Black History Month recently concluded with a sobering new nationwide study by EPA scientists that African-American communities continue to suffer the most from pollution. It also found that race, more than income, determined greater exposure to particulate matter that can aggravate asthma and heart disease risk.
Leaders around the country have been fighting to combat environmental racism that continues to harm communities. Yet, when you look for a robust retelling of that history, Google throws up a seemingly short list. It would appear there are no Harriet Tubman’s of the green movement leading clandestine climate missions. There is no sign of the Madame C.J. Walker’s of wind power, and a decided lack of Marcus Garvey-like characters leading contingents of Black environmentalists on occupations of oil rigs off the Gulf coast.
This was my observation when I began a social media campaign for Groundswell to highlight an African-American “green” leader each day of Black History Month. I had a pretty good sense of how unique the compilation of 28 “Black-Greens” would be in the “green” space, and finding 28 names seemed like a relatively light lift (I mean, February is the shortest month of the year). But after scouring the internet and shaking Google’s pocket’s clean, I found very little.
Then it hit me: The lack of public information on Black-Green leaders is a direct reflection of a rather short-sighted definition of what being “green” really means.
Black-Green leaders don't sound like “greens” because they don't fit the mainstream profile of what being green is. For much of the last quarter-century, the green movement has been characterized by a certain lifestyle and culture: affluent, privileged, and yes, white. And while obviously a Black-Green can only check two of those three boxes, the leaders we found are working in communities that often can’t check any. Instead of promoting electric cars and wind turbines, these Black-Greens draw from their own informed truth about the communities they grew up in to engage in constructive conversations with folks in similar circumstances. In essence, they were looking to engage families like mine.
While by no means impoverished, we were fairly typical of a lower-middle class African-American household making just enough to not complain, but with little-to-no room for error. When I was growing up, it was very unlikely my mom would have had the time to join something like a climate protest on top of her multiple jobs and her responsibilities to me and my younger sister. If my mom—perhaps as politically progressive and active a citizen as I’ve ever known—wouldn’t have been able to commit herself to that kind of action, why would other Black families in similar situations?
Hence, the climate leaders in the black communities aren’t those leading pipeline protests or organizing divestment campaigns for mankind’s collective benefit. They are community organizers and ministers working on everyday energy equity to help struggling families keep the lights on. They are environmental justice advocates organizing people around the disproportionate threat that pollution-fed cancer alleys pose to working families and communities of color. They are former civil servants and academics fostering thought-provoking and transformative environmental justice policy inside and outside of government.
The impact of these leaders is undeniable. That’s why Groundswell will continue our new tradition of celebrating “Black-Green” history by giving Black-Green leaders the spotlight they deserve -- or at the very least, a Google hit. We’re also lifting up extraordinary leaders all year long, like Harold Mitchell Jr., a South Carolina icon with a story as compelling as Erin Brockovich’s (but without a Hollywood film option), or Rose McKinney-James, who is widely viewed as the driving force behind commercial deployment of solar resources in the state of Nevada.
Their voices need to be lifted and heard by more people. And even though Black History Month has concluded, the climate community can work to honor these fearless leaders who are making history as we speak. The fact remains that without a fundamental understanding of these communities and their leaders, the green movement will fail at diversity no matter how many Black folks they hire. Tokenism isn't diversity, and when environmental organizations employ the "I've-got-a-Black-friend" strategy to demonstrate diversity, they're still only speaking to themselves. There is a treasure trove of leaders of color moving the needle on issues related to climate change and sustainability, but because they have a different story than traditional environmentalists, they get overlooked.
The green movement must commit to being truly inclusive of the priorities and motivating interests of the communities we seek to serve – including recognizing environmental justice leaders as equal partners. Otherwise, stale ideas about the right way to be “green” will continue to limit the movement by excluding the phenomenal leaders who are pioneering solutions for millions of Americans in the communities who need them most.