuck Sutton—who realized that their West Harlem neighborhood was a target for toxic pollution. Shepard’s personal experiences with grassroots organizing and environmental advocacy has engaged many people in underserved communities in environmental-health participatory research, advancing more just environmental policies on local, state, and federal levels—especially in urban neighborhoods like her own. Shepard is co-chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council as well as chair of the New York City Environmental Justice Advisory Board; serves on the Executive Committee of the National Black Environmental Justice Network and the Board of Advisors of the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health; and has won numerous awards recognizing her groundbreaking work, in addition to two honorary doctorate degrees.

10. Dr. Beverly Wright – Deep South Center for Environmental Justice

https://www.instagram.com/p/CnkRNs1tRtR/

Dr. Beverly Wright is founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, the first-ever environmental justice center in the United States. As a resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, Dr. Wright has experienced environmental injustices firsthand, witnessing the deadly toxic pollution caused by “Cancer Alley” an 85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans along both banks of the Mississippi River that has been overtaken by more than 150 seriously polluting industrial developments—particularly those producing petrochemicals and plastics. She has guided the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in addressing environmental injustices across this region and in coastal Louisiana, empowering communities and workers. She has also worked to develop important resources for communities, including the first-ever environmental justice map linking race and pollution later used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in building criteria for environmental justice communities. Dr. Wright has authored several important books on environmental injustice, including Race, Place & the Environment After Hurricane Katrina, and The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How The Government Response Endangers African-American Communities. She serves on many boards and committees, including the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council; and has won numerous awards for her important work.

Support Environmental Justice in Black Communities

You can support environmental justice in Black communities during Black History Month—and every day. Here’s how.

1. Learn the facts

Learn more about environmental justice problems and solutions from these and other Black leaders. We’ve linked to resources from the leaders and groups highlighted throughout this blog. We also suggest you take a few Toxic Tours with our partners at Break Free From Plastic, to better understand the unjust, disproportionate dangers that frontline communities around the world face.

2. Amplify frontline voices

Help make others aware of systemic racism and how it drives environmental injustice in Black communities. Support people on the frontlines by amplifying and uplifting their voices and stories, such as People Over Plastic’s podcast episode featuring Sharon Lavigne, and Jerome Foster II’s engaging Instagram posts.

3. Hold systems accountable

Frontline communities are working hard to change the broken systems that drive environmental injustice. If feasible for you, make a financial donation or volunteer with groups serving frontline communities. Listen for communities’ calls to action, and answer by offering your support in ways that are requested. And get involved in local issues where you live—even if you’re not living in or near a frontline community—while also taking action for wider systems change, such as supporting federal legislation that protects communities harmed by injustice and holds polluters and governments accountable.

4. Speak with your wallet

Show allyship and support for frontline communities by doing your research on businesses’ environmental justice track records before you shop. Shop locally and avoid purchases from big corporations—which typically cause outsized harm to people and the environment—as much as possible. Instead, you can make a more positive impact by shopping plastic-free, and by making purchases directly from small businesses, particularly those that are owned and operated by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) individuals.

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