The environmental movement, much like the feminist movement, has a tendency to whitewash the contributions of people of color and Black people in particular. The words “climate activist” probably brings up names like Richard Attenborough, Greta Thunberg and Bill McKibben for a lot of folks, yet the contributions of Black activists working on climate and environmental justice issues can’t be emphasized enough. So here is a list of five Black leaders we can all learn from and admire:
The first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, the late Dr. Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan social, environmental and political activist. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degress in the US, she returned to Kenya and was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a Doctor of Philosophy degree, from the University of Nairobi.
She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, overseeing the planting of 51 million trees and training more than 30,000 women in forestry, food processing and bee-keeping and more to support their families while protecting the natural; resources of their communities.
Robert D. Bullard
Known as “the father of environmental justice”, Robert D. Bullard is an American academic and sociologist. During the late 1970s, his study “Solid Waste Sites and the Black Houston Community” showed how Black Americans had been unfairly impacted by the siting of garbage dumps in violation of civil rights laws. During the 1980s, he broadened his studies of instances of environmental racism throughout the American South, publishing his first book, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality in 1990. This book was the first to link the civil rights movement of the 1960s with the ecology movement of the 1970s, creating a new grassroots movement for environmental justice.
Known as “The Planetwalker”, John Francis has performed incredible feats of endurance to draw attention to environmental justice issues since working to clean up an oil spill in San Francisco Bay in 1971. Subsequently he refused to use any kind of motorized transport for 22 years, walking everywhere and talking to people about why. In 1973 he began observing a vow of silence as a “gift to his community”. During this time he completed three college degrees. He has also written a book about his experiences called Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step at a Time.
Dr, Warren Washington is a meteorologist and atmospheric scientist who developed some of the first atmospheric computer models which have helped scientists understand climate change. He is a former chair of the National Science Board and has received numerous awards and served on the NOAA Science Advisory Board, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institutes Board of Trustees, and is one of the most respected environmental scientists in the world.
After earning a law degree, Angelou Enzeilo founded the Greening Youth Foundation to foster a new generation of environmental stewards and provide opportunities for underrepresented and underserved youth around the world. Since its launch in 2007, GYF has reached over 25,000 youth and young adults through environmental education, conservation and sustainability programs. In 2015, the Foundation received the USDA Forest Service Award for Diversity and Inclusiveness.