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Black History Month: Environmentalists

  • 3 min read

By Jennifer Moscatello

February kicks off Black History Month. Join us as we cast a light on Black environmentalists and honor those who, past and present, strive to inspire and create a healthier world for us all. While this list is but a sampling of the many fascinating people active in this space, we raise a glass to celebrate these pioneers, along with the many others who stand beside them.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a Harvard educated marine biologist and policy expert. She’s the founder of Ocean Collectiv, which brings together a diverse array of experts to provide collaborative, science-based, and community-driven ideas and solutions around ocean sustainability and social justice.

Originally from Brooklyn, she’s a tireless advocate of the earth, and co-creator and co-host of the podcast How to Save a Planet. One of her newest ventures: the publication of All We Can Save, an anthology of essays and poems from women spearheading the climate movement. Intrigued? Find out more at ayanaelizabeth.com

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

Ron Finley is the self-proclaimed “Gangsta Gardener” of his South Central Los Angeles neighborhood. Living amidst a food desert, he grew tired of lacking access to fresh, organic produce—and of witnessing the health issues that plague residents as a result of this lack, issues like obesity and diabetes. So Finley, along with his coterie of volunteers, transformed the empty, narrow plot of land separating his home from the parkway into a lush garden overflowing with free produce for all to enjoy. He invited neighborhood kids, among others, to don shovels and assist in its manifestation and maintenance.

As Finley was transforming unused city plots into edible gardens, what followed was a legal battle with city officials and a warrant for his arrest. The charge? Violating a Los Angeles city code. Thanks to positive press coverage and eventual support from a city councilman, the law was changed. Finley continues his work transforming food deserts into ‘food forests,’ determined to help people in low-income urban areas gain access to healthy food and restore their health and well being. To learn more, watch his inspiring Ted Talk. Parents, be forewarned: it’s not for innocent ears.

Ron Finley

Wanjiku (Wawa) Gatheru is the 22-year-old daughter of Kenyan immigrants and the first Black person in history to receive the Rhodes, Truman, and Udall scholarships. Although her childhood included hours spent learning to garden from her parents, who grew up farming in Kenya, Gatheru didn’t immediately connect with the environmental movement, instead seeing it as a realm dominated by white people. It wasn’t until a high school environmental science teacher helped her relate her childhood experience to environmentalism that a passion was ignited, and she set forth to create a movement that felt welcoming to people of all colors.

To that end, she founded Black Girl Environmentalist. In addition to her activist work, Gatheru is currently attending the University of Oxford, where she’s pursuing a dual masters’ degree in Nature, Society, and Environmental Governance and another in Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation. We can’t wait to see what she’ll accomplish in the years to come!

Wawa Gatheru

Marjorie Richard grew up in Norco, Louisiana. Her neighborhood, situated between a frequently expanding Shell plant on one side and a Motiva oil refinery on the other, has long been plagued by health issues far greater than the national average; the area is known as “Cancer Alley” and sees elevated cases of cancer, birth defects, and other serious—and often rare—health problems. Richard’s activism stemmed from a 1973 tragedy in which a Shell pipeline exploded, killing a 16-year-old boy and an elderly woman. In 1988, another industrial accident occurred, this one killing seven workers and releasing 159 million pounds of toxins into the air.

Determined to facilitate change, Richard founded Concerned Citizens of Norco and, working with a local environmentalist group, conducted air quality tests that ascertained that the Shell refinery was releasing more than 2 million pounds of toxins into the air each year—a fact they failed to report to Louisiana’s environmental agency. Richard’s efforts—which included an invitation to speak in front of the United Nations— eventually resulted in Shell committing to reduce its emissions by 30 percent and paying relocation costs for the people residing within four blocks of the plant. Richard now advises other communities struggling with corporate pollution, and is the first African American to be awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize.

There are countless Black individuals in the environmental space we’d love to recognize for their tireless efforts to educate, inspire, and lead change; these are but a few. Who inspires you? Share their story and why it resonates in the comments so we can all follow along.