By Lara Brenner
Many consider leaders like Al Gore and Rachel Carson to be the faces of modern environmentalism. However, equally important are the leaders of the American environmental justice movement, which was born out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and has since been carried on by people of color and Indigenous People from around the world. This week, we are profiling a small selection of the thousands of activists, scientists, and scholars who have dedicated their lives to solving the problems that lie at the nexus of environmental injustice, racism and sexism at a local, national and international level.
Dr. Rose Brewer is a professor of African-American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota. She has published dozens of journal articles and book chapters on environmental racism, the prison-industrial complex, black feminism, and other complex, intersectional issues. She has said that her work in environmental justice is “deeply connected to an African-rooted value system.” She is currently the chair of the board of Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota, a group of activists and community leaders dedicated to supporting fair and sustainable local economies that promote access to safe environments for everyone. Brewer was involved in organizing the Black Environmental Thought conference in Minneapolis in 2012.
LaDonna Redmond is an established food justice activist who began her career in advocacy after encountering a lack of healthy, fresh and pesticide-free food in her neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. She has worked with the public school system to get junk food out of cafeteria lunches and healthy options into food deserts – but she recognizes that “Food justice is not just about nutrition.” Redmond challenges food producers and consumers to examine the inequalities in the food system and seek solutions that don’t impinge on the rights of immigrant laborers or people of color living in low-income communities. Recently she introduced the Campaign for Food Justice Now, and currently works as the Education and Outreach Coordinator at Seward Co-Op’s Friendship site.
Watch her TedxManhattan talk here.
Sam Grant is a faculty member at Metropolitan State University and a community organizer in the Twin Cities who has used his personal experience of racism and environmental injustice to fuel his lifelong work as a social activist. Grant co-founded AfroEco, a Minneapolis-based grassroots non-profit organization connecting sustainable food to cultural skills among African immigrants. He was a member of the Neighborhoods Organizing for Change coalition that defeated a Hennepin
County proposal to increase garbage burning at an incinerator in their community, which led to City of Minneapolis composting and recycling initiatives. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Sierra Club North Star Chapter.
Robert Bullard is the Dean of the School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, an academic and activist, and is considered the “father of environmental justice” by scholars in the field. He conducted the first comprehensive study of ecoracism in 1979, finding that toxic waste sites in Houston were disproportionately located in black neighborhoods. In 2014, the Sierra Club established the Robert Bullard Environmental Justice Award to honor individuals or organizations doing outstanding work on environmental justice.
Tyrone Hayes is an integrative biologist at the University of California Berkeley whose research on the effects of pesticides on frogs has led him to a career in environmental advocacy. After agrochemical company Syngenta attempted to block his findings that the pesticide atrazine caused cancer in certain organisms, Hayes responded by publishing and presenting hundreds of papers, seminars, and talks linking pesticide use to declining amphibian populations and chemical exposure to areas with low-income and minority families. His research was used in a 2012 lawsuit against Syngenta, in which the company agreed to reimburse water-processing plants about $105 million for the cost of filtering atrazine from drinking water.
Wangari Maathai was the Kenyan founder of the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots NGO that combines ecofeminism with community development to combat deforestation. The premise is simple – mobilizing women to plant trees – but the benefits have been manifold, and have included providing habitat for wildlife, fuel sources for rural communities, and a solution to soil erosion and desertification. The trees also became a symbol of peace and democracy for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Since 1977, when Maathai established the movement, Kenyan women have planted over 51 million trees. The Green Belt Movement’s scope has since grown to include environmental activism and capacity building to train women in trades that help them maintain independence while preserving natural resources in their community. In 2014, she was the first African woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Maathai’s message about individual activism is very inspiring.