Analysis

Twelve Black Climate Activists Changing Our World

Here are the voices of those struggling for racial justice in the face of rising temperatures.

By Nexus Media

The politics of climate change are shifting. This year, as the most diverse Congress in history was sworn in, its newest members called for an ambitious plan to overhaul the U.S. economy to draw down carbon pollution while tackling social injustice. While the big, mostly white environmental groups hemmed and hawed about whether to support the proposal, a young, racially diverse coalition of advocates took to the Capitol steps to make the case. Organizers and activists long relegated to the sidelines are gaining momentum—and political power—as they push for bold solutions to the greatest challenge of our time. A new generation of Black luminaries stands at the vanguard of this movement.

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York, Frances Perez-Rodriguez has dedicated her career to making sure everyone has access to nutritious, sustainably grown food. Perez-Rodriguez is a member of the La Finca Del Sur Community Farm, an urban farming cooperative led by Black and Latina women and a market manager at Rise & Root Farm, farming cooperative in Chester, New York. Source: Nexus Media.

“I was introduced to community organizing after seeing a documentary on the Central Park Five and learning about the ways the NYPD — and the U.S. criminal ‘justice’ system at-large — mistreats people of color…. The killings of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, soon after, solidified in me the need to better grasp white supremacy, racism and international struggles for self-determination and against oppression.”

Frances Perez-Rodriguez, farmer and activist

Mychal Johnson is a community organizer in the South Bronx in New York City. As the co-founder of South Bronx Unite, he is working with community members to care for a neighborhood coping with decades of pollution and neglect. Source: Nexus Media

“My grandparents migrated to the North from the South in 1945. They were very active in their community, always engaged in what was going on. They showed me as a child that that was part of our social responsibility. My mother was really engaged in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. I think the incremental change laid out in decades past is what we need to carry forward, and I think it’s my responsibility as a conscious individual to somehow be a part of creating change.”

— Mychal Johnson, Bronx-based organizer

Adrienne Hollis

Adrienne Hollis is a scientist and environmental lawyer who serves as the lead climate justice analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, and teaches law at American University and public health at George Washington University. Source: Nexus Media

“I try to make sure that people who have traditionally not been allowed — or included in places where decisions are made — to be in those spaces so they can speak for themselves and influence environmental, public health and policy issues.”

— Adrienne Hollis, biomedical scientist and environmental lawyer

Lindsay Harper

In September 2018, Lindsay Harper made history as the first Black woman to become executive director of Georgia WAND, a women-led advocacy group working to end nuclear proliferation and stem pollution. Harper believes that economic empowerment is the best tool for promoting peace. Source: Nexus Media

“It’s a special time where we’re building healthy movement. We don’t have to sacrifice ourselves in the process. Nobody has to be sacrificed for the world to be better. This mindset that there’s not enough for everyone to have something — fuck that. It’s white supremacy.”

— Lindsay Harper, Atlanta-based organizer

Quentin Bell

Quentin Bell, a trans man, is the executive director of The Knights & Orchids Society Inc., a Selma, Alabama-based nonprofit led by Black, Queer, and gender non-conforming activists who are working to protect LGBTQ rights in the South. Source: Nexus Media

“Many of us forget that this work is long term. It isn’t an overnight fix, and we have to prepare the next line of fighters for the work. I had to become my own advocate because there wasn’t anyone who looked like me that I could relate to through my transition. Once I created what I needed, I reached back to help others like me. In that reach back, I realized that I had to move out of the way.”

— Quentin Bell, Selma-based organizer

Ama Francis

A native of Dominica, Ama Francis is a climate law fellow at the Sabin Law Center at Columbia University, working to help people displaced by climate disasters and make small island nations more resilient in the facing of rising seas and dangerous storms. Source: Nexus Media

“I wanted to study something that would help protect Dominica, and given that climate change is one of our biggest threats, I chose environmental law so we could have access to legal tools in the fight against climate change. Now that I live in the U.S., I realize that climate change is an issue about inequality — not only between countries, but also between people from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.”

