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Environmental Justice – 8 Incredible Black Environmentalists You Need to Know About

In light of World Environment Day (June 5) and World Oceans Day (June 8), and given the social solidarity of this past week, it only makes sense to highlight the work of some incredible black environmentalists. It's been an eye-opening week for me personally. I've had to look inside myself to figure out how I can truly support the rights of others for justice and equality. And while I will never fully understand, I will stand up for what is right. I took time this week, in between being caught up with the good and bad (horrific) news each day, attending protests in NYC, and discovering (and engaging myself with) the journeys of the black community both in the food and sustainability space. Engagement and support starts at all levels – on social media, within your family, and in your community. 2020 has been a crazy year so far, yet I hope it will be a pivotal year in which our eyes were opened to all the broken systems and social, economic and environmental issues that need to be fixed.

Communities of color are often frequently exposed to environmental hazards and inequities such as food disparity, access to clean water, and pollution. Here are some amazing individuals, as young as 12, who are fighting the inequities of their communities and beyond.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, strategist, and Brooklyn native. She is founder and CEO of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm for conservation solutions grounded in social justice, and founder of Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for coastal cities. You’ll find her at the nexus of science, policy, and communication, passionately advocating for coastal communities, and building solutions for ocean justice and our climate crisis. Previously, as executive director of the Waitt Institute, Ayana co-founded the Blue Halo Initiative and led the Caribbean’s first successful island-wide ocean zoning effort, resulting in the protection of one-third of Barbuda’s coastal waters. She then led the growth of this initiative, launching it on Curaçao and Montserrat, in partnership with the governments and stakeholders. Dr. Johnson is co-editor of "All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis" (Sept 2020), an anthology of essays by women climate leaders. Her recent Washington Post article "I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet" can be found here.

Mari Copeny (@littlemissflint) has been fighting for clean water for her hometown, Flint, Michigan since she was 8 years old. In April 2014, the city switched water suppliers to save money from the Detroit River to the Flint River which has served as an unofficial waste disposal site for treated and untreated refuse form local industries. The contaminated water was not adequately treated and dangerously corrosive, leaching lead from old pipes into homes of a community that is over 50% Black. Since 2016, Mari has fundraised over $500,000 supporting over 25,000 children for clean water, school supplies, toys, bikes, and other resources needed to ensure a fulfilled and healthy life. When the state of Michigan decided to stop paying for bottled water for Flint residents in 2018, Mari stepped up and began raising funds. Her bottled water campaign raised over $280,000 and distributed over a million bottles of water to the citizens of Flint. In the summer of 2019, she decided to switch the focus from distributing bottles of water to something more convenient and environmentally-friendly and partnered with a socially-responsible water filtration company to bring state of the art water filters to communities all across the US that are dealing with toxic water.  Mari's 13th birthday is coming up, and her personal goal to raise $250K on her GoFundMe page, (she's raised $219K at the time of publishing this post) by July 6th to keep on bringing water to communities around the world suffering from toxic water.

13-year old Genesis Butler is an animal-rights activist and ethical vegan. She is founder of Genesis For Animals, an organization raising funding for animal sanctuaries and rescues. Genesis is also lead organizer for Youth Climate Save, an newly-formed organization (with 25 chapters in 10 countries - the U.S., U.K., Brazil, Spain, Australia, Africa, Dubai, Canada, Mexico, and India) focusing its attention on the damage animal agriculture is doing to the planet. Genesis became vegetarian at the age of 3 when she found out she was eating animals and never wanted to eat them again, and neither did her little brothers and sister. She became vegan on her own when I was 6, after seeing her mom nursing her little sister and wondering where the milk she drank came from. When Genesis found out that the milk she drank was from mother cows, she didn’t want to eat or drink dairy products ever again so that baby cows could have their milk instead of her. Watch her TED talk "A 10-year old's vision for healing the planet | Genesis Butler | TEDxCSULB"

Antónia Mussache, or Nia ( provides information on social justice, sustainability, and slow living, educating people about sustainable life choices. Growing up near a ditch that was used as a waste dump changed Antónia's outlook on life. It helped to find an appreciation for nature, and to want to make the world a more eco-friendly and sustainable place for everyone so that nobody else will have to live in the same conditions that she grew up with. Nia is the founder of Zero Waste Angola, an environmental education program that helps people to make changes in their communities on a personal, as well as a political level. As a priority, it encourages the reduction of waste, reusing and recycling of solid urban waste; clarifies the process of operation and deactivation of landfills with recycling and waste collection points; and creates a network of projects related to sustainability.

Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP

Vanessa Nakate (@vanessanakate1) is a 23-year old Ugandan climate justice activist who was inspired by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg leading a strike outside the Ugandan parliament. Vanessa launched her own strike against environmental inaction in 2019, and founded the Youth for Future Africa, Rise Up Movement, and A Million Activists Stories. She is now one of the most recognizable faces in global conferences and forums on climate change, the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2020. Her mission now includes standing up against racism in the media after being cropped out of a photo by the Associated Press alongside Thunberg and other youth activists. She was also not listed in the list of participants, nor were her comments from the press conference included in the report.

Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

Urban Growers Collective was founded by Erika Allen (pictured) and Laurell Sims in the fall of 2017 with the approach to support and develop community-based food systems. Working closely with more than 33 community partners in Chicago, the goal is to build economic opportunity for youth and mitigate food insecurity with high quality, affordable and nutritionally dense food. Urban Growers Collective’s work aims to address the inequities and structural racism that exist in the food system and in communities of color. Research suggests that urban agriculture can produce a range of social, health and economic outcomes for communities. Engaging in this work will ultimately lead to healing trauma on many levels and improving the economic vitality and overall health of communities in Chicago. Their farms create a safe space that allows for relationship building, skills development and healing through community garden plots, volunteer opportunities, and workshops focusing on agricultural growing techniques, social justice, and healing.

Community leader, Ron Finley, (aka The Gangsta Gardener) grew up in South Central LA where it would take 45 minute drive to get a fresh tomato. He took it upon himself to fix the problem starting by growing vegetables in the curbside dirt outside of his home. Even though he was cited for gardening without a permit in these unused patches of dirt next to the roads (owned by The City of Los Angeles) he petitioned for the right to garden and grow food in his neighborhood which resulted in an educational movement to "transform food deserts into food forests" across the nation. The Ron Finley Project brings culture and community together through a Horti-Cultural Revolution, turning unused space such as parkways and vacant lots into fruitful endeavors, a gardening-and-gathering place that will be a community hub, will create a myriad of jobs for local residents, and be a self-sufficient ecosystem of gardening, education, cooking, business learning, management, and support.

Professor Wangarĩ Maathai (1940–2011) was the first African woman Nobel Peace Prize Laureate 2004 was a renowned Kenyan environmental and sociopolitical activist. She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 in response to the needs of rural Kenyan women who reported that their streams were drying up, their food supply was less secure, and they had to walk further and further to get firewood for fuel and fencing. Green Belt Movement encouraged the women to work together to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind the soil, store rainwater, provide food and firewood and has planted over 51 million trees to date. In recent years, it has extended its reach internationally to highlighting the importance of Africa’s rainforests in the Congo, and has partnered with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in its Billion Tree Campaign. The Movement continues to expand its horizon to include community development work encompassing the arenas of environmental conservation, democracy, community empowerment and conflict resolution, as Professor Wangari envisioned.

⠀⠀⠀Graphic by @urbangrowerscollective

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