28 Black Environmentalists

In celebration of Black History Month and with great interest in the individuals directing us toward climate strategies that are considerate of the socio-economic state of minorities, I used 30 minutes each day in February to appreciate and post the experiences of Black environmentalists on my private Instagram account. The amount of interest and inquiries from my friends and family about the people I was sharing was fairly shocking. Don’t get me wrong, my Instagram followers have always been a great support system, but the shock I felt fortified the belief that unlike white environmentalists, the work, patience, leadership and intelligence of Black environmentalists have not reached the eyes of the general public.

As an environmental justice advocate of African descent, I felt considerable inspiration and fulfillment learning about the stories of Black environmentalists each of the 28 days in February.

Ibrahim is the former advisor to Michael Bloomberg specializing in the field of environmental sustainability and currently serves as the Director of Community Affairs at the NYC Department of Environmental Protection. He says, “I was inspired to become a steward of the Earth when my father took me from the concrete jungle that is Brooklyn to Bear Mountain, a hiker’s paradise. I was five years old. I recall moss growing on rocks, mushrooms on rotting wood, and a freshness in the air. When it was time for the afternoon prayer, my father stopped to pray. I was used to praying at home or praying in a mosque. That day, my father told me, ‘The Earth is a mosque. You can pray anywhere.’ From that moment on, I knew, if I could pray anywhere, then everywhere was sacred. It was my duty to protect the planet, to be a steward of the Earth.” His book, ‘Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet’ explores how faith and environmentalism intersect.

The Beach Lady’s great-grandfather was the first African American millionaire of Florida. He founded the American Beach as a prestigious vacation spot for Blacks during the period of racial segregation. The Beach Lady therefore lived in luxury until she gave away her entire fortune to environmental causes which included the upkeep of the American Beach.

Carver’s innovation in the field of crop rotation are considered breakthroughs in resource conservation, by preserving soil and making farms more productive. He observed that nature produces no waste — what is consumed is returned to the whole in another usable form. Carver believed that in the natural world everything is part of the whole. He understood that nothing exists in isolation, everything inextricably connected and ignoring that fact can be disastrous effects. Intensely spiritual, Carver believed that God spoke through the beauty of nature and the joy of creating. He taught that any actions must be considered in light of its overall long-term consequences, not just its immediate benefits.

After a massive oil spill polluted San Francisco Bay , Francis gave up all motorized transportation. For 22 years, he walked everywhere he went hoping to inspire others to drop out of the petroleum economy. As Francis traveled about on foot, he often found himself arguing with others about his decision, which led him to an even more radical one — to stop speaking for one day and instead listen to what others had to say. This turned into a 17 year vow of silence.

The day after he ended his vow of silence on Earth Day, he was struck by a car, but still managed to convince the ambulance crew to allow him to walk to the hospital. “For me, environment changed from just being about pollution, endangered species and climate change to human rights, civil rights, economic equity, gender equality and all the ways we related to each other. That’s what environment is. It had to be everything.”

Richards grew up just 25 feet away from a Shell Chemicals plant in Norco, Louisiana. The plant has grown to the size of nine football fields as Shell bought out property from neighboring residents, many of whom were descendants of slaves and sharecroppers who farmed the land in the days before the Civil War. Some families have left to escape the health hazards while others were trapped by socio-economic conditions and other family responsibilities.

Richards was drawn to become an activist in 1973 when a Shell pipeline exploded, knocking one house off its foundation and killing an elderly women and a teenage boy mowing the lawn. In 1988, another major industrial accident killed seven workers and released 159 million pounds of toxins into the air. Richard’s sister, Naomi, died at age 43 from sarcoidosis, a rare bacterial infection. The disease typically strikes one in a thousand people, yet Richards knows of at least three neighbors who suffer from the same sickness.

What did Richards do about it? She led a hard-won battle to hold Shell Chemical accountable: “Every time we as Black Americans to stand up for what is right, they say it’s for greed of money. It’s a fight for longevity. If we don’t put a face to it, we can’t make change. Truth and justice for the betterment of life, the environment and government is the stairway to upward mobility.”