— Ama Francis, environmental lawyer

Karen Washington

A lifelong New Yorker, Karen Washington is a farmer, activist, physical therapist and board member of the New York Botanical Garden. Through her work with Farm School, she is teaching young New Yorkers about gardening and community organizing. And, as a co-founder of Black Urban Growers, she is working with Black farmers on growing fresh, nutritious food for underserved communities. Source: Nexus Media

“Know your true history. We are an agrarian people. We were brought here enslaved not as unskilled labor, but as skilled and knowledgeable farmers… Long ago we were told to leave the land for a better life. Instead, we forgot it’s the land that gives us our power. Now we know, as Mother Nature calls us back to where we came from, to once again become stewards of the land.”

— Karen Washington, farmer and activist

Ife Kilimanjaro

A sociologist and organizer, Ife Kilimanjaro serves as the senior network engagement director at the U.S. Climate Action Network. She was spurred to work on environmental issues after working as an elementary school principal in Detroit, where she saw children get sick and miss school because of air pollution and lack of access to clean water. Source: Nexus Media

“Often missing in the literature and research are important pieces of history made and told by Indigenous people, people of color, poor folks, rural folks and others on the front lines of environmental injustices and climate change. Relatedly, expertise, wisdoms and presence of these frontline communities are missing at tables and in rooms where decisions are made that impact them.”

— Ife Kilimanjaro, sociologist and organizer

Rachel Stevens

Environmental organizer Rachel Stevens got her start working with college students advocating for clean energy in South Florida, and went on to work with indigenous communities fighting for their land in Peru. Most recently, she worked with the Sierra Club, organizing communities of color threatened by urban oil drilling in Los Angeles. As a part of a movement that has long been helmed by white men, she is pushing to see more Black and Queer organizers in positions of leadership. Source: Nexus Media

“Black folks, low-income folks, and other people of color and indigenous peoples contribute the least to environmental destruction, yet we experience the worst impacts of climate change and pollution.”

— Rachel Stevens, Los Angeles-based organizer

Beverly Scott

Beverly Scott is the vice chair of the National Infrastructure Advisory Council and Jobs to Move America, and the founder of Introducing Youth to American Infrastructure+, which helps women and people of color become infrastructure innovators and entrepreneurs. She’s working to make sure public transportation projects serve everyone. Source: Nexus Media

“For 40 years, I have worked in the public transportation sector. And while I respect and enjoy all of the big pieces that move, massive equipment and structures, at the end of the day what I have really been privileged to do is be in the business of community building, which I would not trade for anything.”

— Beverly Scott, policy analyst and advocate

Rev. Michael Malcom

Rev. Michael Malcom is a pastor and environmental advocate, serving as director of of South Carolina Interfaith Power and Light and Alabama Interfaith Power and Light, organizations led by faith leaders working to protect creation. Source: Nexus Media

“Environmental justice means loving my neighbor. It means speaking truth to power and standing up for the right to breathe clean air, the right to drink clean water and the right to eat clean food. Environmental Justice means equity for all, most of all, environmental justice means putting justice first.”

— Rev. Michael Malcolm, pastor and advocate

Natalie Mebane

Natalie Mebane has tackled environmental issues in the United States and the Caribbean, having family in both. She currently serves as the dirty fuels lobbyist for the Sierra Club, working to stop the spread of fossil fuel infrastructure. Source: Nexus Media

“Know your worth. You will be told almost daily that you are not good enough. Your intelligence, your experience, your insights and knowledge will continuously be questioned. You will make people uncomfortable simply by your presence in their space. Once you decide that this is your life’s work, do not stop and do not be discouraged.”

— Natalie Mebane, environmental advocate

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Nexus Media is a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. Markeya Thomas, Shravya Jain-Conti, Mina Lee, Celia Gurney, Bartees Cox, Owen Agnew and Jeremy Deaton contributed to this report.


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