Four Poets Honor Chicago’s Hazel M. Johnson, the Mother of Environmental Justice

This National Poetry Month, four writers champion the legendary local activist who launched a movement while they continue to grapple with the work left to be done.

Hazel M. Johnson stands next to a map of Altgeld Gardens in this photo from the mid-1990s.

Credit: Courtesy of People for Community Recovery

In 1955, Hazel M. Johnson and her husband, John, moved to Chicago, settling a few years later in Altgeld Gardens, a predominately Black public housing complex on the city’s Far South Side. Johnson loved the area, organizing block parties and field trips for local kids and earning the nickname “Mama Johnson.” But it wasn’t long before she realized the scourge of pollution plaguing her family and neighbors.

Altgeld Gardens was built atop a landfill and surrounded by what Johnson would later describe as a “toxic doughnut” of industrial facilities, from sewage treatment plants to chemical factories. The homes were also contaminated with lead and asbestos. Much like Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” from which Johnson had moved, Altgeld Gardens had one of the highest cancer rates of any neighborhood in the city, and all seven of her children developed asthma and skin conditions. After the death of multiple neighbors and the premature death of her husband from cancer at the age of 41, Johnson took action.

In 1979, she founded the environmental and tenants rights advocacy group People for Community Recovery (PCR), which was one of the first to bring attention to the fact that environmental hazards had long been intentionally concentrated in low-income communities and communities of color like Johnson’s. Her cause grew into a movement, and she eventually became known as the “mother of environmental justice.”

Now, in celebration of National Poetry Month, four writers who have called Chicago home are highlighting her legacy through original works commissioned by NRDC. All honor the monumental strides Johnson made in the fight for justice, while they grapple with the work still left to be done and the continued resistance of Chicago’s fenceline communities. Their recognition of Johnson comes as the United States government moves to do the same: Currently, three proposed bills are moving through Congress to designate April as Hazel M. Johnson Environmental Justice Month, award her a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor, and honor her with a commemorative stamp.

“So much of the environmental justice movement is about creating a place where the beauty and bounty of the world is shared equitably with all of us who occupy it,” says Cheryl Johnson, Hazel’s daughter and the current executive director of PCR. “Many artists see the beauty of that vision, and when they use their talents to put that vision on a medium, we can all imagine what a world could be when our efforts succeed."

Tune In

Mark your calendars for a live reading by all four authors on NRDC’s YouTube channel on April 13 at 6 p.m. ET.

Credit: Courtesy of Tarnynon Onumonu

Tarnynon (Ty-Yuh-Nuh) Onumonu is a writer and licensed paraprofessional born and raised in the Jeffery Manor on Chicago’s Southeast Side. Her work is informed by her West African lineage and diasporic Black Femme experiences. Her EP Brown Liquor on a Slow Sip is streaming on all platforms and she is compiling her first poetry collection.

Greetings from the Moon, the Sacrificial Side

Smile pretty like
Southeast Side
Postindustrial smog smize
I surmise
My city was named for winded citizens
Not shady politicians
Dust in the wind
Fugitive particulate
They feed us neurotoxins
Then label us neurodivergent
And how ironic
That Altgeld projects be coined
“The Gardens”
Birthing room of environmental justice
Where malignant polyps bloom
And gang violence be lesser evil to carcinogenic tombs
The stuff of fables
Because poverty is immoral
And punishable by death
Environmental apathy be sworn decree
No morality clause for the powers that be
In 1969
The husband of Hazel M. Johnson
Met his untimely demise
Only 10 years had gone by
Since they moved to the Sacrificial Side
But on the bright side
Folks celebrated the Apollo 9
You see, some train their entire lives
To go to the moon
While others just get flung there

Credit: Courtesy of Rasheena Fountain

Rasheena Fountain is an essayist and poet from Chicago's West Side communities of Austin and K-Town. She has been published in Hobart, Penumbra Online, the Roadrunner Review, Jelly Bucket, and more, with forthcoming pieces in Crazyhorse and You Are Here: The Journal of Creative Geography. Fountain received a 2021 Honorable Mention from the Trillium Arts’ “Miss Sarah” Fellowship for Black Women Writers. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in rhetoric from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Master of Education in Urban Environmental Education from Antioch University Seattle. Fountain has a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Washington Seattle, where she is currently a PhD student in English literature and culture. She is working on a multi-genre memoir about nature, environmental justice, decolonization, land, and Blackness.