Baxter is a mother, drummer, food justice activist and community organizer. As an Agro-Africanist she has a passion for preserving and creating cultural traditions through nutrition, growing food and seed keeping. Baxter organizes bodies of urban agricultural advocates and food justice activists to inform policy and provide community education. She does a great deal of volunteer work, like teaching gardening and food health to high schoolers, has co-founded organizations, teaches parenting classes and invests in local businesses. Though certified in permaculture, she identifies with agroecology as a more politically informed way to practice her land work.

Bullard is often referred to as the father of the environmental justice movement. He has authored numerous books on the prominence of waste facilities in predominately African American areas all over the nation. Other books address urban land use, industrial facility siting, housing, transportation, climate justice, emergency response, smart growth and equity. In 2013, he was the first African American to be honored with the Sierra Club John Muir Award…2013. 2013. 2013 was the first time an African American was given the Sierra Club John Muir Award (the award has been given out since 1961).

When asked what keeps him going in his quest for environmental justice, Bullard answers, “People who fight…People who do not let garbage trucks and the landfills and the petrochemical plants roll over them. That has kept me in this movement…”

Wright is an environmental justice scholar and advocate, author, civic leader and professor. She is the founder of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, which addresses environmental and health inequities along the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor. The Center is a community and university partnership providing education, training and job placement for underserved populations. In 2010, the Center focused its research, policy and outreach efforts on the communities affected by the BP Deep Water Horizon oil spill disaster.

Dr. Bullard and Dr. Wright co-authored two books: “Race, Place and the Environment After Hurricane Katrina” and “The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response Endangers African-American Communities”.

Rev. Yearwood’s most recent movement, ‘One World One Voice’, encourages young people in the US to join the global movement and work to solve climate change. ‘Green and City’ campaign engages African American mayors in the movement to green their cities. ‘Green the Block’ was launched at the White House in 2009 focusing on education, awareness and service.

Rev. Yearwood led the first march in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to protest the racial profiling of survivor in the days after the storm. The march led to the conviction of officers who denied basic human rights to African American families.

He regularly speaks on the moral arguments against America’s dependency to fossil fuels — “if the climate movement does not become more inclusive, the goal of transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy will not happen,” and issued a call for the US to reach net zero by 2025.

“Some will no doubt call this bold national goal unrealistic, but they would underestimate the innovative genius and social conscience of the American people. America has a long and proud history of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. What is unrealistic is thinking we can put off for decades action that is desperately needed not to ensure our survival as a species,” says Yearwood. Preach!

Martin is a software engineer and co-founder of Brothers of Climbing. When Martin started climbing at a Brooklyn gym, he was one of a very few African Americans to rope up. When Martin and the crew realized how few people of color there were in the climbing community, they decided to do something about it. This led to the start of Brothers of Climbing, an organization dedicated to bringing diversity to the rock climbing community.

Young was born into slavery in Kentucky on March 12, 1864. He became the third African-American graduate of the United States Military Academy, the first Black US National Park Superintendent, first Black military attaché, first Black man to achieve the rank of colonel in the US Army, and highest-ranking Black officer in the regular army until his death in 1922.

As the Superintendent for the Sequoia and General Grant national parks, Young ensured the preservation of the great wilderness, and commanded a group of park rangers that became known as the “Buffalo Soldiers” keeping the park free from poachers and ranchers whose grazing sheep destroyed the parks’ natural habitats. Young also managed road construction to allow more visitors to enjoy it completing a wagon road to the Giant Forest, home of the world’s largest trees, and a road to the base of the famous Moro Rock.

In 2013, President Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate Young’s house as the 401st unit of the National Park System, the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument. In his final report on Sequoia Park to the Secretary of the Interior, he recommended the government acquire privately held lands there, to secure more park area for future generations. (Exhibit A as to why representation matters in politics).

Founded Melanin Base Camp to increase ethnic minority and LGBTQ+ participation in adventure sports. Williams had assumed people of color did not take part in outdoor sports, but found, after some deep searching, that her assumption was false. She says, “I didn’t know because I had never seen any images of Senegalese surfers, queer Latinx climbers or Desi skydivers. I watched television but couldn’t recall a single US outdoor retailer ad featuring an adventure athlete of color.”

