16 Black Environmentalists You Should Know About

Photo of mountains in a national park

1/31/2021

Written by: Natalie Henderson, Marketing Associate @blueland

Like many other sectors and movements, the environmental movement is making a push to become more inclusive and include and amplify voices from underrepresented communities. Black, Indigenous, LatinX, Asian and other POC environmentalists have always been strong advocates to protect the people. They have been driving forces behind research, education and structural changes helping us do better to protect the planet and enjoy what the planet has to offer. From land conservation, to agricultural innovation and working for environmental justice, Black environmentalists are helping to pave the way. Learn more about some of the amazing Environmentalists at the forefront of this movement. 

Black Environmentalists Helping Promote Green Spaces 

A Green Belt Movement tree nursery in Tumutumu Hills, Kenya as portrayed in the film “Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai.” The documentary film about the Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize Laureate is being re-released in 12 languages as an organizational tool for environmental NGOs, grassroots organizations, and activists worldwide who are fighting destructive natural resource practices. (Photo: Business Wire)
The Green Belt Movement Tree Nursery, Tumutumu Hills, Kenya
Photo credit: Business Wire

In the U.S., people of color are more likely to live in neighborhoods that do not have available or accessible outdoor spaces. A recent study using data from 2017 from the Center for American Progress found that people of color are 3 times more likely to live in areas without natural places, with 68% of Black people living in areas devoid of nature, compared to 23% of White people. These Black environmentalists are helping to preserve and promote nature for all people in all communities. 

Shelton Johnson

Shelton Johnson is a career National Park Ranger. He has spent over 28 years working as a Park Ranger in Yosemite National Park, helping protect the land. He is an advocate for diversity in national parks, and promotes the story of the Yosemite Buffalo Soldiers through his books and podcasts. 

Charles Young

Charles Young was the first Black National Park Superintendent, and only the third Black man to graduate from West Point. Young’s work was focused on preservation, which led to the creation of Sequoia National Park. Along with other park rangers, Young led a group of what became known as “Buffalo soldiers” who protected the land from poachers and ranchers.

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She was born in Kenya and founded the Green Belt Movement, which mobilized Kenyan women to plant trees. Kenyan women have planted over 51 million trees since. Her work has helped protect wildlife, provide fuel for rural communities and help protect against soil erosion. She served on the Millennium Development Goal Advocacy Group and was involved in protection of forests and public lands. 

Rue Maap

Rue Maap is the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, an organization that seeks to diversity the outdoors. Outdoor Afro aims to connect Black people to outdoor experiences, and with over 90 leaders in over 30 states, they are connecting thousands of people to outdoor experiences. What started in 2009 as a grassroots organization has grown to a much larger organization. 

Black Environmentalists Revolutionizing Agriculture 

How 'Gangster Gardener' Ron Finley Started a Food Revolution from His Front  Yard | PEOPLE.com
Community Garden in South Central LA
Photo credit: The Ron Finley Project

Food deserts are towns, cities and communities where healthy and nutritious foods are hard to access or inaccessible. In the U.S., food deserts are more likely to be found in low-income and often urban areas. These same communities tend to also be Black and Brown communities, where there is greater access to fast food and convenience stores than there is to fresh foods. Black environmentalists have long recognized this problem, and have turned to community farming and gardening to help create more equal and sustainable access to fresh healthy foods. They are bringing healthy foods to the community through farming and gardening that can be done in cities and rural areas! Learn more about some of those activists here:

Will Allen

Will Allen is the CEO of Growing Power Inc. and one of the most prominent leaders in agriculture and food policy. The son of sharecroppers, Allen is dedicated to regenerative agriculture especially in urban areas. He promotes the idea that everyone should have access to fresh and healthy food and is working to bring that to urban communities. He has received an MacArthur Genius Grant for his work. 

Leah Penniman

Leah Penniman is the Co-Founder and Director of Soul Fire Farms. With over 20 years of farming experience, Leah is working to help others achieve food sovereignty. Soul Fire Farms is an “Afro-Indigenous centered community farm” who farm and distribute fresh food. They help to distribute food, provide training to Black and Brown farmers, and help with land reparation initiatives. 

