Black Environmental Activists Who Are Saving Earth’s @ss
24 Feb, 2021
From America’s first breath to today, Black history is our nation’s history. This February has been rife with remembrance of historical Black leaders, and we’ve honored contemporary Black visionaries who are carrying the flag forward. We’re especially looking at you, Amanda Gorman and Kamala Harris, and we are simply stanning.
At TUSHY, we’re also obsessed with sustainability. This Black History Month, we especially want to honor some of the Black Americans whose environmental efforts are saving the planet now. From teen activists working locally to cabinet-level environmental leaders, these profiles give just a taste of the staggering efforts of Black folks to make our present and our future sustainable.
Here are five inspiring planeteers we’re celebrating this month and beyond:
This 13-year-old activist was just 8 when she first took up civic action. A water crisis struck her hometown of Flint, Michigan in 2016, and Mari wrote a letter to then-president Barack Obama calling on him to catalyze a governmental response. This ultimately led to Obama approving $100 million in relief for her city.
It wasn’t a quick fix, and unfortunately, the Flint Water Crisis gave the young activist a multi-year battle with government mismanagement to get lead out of her hometown’s water. She’s personally gotten 1 million water bottles to residents in Flint, and partnered with a filtration company to make a sustainable water filter for her community.
She knows that Flint is symptomatic of larger issues. As she told Vox in 2019, “Flint is not unique… cases of environmental racism are on the rise and disproportionately affect communities of people of color and indigenous communities.”
The young activist continues to work on behalf of her community, and is committed to service for the long haul. Copeny is also a self-proclaimed future president -- she’s planning a run in 2044, and we’re here for it.
When President Obama tapped a head for the Environmental Protection Agency in 2009, he appointed Lisa Jackson for the cabinet-level position. This made Jackson the first Black woman (and one of only a few women overall) to serve in the role. While she helmed the agency, Jackson made it a priority to center vulnerable people -- especially children, the elderly, and low-income people -- since they are particularly susceptible to environmental issues. In practice, she helped reduce greenhouse gases, protected air and water quality and prevented toxic contamination exposure.
Upon leaving the EPA in 2013, Jackson joined Apple in the role of Environmental Director. She now reports directly to Tim Cook as VP of environment, policy and social initiatives, a top policy role within Apple’s leadership. In this role, she oversees Apple’s efforts to minimize its environmental impact by addressing climate change, through the use of renewable energy, greener materials and conservation efforts. She also oversees education policy programs. Plus, she’s on like a million boards! (Ok, maybe fewer, but she’s on the board for Princeton, Tulane, the Clinton Foundation and Captain Planet Foundation, which all count double.)
This human rights advocate and climate organizer cut her teeth at This Is Zero Hour, which centers diverse voices around environmental justice. Currently an undergrad at Howard University, Mengistu has used her Zero Hour skills to make real changes on the campus of her historically Black university. She has organized to reduce plastic consumption and expanded free student transportation to diminish reliance on ride-share apps. In 2019, she joined her Zero Hour cohorts to receive an award for climate action from Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
Mengistu was born in Ethiopa and raised in North Carolina. She says that both aspects of her upbringing has informed her understanding around how marginalized people disproportionately experience the impact of climate change. As she told Vox, “A lot of the countries and groups of people that are putting in a lot of climate work will disproportionately feel the effects of climate change. And they’re not even the people that created this mess in the first place.”
Adding a little spice to the list, we have a culinary king and food justice activist. The James Beard Award-winning chef, educator and author is best known for his activism around creating a healthy, just and sustainable food system.
Since 2015, Terry has been the Chef-in-Residence at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, where he creates public programming around food, farming, health, activism, culture and the African Diaspora.
He is the author of five cookbooks, including one for vegetarian soul food, which was named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks of the past 25 years by Cooking Light Magazine. As you may know, meat consumption is among the leading causes of climate change, so tasty vegan comfort food is very much the future.
Terry is educating folks about how the industrial food system takes its toll on our health and the environment, and helping show us another way. For that, we have to say -- thank you, chef!