Sharing the Stories of Five Black Environmentalists
By Ariana Lim
February is Black History Month!
Let’s be honest, we don’t hear much about famous environmentalists in History books or the news, let alone Black environmentalists. We’re not going into depth about the importance of intersectional activism in this blog post, but it’s no secret that environmental issues go far beyond recycling and using less electricity. By focusing on an intersectional approach to sustainability, we can create more inclusive and fair systems on both a community and a global level. Today, however, we want to introduce you to five inspirational Black environmentalists that have done — and continue to do — phenomenal work.
John Francis, better known as “planetwalker”, has dedicated his life to advocating for climate issues. In 1971, he witnessed a large oil spill in San Francisco Bay. Realizing what an impact it had on the environment, he decided to give up all motorized transportation and began walking wherever he went for 22 years. During this time, he also took a vow of silence for 17 years. His accomplishments towards climate action include being appointed the United Nations Environment Program’s Goodwill Ambassador to the World’s Grassroots Communities. He founded Planetwalk, an organization for environmental awareness, and served as project manager for the United States Coast Guard Oil Pollution Act Staff of 1990. Read more about his journey here.
Will Allen grew up on a small farm with his family. His earlier career was in basketball, however, when it ended in 1977, he moved to Milwaukee where his wife’s family owned some farmland. Allen used to farm to produce food for his family and sold the rest at farmer’s markets. After some time, he purchased an old plant nursery and transformed it into his business. Growing Power, Inc. was a large farm system that supported farmers and helped to provide affordable food to the community. Allen believes that everyone should have access to fresh, safe, affordable, and nutritious food at all times. Unfortunately, Growing Power faced debt and legal challenges in 2017, forcing them to dissolve the organization. However, Will Allen is working on many other exciting projects and hopes to one day start up a similar organization to keep aiding communities. Read more about him here.
MaVynee Oshun Betsch, known as “Beach Lady” was passionate about environmental conservation. Her great-grandfather, Abraham Lincoln Lewis had founded Florida’s oldest African-American beach, the American Beach. In 1975 following her opera career, she devoted herself to preserving and protecting the American Beach. She offered her life savings, $750,000, to sixty environmental organizations. She was featured on CBS and CNN and in many publications throughout her life. She was also very dedicated to convincing others about the beauty of natural things. Her natural hair was grown for over 20 years and measured over seven feet long and had one foot-long fingernails on one of her hands to prove that they didn’t need protein from meat to grow. She passed away in 2005 at age 70. Read more about her story here.
Robert D. Bullard is often described as the father of environmental justice. He is currently the Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy. Prior to this, he pioneered many other environment-focused projects. He is an award-winning author of eighteen books that focus on sustainable development, environmental racism, community resilience, and more. In 2018, he was named one of 22 Climate Trailblazers, and in 2019, he was named one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People in Climate Policy. Read more about his outstanding achievements here.
Margie Eugene-Richard was only ten years old when petroleum refining plants were built into her town. This region, which consisted of primarily Black neighbourhoods, became part of an industrial area that would become known as Cancer Alley. This is because the plant’s toxic emissions and frequent fires caused a wide variety of severe health problems. As a result, these marginalized communities were being disproportionately affected. Margie decided to take action; she organized her neighbours and confronted the oil company. After several years, the residents of the community won their fight against Shell Oil, and the company relocated to a safer area. In 1999, Eugene-Richard helped found a national activist group called the National Black Environmental Justice Network. She continued to advocate and fight against Shell Oil for further restoration to her community. This included speaking before Congress, testifying before the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and speaking at the World Conference Against Racism and the World Summit on Sustainable Development. Finally, in 2000, the company promised to reduce the level of the refinery’s emissions, and in 2002, they agreed to relocate the three hundred families who still lived in the neighbourhood. Shell agreed to pay for their homes and give financial support to a new community a safe distance from the plant. Eugene-Richard continued to advocate for environmental justice and helped communities fight polluters in various other neighbourhoods. To reiterate, YES SHE DID ALL OF THAT. One of her goals for the future includes establishing a hospital in New Orleans to study illnesses caused by environmental pollution. Definitely read more about this iconic woman here.
We hope you’ve learned something new today, and we encourage you to read more about other Black environmentalists on your own! Although Black History Month is coming to an end soon, remember that issues regarding race are ongoing. Diversifying the content that you read, watch, or listen to can have an incredibly eye-opening effect on your perception of social systems, politics, and sustainability.