Four African American Environmentalists Fighting for Climate Justice





In February 2022, the EPA announced plans to form an internal council to identify opportunities for more significant partnerships with HBCUs. This HBCU Council will “review the agency’s recruitment, resources, research, and community engagement efforts and provide recommendations to support the schools and their students.” Two months later, the HBCU Climate Change Conference took place to press for climate action and pollution cleanup in communities of color. Many senior government officials from the Biden administration attended the conference. Fortunately, people concerned with environmental justice have finally moved into positions of influence. Creating the first White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, this group has made pledges to clean up pollution and take other actions in disadvantaged communities.

These are significant steps toward reversing many of the environmental injustices people of color have endured. From locating chemical plants and toxic waste dumps in their backyards to lack of access to safe drinking water, the inequities by now are well documented. However, decades before government agencies started acting; black environmentalists were at the forefront of raising public awareness and fighting these injustices. In celebration of Juneteenth, HBCU Clean Energy Initiative wants to recognize inspirational leaders who were instrumental in building the foundation for change and the new generation of activists taking the baton.

But first, we couldn’t start without recognizing another activist and the “grandmother” of Juneteenth, Opal Lee. The 95-year-old spent decades working to get Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday. She finally succeeded in 2021 when President Biden signed it into law. You can read more about her here.

The Environmental Pioneers

1. Dr. Robert D. Bullard, who is known as the "father of the environmental justice movement." He has written 18 books on how environmental policies underserve minority communities. He has been named one of 22 climate trailblazers by The Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) and one of the 100 most influential people in climate policy by Apolitical. Dr. Bullard has been fighting environmental racism since the 1980s and was one of the first activists to study and identify a clear overrepresentation of ecological hazards in black areas compared to white areas, causing increased health risks to black citizens. In 1990 Bullard published his first book, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. At the age of 75, Dr. Bullard continues his work with no sign of slowing down.


2. Without trailblazers like Dr. Bullard, climate racism would have taken many more years to come to the forefront. Young activists like Isra Hirsi continue his essential work while forging their own paths and making their impact. Isra Hirsi was one of the co-founders of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike at just 16 years old. The Youth Climate Strike was reported to be the largest environmental protest in world history. Isra learned activism at a young age from her parents. Her mother is Somalian-American Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Her early exposure to civic engagement and her realization that not everyone had that same opportunity cemented her belief that it was her responsibility to “represent a community of people who don’t often have a seat at the table.” The climate strike in Washington, D.C., and the lack of diversity in the audience furthered her resolve to increase the number of environmental activists of color and encourage involvement directly from the people disproportionately affected by climate change. But that shift can only come with continued awareness building. So, Isra continues her work to raise awareness and the effects on impoverished people globally, such as the prolonged drought that has affected millions of people in her mother’s native country of Somalia. Now, at age 19, Isra has already won a Brower Youth Award, Voice of the Future Award, was named to BET's "Future 40" list, and given her own Ted Talk on activism. There is little doubt that this is just the beginning of her accomplishments.


3. Another young activist is Jerome Foster II. While in high school, Foster founded One Million of Us, a youth-led nonprofit that encourages young people to educate themselves about issues like climate change, social justice, and gun control; vote; and organize events in their communities. He even led a series of protests about climate change in front of the White House. Foster feels a sense of urgency regarding the changing climate. Young people, he said, no longer want to wait for politicians to take action. “Young people have been the face of movements for so long. We’ve been the face of change in the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement… And now our generation is coming of age and saying clean air and clean water, these are rights,” he said. He also started an international news blog called Climate Reporter. With a team of writers worldwide, their goal is to raise awareness and share information about climate change that is often not covered in mainstream media. And for those that need to see climate change for themselves, he developed another solution. Foster is also a computer programmer and now uses his skills to code virtual reality experiences that allow users to explore the frontlines of environmental destruction for themselves—from plastic-filled oceans to oil refineries pumping carbon dioxide into the air. Asked why he has organized regular protests in his hometown, he responded, “I strike because world governments don’t act. I strike because we must. It is up to us to show them what real action looks like.” Did we mention that Foster is also a White House Environmental Justice Advisor to President Biden?


4. Gloria Walton is the CEO of The Solutions Project, a group founded in 2013 with the belief that clean energy benefits the social good and increases racial equity. Walton was on the board of directors since 2017 but took on the CEO position just over a year ago. However, in that short time, she has already quadrupled the organization's impact and influence by leading a team who are funding and amplifying the innovations of more than 100 grassroots grantees. Walton's background as an organizer with over 16 years of power-building experience has enabled her to make an impact quickly. The Solutions Project was just named by Fast Company as one of the ten most innovative nonprofits in 2022. Before her role at The Solutions Project, she was President and CEO of SCOPE, a South L.A. community organization that ensures that poor and working-class communities have an equal voice in the democratic process. Her extraordinary organizational skills enable her to spring into action if she sees injustice rather than wait and be asked to sit at the table. For example, when Climate Week NYC 2020 took place, and the voices of those most impacted by the climate crisis weren’t represented, she created the first-ever Black Climate Week to amplify the voices of black environmentalists and their work. This led to Climate Week NYC naming The Solutions Project their 2021 Environmental Justice Partner and including seven of their innovative grantees as part of their official events program. Her philosophy on creating sustainable change is perhaps best summed up by this quote, "We can create the future we want. The people are calling for it. The planet is calling for it. It’s time for us to level up and rise to the occasion.”

In summary

While the four activists above are making an incredibly significant impact, thousands of others are also doing their part. From Amariyanna "Mari" Copeny, also known as Little Miss Flint, who raised awareness about the Flint water crisis, to Dillon Bernard of Future Coalition, many young people are leading the way. These young environmentalists aren’t waiting for someone else to do the work because they know their future depends on it.

To learn more about the HBCU Clean Energy Initiative, click here.

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