Ron Finley

Ron Finley is a fashion designer and self proclaimed “gangsta gardener”. Starting in 2010, Finley has focused on urban gardening in South Central LA. He creates community gardens in unlikely places, like parkways and vacant lots. He is helping to transform these spaces to usable space and help bring healthy foods to food deserts. 

Ibrahim Abdul-Martin

Ibrahim Abdul-Martin is an author of Green New Deal: What Islam Teaches About Protecting The Planet and environmentalist. He served as an advisor to Bloomberg on environmental sustainability and is also the cofounder of Green Squash Consulting. He became interested in environmentalism at a young age, and has continued to advocate for regenerative agriculture and sustainable business practices. 

Majora Carter

Majora Carter is an urban revitalization strategist. Her work focuses on bringing green spaces to all communities, focused on the inner city, like her home in the South Bronx. Carter brought the first open-waterfront park to the South Bronx in over 60 years, as just one of her many projects and initiatives to bring green spaces to communities who need them. Learn more about Majora Carter and her work in the South Bronx in her Ted Talk

Black Environmentalists Paving Path Toward Environmental Justice 

Photo Of An Industrial Factory Emitting Smoke
Industrial factory emitting smoke

Environmental justice is closely tied to racial justice. In the U.S. many climate and environmental issues disproportionately impact communities of color. Black Americans breath in 38% more air pollutants than White Americans leaving them at greater risk for pollution-related disease. Black Americans are 3 times  more likely to die from pollution-related disease compared to White Americans.

These stats are just a few that emphasize the interconnectedness between racial and environmental justice. While environmental racism and environmental justice has become popular in 2020, work toward environmental justice is not new. BIPOC environmentalists have been working for environmental justice for years, and we’re highlighting some of the many prominent Black Environmentalists. 

Robert Bullard

Robert Bullard is known to many as the “father of environmental justice”. Bullard ran the first study on eco racism in 1979, where he found that toxic waste sites in Houston Texas were disproportionately located in Black communities. Since then, Bullard has continued his fight for environmental justice. He is currently a Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy and the author of several books on race, class and environmental justice. 

Majorie Eugene-Richard

Marjorie Eugene-Richard is an environmental activist who was at the forefront of the Environmental Justice movement. Born and raised in Southern Louisiana, Richard found herself no stranger to the effects of pollution. Richard grew up in Old Diamond, now known as part of “cancer alley”. The area was between a chemical plant and oil refinery, and the town’s primarily Black residents experienced high rates of respiratory disease, cancer and  birth defects. Richard spent 13 years fighting for accountability for her community, finally winning a settlement. She is the first Black American to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize. 

Leah Thomas

Leah Thomas is an intersectional environmentalist and founder of the Instagram account, Intersectional Environmentalist. Thomas has used her personal platform as well as that of the IE Instagram account to highlight environmental issues that disproportionately impact BIPOC communities and promotes environmental justice.

Dr. Beverly Wright

Dr. Beverly Wright is the founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. She is an author, academic, and longtime activist for environmental justice. Currently, her work with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice is centered on education, health and safety training and job placements for people living in climate-impacted communities. 

John Francis

Dr. John Francis is known as the “planet walker”. Following an oil spill in the San Francisco Bay in 1971, Dr. Francis was inspired to boycott all motorized transportation, and that’s just what he did for 22 years. He also took a 17 year vow of silence to focus on listening. He broke his silence on Earth Day on April 22, 1990 to share his experience. He’s continued to advocate for the planet ever since. Learn more about Dr. Francis’ journey here

Lisa P. Jackson

Lisa P. Jackson was the first Black EPA administrator and one of the few women to hold the position. During her tenure, she focused on vulnerable people and communities susceptible to environmental and health threats. Jackson is from New Orleans and started her work with the EPA as a staff scientist. 

Dr. Ayana Johnson

Dr. Ayana Johnson is a marine biologist, founder and author. Her work is focused on the impact of climate change on the ocean and how that can impact communities of color. She recently co-edited All We Can Save an anthology of essays written by women fighting climate change, and co-hosts the podcast, How to Save A Planet where she tackles explaining complex climate issues. 

These environmentalists are just a few of many who have worked tirelessly to protect people and the planet. Learn more by reading their books, watching their Ted Talks, and continuing to research Black environmentalists.

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