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, decadeslong 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.
Copeny was one of 100,000 Flint residents who had been drinking and bathing in corrosive, lead-contaminated Flint River water—which, in a cost-cutting move, the state did not properly treat before making it the city’s official water source in 2014. Obama, after fulfilling Copeny’s request, signed a bill authorizing $170 million to investigate and redress Flint’s water crisis. Just days ago, as Flint’s fight for justice continues, Michigan’s attorney general asked veteran Black female attorney and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy to lead the criminal prosecution of former Flint officials under whose watch the water crisis began.
In Virginia, plans for the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline include the threatened construction of a high-powered, emissions-spewing gas-compressor station in the historic majority-Black community of Union Hill in Buckingham County. Black female residents of Union Hill, such as Ruby Laury, have been among the loudest voices raised against the project. They say the compressor’s toxic emissions may lead to negative health outcomes for residents of their community, and disrupt agriculture and wildlife in the area.
“Environmental justice and climate justice are not [issues] that are necessarily right in your face—like police brutality or bias we may face in the corporate world—but in many cases, it’s just as deadly,” says Kendyl Crawford, director of Virginia Interfaith Power & Light (VAIPL). Crawford leads the state branch of the national organization Interfaith Power & Light, which empowers groups of multiple faiths and backgrounds to “mobilize a religious response to climate change through energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy.” Crawford and VAIPL have been among the strongest supporters of anti-pipeline efforts in Virginia, which Crawford says represent one of the most serious environmental issues in the nation.
Crawford, who has organized in communities throughout Virginia to address issues of climate change and pollution, first linked environmental justice with the larger social-justice landscape as she watched the devastation Hurricane Katrina brought to New Orleans—and to its poor Black residents in particular. Now she leads a team that works to “ensure that we have people of color represented in [environmental policy] decision-making across the state,” she tells ESSENCE.
As with progress in any social movement, the path forward concerning environmental justice will be fraught with challenges. The key will be recognizing the environment “as a place where we all live, work and play—not some far-off entity,” Crawford says. Broadening our lens on the issues to which we devote our time, energy, awareness and activism is just as critical. Crawford suggests that advocates, allies and Americans in general adopt “a more intersectional view of environmental justice with economic justice, social justice and racial justice. It is all connected.”