Black women nationwide are boldly leading a growing effort to heighten public awareness of how environmental issues like pollution and climate change affect African-Americans.
America’s pressing social challenges—affordable housing, health care, wage equity, police brutality and sexual assault, to name a few—are linked to the nation’s continued legacy of systemic inequality and racial discrimination against African Americans. Environmental justice is another of these social challenges, though not always as widely visible or understood. Black women nationwide are boldly leading a growing effort to heighten public awareness of how environmental issues like pollution and climate change affect African Americans and other people of color, and galvanizing the push for environmental justice in their communities.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies." Like the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, the environmental-justice movement began at the grassroots level. What began in 1982 as a small group of Black men and women protesting the construction of a hazardous-waste center in their Warren County, North Carolina, community is now widely regarded as the catalyst of the environmental-justice movement.
The environmental-justice movement has always been led and powered by Black women. In 1988 Peggy Shepard co-founded WE ACT for Environmental Justice, an organization that helps New Yorkers, especially those in low-income communities of color, fight environmental policies that have a negative impact on them. "In Northern Manhattan, residents continue to suffer disproportionately from the impacts of air pollution, particularly those living in East Harlem," according to the organization, whose campaigns focus on air pollution, how it contributes to asthma disparities, and how city and federal officials are addressing the problem.
"There’s this narrative that Blacks aren’t interested in the environment; how can you not be interested in the land you walk on, the air you breathe, the water you drink?" asks Dr. Dorceta Taylor, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. A veteran environmental-justice scholar and advocate, Taylor is considered one of the mothers of the environmental-justice movement. In 1991, at the inaugural National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., Taylor helped develop the "Principles of Environmental Justice," a 17-point document that has guided the movement’s vision and actions for nearly 30 years.
Taylor, who hails from Clarendon Parish in the lush island nation of Jamaica’s south region, tells ESSENCE that she "has always been interested in ecology, biology and environmental sciences, since I was a girl." When we hear the word "environmentalist," some of us might picture a "hippie-looking white person, maybe wearing socks and sandals, and we don’t see the connection to ourselves; we don’t relate to that image," Taylor says.
This might lead some to dissociate "Black" issues from environmental issues. But research shows a clear, decades long link between racial, social and environmental justice. A study in the journal Environmental Research Letters echoes that link with its findings: Most toxic-waste facilities in America are located in low-income Black or brown communities. There is also a deeper emotional and historical tie between African Americans and the land, Taylor notes.
"Think of Harriet Tubman; she was an environmentalist to the core and had a spiritual connection to the earth," Taylor says. After escaping slavery, Tubman made dozens of return trips south to lead Black men, women and children in bondage to freedom. Each trip was fraught with danger; each time before she left, Tubman "would go lie down in the woods the night before and let the woods speak to her," according to Taylor. If she didn’t hear the right words, Tubman would not venture forward. She also understood well the topography of the states she traveled through, and which elements of the natural environment could aid her on her journeys.
"She knew about the swamps, the herbs, the landscape—many of our ancestors did," Taylor says. "[Tubman] knew how to read the stars to navigate at night. Could you or I, today, escape from slavery as she did—no phones, no GPS—without a bone-deep understanding of and connection to the environment?"
Differences in how America and its government respond to environmental disasters also highlight environmental-justice concerns, Taylor explains.
"Look at the differences in disaster recovery," she says. "After Hurricane Harvey, [Donald] Trump went to Texas and [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] gave over $100 million. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico"—a U.S. territory composed mainly of Black and brown, Spanish-speaking people—"Trump basically told them to pull up their bootstraps, and it took him almost two weeks to visit. … He still has not actually set foot in the Virgin Islands," where the storm also wreaked havoc and caused "substantial damage" to campuses of the University of the Virgin Islands, an HBCU founded in 1962.
Today Black women continue to take the lead in the fight against environmental racism and injustice. We see this through the community organizing and leadership of those advocating for clean water in Flint, Michigan—including Mari "Little Miss Flint" Copeny. In 2016, Copeny, then 8, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, asking him to come to her hometown to witness the myriad problems—especially health issues such as skin rashes and a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease—caused by the town’s water.