Williams’ goal is to increase the visibility of adventure athletes of color and of the queer community. And to increase representation in the media, advertising and in the stories we tell about the outdoors.

#couplegoals In 1995, Audrey and Frank packed up their car and traveled 12,000 miles to national parks around the country for the first time, despite the protests of family and friends who worried for their safety. For two months they had life-changing experiences in places where they were often the only African Americans in crowds of people. They became passionate environmental advocates, helping break down barriers between people of color and the national parks, and building inroads for more diverse voices in America’s traditionally white environmental movement.

The couple chronicles their experiences in their book called “Legacy on the Land.” In her own book, “Our True Nature”, Audrey shares inspiration, thoughts on diversity and insights on 57 of the country’s greatest places. Audrey describes her book as a “love letter to the parks.” If that ain’t cute, I don’t know what is.

Ezeilo is CEO and founder of the Greening Youth Foundation. It was through her work as a Legal Specialist for the New Jersey State Agriculture and Development Committee that Ezeilo embarked upon a career as an environmentalist. The Greening the Youth Foundation has taken up the charge of providing environmental access to underserved children and young adults through its Public School Initiative and Youth Conservation Corps programs.

As a kid, her parents realized the importance of having she and her siblings grow up surrounded by nature so they moved the family to upstate New York. “This humble home with its vastly forested backyard became my annual refuge. I remember so vividly going hiking to pick berries for pancakes, and the snake that lived on the side of the house. I was always so fascinated by the huge trees. However, I did not realize until I became an adult how transformative these experiences were and how they would play an integral part in who I would become.”

Dr. Washington is the second African American to earn a doctorate in the atmospheric sciences. Dr. Washington became one of the first developers of groundbreaking atmospheric computer models in collaboration with Dr. Akira Kasahara in the early 1960s. These models have helped scientists understand climate change. As his research developed, Washington worked to incorporate the oceans and sea ice into climate models. Washington has engaged in research for over 50 years, has over 150 publications, a Nobel Peace Prize and many other awards, including the National Medal of Science given to him by President Obama “for his development and use of global climate models to understand climate and explain the role of human activities and natural processes in the Earth’ climate system and for his work to support a diverse science and engineering workforce.”

At 97, Soskin is the oldest (and beautifulist) National Park ranger serving in the United States. She got the job at 85 after working for her local assemblywoman.

From founding and owning a records store in San Francisco to becoming a well known songwriter in the Civil Rights Movement, Soskin has always been heavily involved in her community and a strong activist. Soskin was on the planning committee of what would become the Rosie the Riveter Park in Richmond, California — a site to memorialize the role of women on the home front during World War II. Having had personal experience being assigned to only remedial jobs, she did not stay silent while on the committee, reminding them that there were no Black Rosies allowed to be involved in the war effort. “What gets remembered is a function of who’s in the room doing the remembering,” says Soskin.

The park’s superintendent says Soskin motivated organizers to bring more people to the table: “Because of Betty, we made sure we had African American scholars review our films and exhibits, but we also made sure we were looking out for other, often forgotten stories — Japanese American, Latino American, America Indian and LGBTQ narratives — that were equally important.”

At the age of 75, Hillary, a retired nurse from Harlem and two-time cancer survivor, became the first known African American woman to reach the North and South Poles. Inspired by her polar adventures, Hillary wants to use her platform to draw attention to the very real effects of climate. This year she is visiting a rural, nomadic tribe whose lives are being devastated by climate change and the desertification of their native steppes. She will also visit the region’s first eagle huntresses to learn about the ancient Kazakh practice of hunting with golden eagles and how women have begun to break into the traditionally all-male custom.

Betty and Barbara teaching us that age doesn’t matter.

Hillary is the founder of the Arverne Action Association, a group dedicated to improving the life in Arverne, NY and the Rockaway Peninsula Community. Hillary continues to prove that outdoor adventure is for everyone regardless of race, age, gender or mobility.

