This is part of a series for Black History Month on Black scientists, activists and entrepreneurs who are tackling the greatest problem of our time.
Black people are underrepresented in the halls of power. As such, their concerns are often overlooked in public policy, including in the laws and regulations aimed at keeping our air clean, our water safe and our climate stable. Too often, Black communities remain dangerously polluted and vulnerable to extreme weather. But organizers and policy analysts are trying to change that, endeavoring to make public policy better serve the public. To learn about their work, we spoke with seven experts and advocates about making the government work for the people.
Mychal Johnson is a community organizer in the South Bronx in New York City. As the co-founder of South Bronx Unite, he is working with community members to care for a neighborhood coping with decades of pollution and neglect.
On why he organizes
“My family comes from an ancestry of slavery. My grandmother’s great-grandfather was the first free man in our family. My grandparents migrated to the North from the South in 1945. They were very active in their community, always engaged in what was going on. They showed me as a child that that was part of our social responsibility. My mother was really engaged in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. I think the incremental change laid out in decades past is what we need to carry forward, and I think it’s my responsibility as a conscious individual to somehow be a part of creating change.”
“Being a father of two children, it’s really important to show them how they need to also pick up the baton and carry it forward to create a better future for all of us. And not just in the South Bronx, but all over the country, we need to have examples where we come together to create change, the same type of change that’s happened for decades, that’s led us to where we are today. And we can do it. I think that the only thing that ever has changed things is when people get involved and stand up.”
On the gentrification of the South Bronx
“We need the type of economic development that encompasses communities and their voices. We need the type of investment that doesn’t displace local residents, but encourages their future to be brighter than it was in the past. That’s why we need true partnerships with investors, where they understand the needs of the neighborhood, and not just the needs of their bottom line.”
A native of Dominica, Ama Francis is a climate law fellow at the Sabin Law Center at Columbia University, working to help people displaced by climate disasters and make small island nations more resilient in the facing of rising seas and dangerous storms.
Why she studied law
“I wanted to study something that would help protect Dominica, and given that climate change is one of our biggest threats, I chose environmental law so we could have access to legal tools in the fight against climate change. Now that I live in the U.S., I realize that climate change is an issue about inequality — not only between countries, but also between people from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
“I try to stay grounded in where I came from and who I am here to serve. That helps keep me focused, honest, and hardworking. I also make sure to take care of myself, and bring my whole heart to the climate fight. I also pray a lot.”
On the politics of climate change
“I think politicians often get too caught up in a scarcity mindset. They think it’s too expensive, or too difficult, or too inconvenient to do what’s necessary to get us to a place where we’ve stopped pollution and all communities have the resources to withstand the climate impacts that are already set to come. Politicians should be braver. Transformative moments have happened in history before — for example, the Civil Rights Movement — and we need a massive transformation in how we relate to each other and the natural world in order to survive and thrive. That’s why the Green New Deal is so exciting to me.”
“Climate change is a fight about our right to live and to live well.”
Beverly Scott is the vice chair of the National Infrastructure Advisory Council and Jobs to Move America, and the founder of Introducing Youth to American Infrastructure+, which helps women and people of color become infrastructure innovators and entrepreneurs. She’s working to make sure public transportation projects serve everyone.
On manmade disasters
“I grew up in riot-torn Cleveland, Ohio during a period when there was no lack of clarity that race matters — coupled with memories of a burning lake and floating fish — attributable to industrial contamination and pollution.”
“So often, we refer to the ‘voiceless.’ Candidly, I think the issue is less about voice — and more about hearing and listening.”
“All too often — and frequently with good intentions — we arrogantly plan for and not with people and communities. And we elevate formal education, science and professional credentials, to the exclusion of appropriately valuing learned experience.”
“For 40 years, I have worked in the public transportation sector. And while I respect and enjoy all of the big pieces that move, massive equipment and structures, at the end of the day what I have really been privileged to do is be in the business of community building, which I would not trade for anything.”
In September 2018, Lindsay Harper made history as the first Black woman to become executive director of Georgia WAND, a women-led advocacy group working to end nuclear proliferation and stem pollution. Harper believes that economic empowerment is the best tool for promoting peace.
