Meet The Black Climate And Social Justice Leaders You Have Never Heard Of

A new generation of black activists are working on issues from housing to transportation to food security.

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. To learn about their efforts to fight exploitation and oppression, we spoke with 22 experts and advocates working for a healthy, just and equitable world.

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.

“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.

“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 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.

“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

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.

“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, 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.

“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

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.

“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

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.

“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

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.

“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

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.

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 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.

“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

Leah Penniman is a Black Kreyol farmer, activist and founder of Soul Fire Farm, a community farm in Petersburg, New York that trains people of color to farm and provides organic produce, eggs and meat to families without access to fresh food. She is also the author of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land.

“We will not let the colonizers rob us of our right to belong to the Earth and to have agency in the food system. We are Black gold — our melanin-rich skin the mirror of the sacred soil in all her hues. We belong here, bare feet planted firmly on the land, hands calloused with the work of sustaining and nourishing our community.” — Leah Penniman, farmer and activist
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.
“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
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
Antonique Smith is a Grammy-nominated singer and actor and co-host of the podcast Think 100%, presented by Hip Hop Caucus.
“I get to go all over the country in many different places where people are suffering and dying. I’m here now in Los Angeles, where I spend a lot of my time, and there are families that live a few feet away from oil drilling sites. They look outside their window and see people working in hazmat suits — but these families don’t have hazmat suits!” — Antonique Smith, singer, actor and activist
DeAndrea Newman Salvador is the founder of the Renewable Energy Transition Initiative and JouleScout, helping underserved families access clean energy and save money their power bills. She is also a TED fellow.
“If you look on the coast of North Carolina — those hurricane impacts from just this summer — that has a huge overlap with families with high energy burdens. The impact is twofold. We want to lower those costs to alleviate the burden but also we want to contribute to the larger societal benefit.” — DeAndrea Salvador, clean energy advocate
Kibiriti Majuto, 20, came to the United States in 2012 as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Now a student at Piedmont Virginia Community College, and a member of the board of the Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice, he organizes against pipelines, mass incarceration, a lack of affordable housing and the mistreatment of immigrants. Last year, he helped plan community-building events on the anniversary of Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
“Climate change is affecting people in the Global South worst and causing them to lose their lands and resources that they need to survive. I didn’t want more people leaving their native land and then having to come to a country that resists them, puts borders or punishes them for being refugees.” — Kibiriti Majuto, Charlottesville-based organizer
Greg Jenkins, a Philadelphia native, is a meteorologist at Penn State University studying how pollution aggravates lung illness in West Africa. He is also working to better forecast extreme weather events in West Africa, which threaten farmers in the region.
“Environmental historians probably have underestimated the extent to which low-income and communities of color have been impacted by industrialization. This includes land, water and soil issues during slavery, post-slavery, segregation, civil rights eras, and up to the present. During these earlier periods, low-income and Black, Native and Hispanic-American communities had minimal power to stand against the industrial expansion.” — Greg Jenkins, meteorologist
Melanie is an African eco-feminist and campaign coordinator with WoMin, a Johannesburg-based group that is organizing women who are threatened by industrial mining.
“Having been born during the colonial era where my family and a lot of my relatives were organizing against the colonial regime, where the liberation movement was extremely active and mobilizing, I later grew up to understand that people must organize and build movements against injustice.” — Melanie Chiponda, Johannesburg-based organizer
Everette Thompson helps diverse grassroots organizations achieve their goals, believing that climate change isn’t just a function of pollution, but a byproduct of racism, xenophobia and poverty.
“We’ve been given an opportunity by God — or whoever — to protect this Earth the same way we should protect and care for each other and our neighbor. If we do that from a place of love, we’ll need to make sacrifices in how we consume, move, care and live in this world now and for those to come.” — Everette Thompson, environmental consultant
Rev. Glave is an environmental historian and theologian. Her works include Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage and To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History. Her forthcoming book, Black Eco-Theology Through History: The African American Experience, is due out in 2020.
“Keep trying. Don’t give up. Every presentation at a conference, every article and book published means incremental change.” — Rev. Dianne Glave, environmental historian and theologian
Halston Sleets lives in Minnesota, where she’s part of Best Buy’s sustainability team and serves on the board of directors for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
“There are many of us young Black environmentalists doing this work. Yet, it feels very lonely at times. We may not be in rooms together, but be assured that your fellow young Black environmentalists are carrying the same messages in spaces that have historically dismissed us. Our voices may shake and our hands may quiver when delivering these truths, but stand strong in your calling. Be brave. Be bold. And be Black.” — Halston Sleets, corporate sustainability officer and advocate
Karissa Lewis is an activist and farmer in Oakland, California. She is the executive director of the Center for Third World Organizing, which is training young Black and Brown organizers. She is also the co-founder of Full Harvest Farm, a cooperative farm growing fruits, vegetables and cannabis.
“When I first started to grow cannabis, our plants suffered from disease and pests. Understanding I had much more to learn, I began to study ways to mitigate those impacts naturally and came upon companion planting. When our farm was at its peak, we had dispersed orchards, vegetable plots, eight goats, 40 chickens, 40 ducks, 15 rabbits and a pig named Pumba, all in East Oakland. I call cannabis the gateway plant for a different reason — it kickstarted my love for the land, for food and for reciprocity with the earth.” — Karissa Lewis, farmer and activist

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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