Celebrating Black Leadership on the Environment

Black History Month calls for a celebration of the visionary environmental leadership of Black individuals and communities, as well as an examination of the many environmental injustices faced by people of color in our country. Whether we acknowledge it or not, the extreme weather events of last year and early 2015 do not visit economic, psychological and health-related damage upon all Americans equally. We have seen for decades how racism, poverty and other forms of marginalization negatively impact our experience of environmental issues such as pollution and extreme weather. When a Superstorm like Hurricane Sandy hits, it does its worst damage to families who lack access to health insurance, rent homes, are un- or under-insured, and generally already overburdened. From winter storms that bring higher heating costs and disrupted services, to summer heat waves that are felt more harshly in urban centers where, research shows, 52% of Black Americans are more likely than whites to live in "urban heat islands" (dense neighborhoods without access to cooling green space), and can be twice as likely to die during a heat wave.

Given this reality, the current discourse around climate resilience--helping communities "bounce back" from environmental disasters--must be bold and equitable. As Green for All's 2014 Climate Resilience in Vulnerable Communities report explained so eloquently, "vulnerable Americans need bolder, more integrated strategies to help them 'leap forward' and find a way to gain ground--not just go back to the margins". Climate adaptation measures must be conceived as opportunities to build communities and breathe life into neighborhoods through economic diversification, political empowerment, expanded green space, and better access to healthcare and other resources.

Across the country, visionary Black leaders (too many to name here) are promoting innovative solutions that foster environmental and communal wellbeing simultaneously. From legendary leaders like Dr. Robert Bullard, the "father of environmental justice", who has spent a lifetime working to bring both academic and public awareness to environmental injustice across the country, from toxic dumping to transportation routing to economic planning; to innovators like Will Allen, the son of a sharecropper and a former NBA player, who has taken community farming to a new level. NRDC recognized Will's achievements in 2009 for his work as founder of Growing Power in 1993 to "inspire communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound," thereby improving food security while greening the environment and providing paths to employment. These individuals are among scores of others we must celebrate and look to, not only during Black History Month, but every day of the year: thought leaders who understand that our community deserves better and that fighting pollution can improve health, opportunity and equity in our country.

A clean and healthy environment is not a luxury but a right and our moral obligation to fulfill for our children. Children of all colors need a safe and healthy world in which to "live, work and play." According to polling by the Yale Project on Climate Communication, 89 percent of African American voters somewhat or strongly support regulating carbon pollution, the primary driver of climate change. This staggering level of awareness reflects the experience of Black communities, who saw the rates of childhood asthma increase 50% between 2001 and 2009. It also points to an opportunity to bring Black leadership to bear on this critical issue, as policy makers seek bold yet nuanced approaches to greening neighborhoods while resisting gentrification. Thanks to President Obama's Clean Power Plan, the Environmental Protection Agency is ramping up efforts to fight carbon pollution and the public health risks that come with it.

We in the climate movement must draw inspiration and direction from the history and trails blazed by the leaders who came before us. We must draw from the power and insight from the growing calls for justice and equity like the powerful Black Lives Matter movement to shape just policy across all domains and build our environmental strategies to allow each and every life to flourish. As we reflect on the gains and the daunting challenges faced by the environmental justice community, I am inspired by one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Never, never be afraid to do what's right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society's punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way."