“It’s a special time where we’re building healthy movement. We don’t have to sacrifice ourselves in the process. Nobody has to be sacrificed for the world to be better. This mindset that there’s not enough for everyone to have something — fuck that. It’s white supremacy.”
On the lived experience
“Don’t let anybody tell you this is all about science. Don’t let people tell you this is about the experts. You’ve seen and lived your own experiences. Your grandmother will tell you that the river wasn’t that high back then.”
“You know what you’ve lived and what you’ve seen. This is our movement. It’s always been our movement. People can recognize their environment and recognize the change in their own environment.”
“There’s this big concentration on future generations, but there are people suffering right now today. They were suffering yesterday. Remember this in your organizing. We can’t sacrifice people of today and do it incrementally. We need solutions now.”
Everette Thompson helps diverse grassroots organizations achieve their goals, believing that climate change isn’t just a function of pollution, but a byproduct of racism, xenophobia and poverty.
On the need for sacrifice
“We’ve been given an opportunity by God — or whoever — to protect this Earth the same way we should protect and care for each other and our neighbor. If we do that from a place of love, we’ll need to make sacrifices in how we consume, move, care and live in this world now and for those to come.”
On not always knowing the answer
“Particularly for people of color, we have not historically, or currently, been given the grace to experiment the same way our white allies have. We want to be as measured and clear as possible, when in reality none of us really knows the answers.”
“My organizing philosophy is always evolving. But my organizing is a calling. It’s a skill and a craft. And I want to be an organizer that can communicate in a way that my great-grandmother can understand.”
“As the movement for Black lives would say, we’re defending the work of our ancestors and the legacy of our ancestors. We deserve freedom, and we have to believe that. Not only do we deserve it, but it’s truly an honor to do this work on behalf of our people for generations to come.”
Halston Sleets has been all over the country, having attended college at Tuskegee University in Alabama and worked at Denali National Park in Alaska. She currently lives in Minnesota, where she’s part of Best Buy’s sustainability team and serves on the board of directors for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
On what drew her to the environmental movement
“I have always felt an immense connection and calling to the environment, yet I observed that my access and exposure to clean air, water and land was limited, and I did not have the context to understand why. Later, I would learn that this had been a systemic issue that has unfortunately plagued Black, Brown and Indigenous communities for generations. I didn’t have the language to support what I was experiencing. However, I knew that it was an injustice.”
On the history of the environmental movement
“Visibility has been the issue. Historians fail to see that the environmental movement was started long before the 70s and the release of Silent Spring. Environmental racism was discussed well before the 1970s and was identified as a concern prior to the civil rights movement.”
“Our neighborhoods were used as dumping grounds for waste, and sites for heavy industrial pollutants. [People of color] were the originators of the environmental movement that has unfortunately been dominated by middle-class white people.”
“The failure to address [degraded waters, lands and air] holistically has stunted the movement. I feel this was done intentionally to shift the attention away from [people of color] who had been amplifying these messages for decades.”
On being a Black environmentalist
“There are many of us young Black environmentalists doing this work. Yet, it feels very lonely at times. We may not be in rooms together, but be assured that your fellow young Black environmentalists are carrying the same messages in spaces that have historically dismissed us. Our voices may shake and our hands may quiver when delivering these truths, but stand strong in your calling. Be brave. Be bold. And be Black.”
DeAndrea Newman Salvador is the founder of the Renewable Energy Transition Initiative and JouleScout, helping underserved families access clean energy and save money their power bills. She is also a TED fellow.
On why she wants to help families access clean energy
“If you look on the coast of North Carolina — those hurricane impacts from just this summer — that has a huge overlap with families with high energy burdens. The impact is twofold. We want to lower those costs to alleviate the burden but also we want to contribute to the larger societal benefit.”
On getting involved
“I jumped into it pretty young — if you’re passionate about it look for ways to get involved. The Sunrise Movement has been a great example of learning more and showing the power of their voice. It’s so important that diversity is infused into this work.”
“Even if it’s not a full-time job commitment, there are a lot of ways to make a big impact. Speak at a council meeting. Sign a letter. Do lobby day.”
Nexus Media is a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. Markeya Thomas, Shravya Jain-Conti, Mina Lee, Celia Gurney, Bartees Cox and Owen Agnew contributed to this report.