Bradshaw is the founder and executive director of Dreaming Out Loud. He is known for using social innovation through the food system to grow meaningful community economic development within marginalized communities. He was inspired to get involved in this work after “seeing a deep community need in healthy food access, exposure of young people to healthy lifestyles and opportunity, and the need for communities to rekindle cultural foodways that could aid intergenerational healing and other social fissures. Bradshaw says, “the biggest challenges for creating a just and sustainable food system are creating a new system to bring low-income and landless people into models of collective ownership and benefit, dismantling a system of policies and subsidies that advantage corporate-agribusiness, and moving society to truly valuing food and the folks who grow and harvest it.”

When asked what motivates him to keep going, Bradshaw lists social justice and climate issues that he aims to “stand up in solidarity and fight.” He also says, which stood out to me, “…I am always restored by the soil; healed by it. So every time I get a chance to get my hands in the soil, I feel renewed and ready to keep going.”

Dr. Leggett is a forester and professor at North Carolina State University. Her research focuses on carbon sequestration and soil ecology. In a recent article in The Guardian on the misconceptions of conservatives’ views on climate change in the Midwest, Leggett describes the following: Before attending class, many students say they do not believe in climate change and that she shouldn’t try to change their minds. Leggett estimates that half of her students come from a rural environment. Born in Memphis, TN, she recalls the difficult time she had adjusting when she went from Tuskegee University to Duke University. She remembers struggling with elitism expressed by other students not from rural areas.

Leggett resolves climate change denial by showing empathy toward and forging connections with first-generation college students and conservative students, as well as students of color — all groups who might struggle joining conversations about the scientific realities of climate change.

Allen’s parents were sharecroppers in South Carolina until they bought a small vegetable farm in Rockville Maryland. He was the first African American to play basketball at the University of Miami. The 6'7'’ urban farmer is founder and director of Growing Power, an urban farm project, after purchasing a foreclosed plant nursery. He promotes the belief that all people, regardless of their economic circumstances, should have access to fresh, safe, affordable and nutritious foods. Through the Growing Power project, Allen trains community members to become community farmers, assuring them a secure source of good food without regard to political or economic forces.

Carter is a leading environmental crusader who is active in her native South Bronx and has since gained international attention for her expertise in urban revitalization. Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx, an organization that aims to improve the environmental and economic state of the South Bronx through green job training and other green programs. She was also the first of six speakers for the TEDTalks series titling her talk ‘Green the ghetto’: “People aren’t looking at our cities as ecosystems in themselves. But they are incredibly viable. Cities are not completely natural environments because we have engineered nature out of them. Now it is up to us to engineer it back in.”

One morning, Carter’s doggo led her through an abandoned dump filled with debris on the river waterside in South Bronx. After seeing this, Carter proposed to transform the area into what is now Hunts Point Riverside Park into the South Bronx Greenway. The Greenway is the first planned series of parks linked by 11 miles of tree-lined pedestrian and bike routes connecting neighborhoods to the waterfront.

Lookie! Dr. Finney hanging out with previously mentioned environmentalists: Audrey Peterman and The Beach Lady

Along with pursuing an acting career, Dr. Finney spent five years backpacking around the world and living in Nepal. Dr. Finney went on to teach about how people interact with the environment before becoming an assistant professor of geography. In her book, ‘Black Faces, White Spaces’, Finney examines how the natural environment has been understood, commodified and represented by both white and Black Americans. She argues that the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow and racial violence have shaped cultural understandings of the great outdoors and determined who should and can have access to natural spaces.

Planting trees with another ‘First’

Dr. Maathai is a Kenyan environmentalist and political activist who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the US before completing her doctorate. (My excuse for including Maathai in this series).

In 1977, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental NGO focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation and women’s rights. In 2004, Maathai became the first Black African woman to win a Nobel Prize and first and only environmentalist to win a Nobel Peace Prize. At 64, Maathai was honored by the Nobel committee for standing at the “front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa.”