A Mother’s Justice

What are the characteristics of a mother?

I am nurtured by a Mother—
one that holds a key to my joy.
Their joy is disrupted—
extracted like diamonds from Mother’s belly:
the heat that fuels greed, causing that belly to bleed.
& I wonder what we do for a mother in need—
what we do when Mother desires mothering.

Many ponder this question of mothering—life surrogacy,
cultivating caring roots against extractive, pollutive legacies:
Wangari Maathai, Fannie Lou Hamer, Marsha P. Johnson,
names speaking across time and space.

In the thick of the soot and smoke, hope is evoked,
mothers’ strength uncloaked, & breaths shortened revolt.

Mothers can sing like Hazel M. Johnson’s fight chorus:
people for community recover-
(re)imagined lives condemned by zip code,
60827, once the toxic doughnut sending unborn offspring to heaven.

Mothers answer, even within an underbelly,
where the fissures of Mother’s being rip and drown.
& money, gender, and race determine who feels that pound.

Mothers respond from Altgeld Gardens, built on toxic ground;
their love transcends ceilings, forcing worlds to hear all achy sound.

Portrait of Jonathan Mendoza
Credit: Mercedes Zapata

Jonathan Mendoza is an award-winning Mexican American and Jewish spoken word poet, community organizer, activist, and educator. He was also a National Poetry Slam champion with the House Slam of Boston. His work often explores issues of social justice, mental health, and his multiracial identity. Mendoza recently lived in Chicago, where he was a community organizer with the Pilsen Alliance, a social justice–focused community group in the lower West Side. In the poem below, he explores community resistance against environmental pollution and other forms of displacement, inspired by the successful efforts of Southeast Side advocates who fended off the move of General Iron’s massive metal shredding operation into their neighborhood.

Everything Is Natural

Yes, including the oxygen you inherit currently. Of a tank or lingering. The unknown carbons breaching our noses, mouths, tubes (each natural). Coal, sewage, ash: all natural. There is lineage to everything.

Even resistance. A lung, or two—and a diaphragm—collaboration for the expulsion of iron, via cough or contraction. All organic. Intuitive. As is resistance outside the body. Propelling in an act of yearning. Perhaps, yes, even for love. It is natural to love. To gather and assemble a community of livings for a mutual preservation.

(One is not fighting on behalf of nature.
Nature fights other nature
on behalf of itself.)

Even when appendages march, stand, and occupy, the muscles tire, drowning in acid of their own concocting. Arteries flood with cortisol, kidneys overwhelm, cells wage war on each other. Even this, (I am loath to admit), is natural.

There must be a million ways to displace a life. All of them natural:

  • handcuff
  • cell
  • beautification development

all to be shredded by once-infant hands, settling into once-infant lungs.

(Your resistance is as natural as the thing you’re resisting.
It’s okay to depose the notion of destiny.
It’s okay for the living to determine the trajectory of the living.)

Portrait of Luis Carranza
Credit: Mercedes Zapata

Luis Carranza is a poet, performer, organizer, and teaching artist from Chicago’s Southwest Side. Through a creative lens, Carranza aims to provide an array of spaces for folks to feel connected to their communities in the city. He is a cofounder of Line Break poetry collective. Carranza has been featured in venues like the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, American Writers Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Viva la Resistencia

La Villita deserves to breathe,
fresh air free from Hilco’s giant dust clouds amid a respiratory pandemic.
a barrio built on broken promises by the city of Chicago,
which watches communities go up into smokestacks,
in exchange for stacks of sky blue hundred dollar bills.
the hood has become a target community for the wealthy,
dumping their waste and offering a couple of jobs to point fingers the other way.

To this day the old Crawford coal plant haunts our Little Village neighborhood,
redeveloped on 35th and Pulaski with a new colossal bloodred sign that reads “Target,”
reminding its residents that disparities still exist.

La Villita siempre con su gente tirando pa delante
con sus calles coloridas y vibrantes llenas de vida
la voz del barrio nunca se da por vencida.

The battle to breathe continues on the South and West sides of Chicago.
Chicagoans ready to fight for our freedoms,
to demand equity from segregation,
to demand community and always push forward,
preventing neighborhoods from becoming footnotes on Lightfoot’s political agenda.
may community organizers and Chicago live forever.

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