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5 Notable Black Environmentalists From the Past and Present to Celebrate This Earth Day


Today marks the annual event of Earth Day. 

Created in 1970, Earth Day was established as a way to observe the importance of taking care of the planet and the environments people live in. Each year, Earth Day also honors the efforts of the environmental movement.

In honor of the day of observance, here are five notable Black environmental activists from both the past and present to commemorate this Earth day.

Wangari Maathai

Born in Kenya, the late Dr. Wangari Maathai is credited primarily for developing the Green Belt Movement. Developed from a small garden in her backyard in the 1970s, Dr. Maathai’s Green Belt Movement has since expanded at both national and international levels. Primarily women-led, the grassroots movement focuses on fighting against deforestation and desertification by planting more trees. As the founder of the movement, Dr. Naathai was awarded many plaudits, including the Nobel Peace Prize, making her the first African woman to win the award.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

In recent years, Dr. Johnson has been making headlines for her environmental initiatives. As CEO of the Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm that works towards conserving the ocean, she’s been active as a speaker against the rising climate change issues, and gave a TED talk on the destruction climate change has on the planet. All of her work is grounded along with ideas of social justice and reform in the environmentalist movement, highlighting the need to fight back against racism in the field. 

Hazel Johnson

Often referred to as “The Mother of Environmental Justice,” Hazel Johnson is notable for beginning the People for Community Recovery organization. Initially starting out as a way to clean up the environmental issues in her neighborhood in Chicago, the organization works on improving air and water quality to achieve environmental justice. Johnson’s organization also focuses on providing sustainable energy and water to low-income housing communities. For her work, she was honored with the 1992 President’s Environment and Conservation Challenge award.

Mari Copney

In 2016, Copney sent a letter to then-President Barack Obama asking him to visit Flint, Michigan at the height of the water crisis. Since then, she’s become notable for her work against environmental racism. At the age of just 15, Copeny’s already served as a national youth ambassador at the Women’s March on Washington, has spoken at the March for Science twice and has created her own water filter. In 2022, she was awarded with the Change Maker Award at the Billboard Music Awards for her efforts in environmental activism.

Robert D. Bullard

Considered “The Father of Environmental Justice,” Dr. Bullard is currently a Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University and the Director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice. A prominent writer, he has become notable for his works on environmental racism, housing and sustainable development amongst other topics. For his work, Dr. Bullard has been named as a Climate Trailblazer by the Global Climate Action Summit and has also been given the William Julius Wilson Award for the Advancement of Justice by Washington State University.

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