Ringo is president of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of organized labor, environmentalists, businesses and civil rights leaders dedicated to freeing the United States of dependence on foreign oil — “we are an organization that looks like the face of America.” His experience as a union leader in the petrochemical industry solidified his commitment to environmental justice. Many of his relatives lived just beyond the fence from these industries. He notes that employees at the refineries wore masks and protective clothing, but that the neighbors across the fence, who were predominantly poor and Black, received no such protection, and suffered high levels of cancers and respiratory diseases.

Ringo was the only African American delegate at the 1998 Global Warming Treaty negotiations in Japan, which is interesting since minorities are disproportionately affected by global warming. That’s an incredible amount of responsibility placed on one person surrounded by diplomates who can’t connect to the realities he, his family and friends have experienced.


Mayfield was born and raised in Chester, Pennsylvania. Chester has 34,000 residents, 70% of them Black. About 200 tons of recycling material is sent to Covanta incinerator in Chester from New York, Ohio and other states, every day since China’s recyclables import ban came into practice last year. Until recently, China had been taking about 40% of US paper, plastics and other recyclables. Mayfield spearheaded the Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living and their goal to make sure that families in Chester live lives free from pollution. The organization brings to light the discriminatory practice of locating polluting industries in areas of poverty and color.

Mayfield states, “People want to do the right thing by recycling but they have no idea where it goes and who it impacts. People in Chester feel hopeless — all they want is for their kids to get out, escape. Why should we be expendable? Why should this place have to be burdened by people’s trash and shit?”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signing New York Environmental Justice Act drafted by Norris McDonald and AAEA

McDonald was the first Black environmentalist to work as a professional in Washington DC. The lack of Black professionals in environmental work groups inspired him to start the African American Environmentalist Association. The AAEA is an environmental organization dedicated to protecting the environment, enhancing human, animal and plant ecologies, promoting the efficient use of natural resources, increasing African American participation in the environmental movement and promoting ownership of energy infrastructure and resources.

Mapp is the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit that celebrates and inspires African American connections and leadership in nature to help people take better care of themselves, communities and planet. Outdoor Afro has networks in nearly 30 states, led by 80 trained volunteer leaders who facilitate activities such as hiking, biking, camping, environmental education, conservation stewardship and more. These activities promote healthy lifestyles and help communities find healing, connect to Black history in many natural areas and inspire an increased desire to protect vulnerable public lands.

Since Outdoor Afro’s inception in 2009 as a blog, Mapp has captured the attention and support of millions through a multi-media approach that is grounded in personal connections and community organizing. They work to change the narrative of who engages in the Outdoor by posting thousands of photos and stories. By 2010, Mapp was invited to the White House to participate in the America’s Great Outdoors Conference, and subsequently to take part in a think-tank to inform the launch of the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” initiative. From writing blogs to being invited to the White House — Mapp did that in one year!

Mapp has achieved many awards, but this one is definitely the cutest: Family Circle Magazine selected Mapp as one of America’s 20 Most Influential Moms.

Before he was assassinated, MLK was activating the planning and dissemination of The Poor People’s Campaign. The Campaign demanded economic and human rights of poor Americans of diverse backgrounds. This campaign iterates the long-standing economic and social issues that we are being echoed across the environmental justice movement.

A speech of his, not necessarily well-known, summarizes the Black poverty experience after the passing of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. We can learn from his speech on economic justice when fighting environmental justice as it’s all very much entangled with one another.

MLK died April 4, 1968. His wife, Coretta Scott King, led the already planned Poor People’s March from May 12 to June 24, 1968.

The March was a 3,000 person, multiracial protest camp on the Washington Mall.

Coretta’s strength and support throughout the movement deserves recognition as well as those behind the movements and visions of the policymakers, founders, community leaders, ecologists, scientists, musicians, organizers, urban farmers, agro-africanists, athletes, teachers, adventurists, mothers, fathers and spouses shared above.



racial +environmental justice | @calpolypomona + @kingscollegelon alum | former @greenallianceUK policy assistant | community engagement @ethossantacruz

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Melissa Petersen

racial +environmental justice | @calpolypomona + @kingscollegelon alum | former @greenallianceUK policy assistant | community engagement @ethossantacruz