It’s Black Green History Month! 

Groundswell celebrates every year by highlighting black leaders in clean energy and climate. The work of these individuals exceeds the call for climate action and aligns with the fight for civil rights - a core tenant of the environmental justice movement. 

What is Environmental Justice? 

When I started working in the climate space, I knew about solar power and climate change, but I hadn’t heard of environmental justice. As a black man who grew up in the fossil-fuel town of Mustang, Oklahoma, I didn’t have the clearest view into the environmental movement. But when I left for college and made my way to New York, I became deeply involved in justice-centered work. I heard the call for clean water in Flint Michigan, the outcry over climate gentrification in Miami, and the work to hold companies accountable for cancer-causing pollution in Louisiana. Every one of these issues touched communities that looked like mine, and I didn’t understand why they weren’t a focal point of the big green groups leading mainstream conversations about climate change. That’s when I learned about environmental justice.

Environmental justice has deep roots in the civil rights movement. In fact, many of the first protests in the civil rights movement were focused around clean air and water for segregated black communities. The day before Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, he helped organize a rally for healthier communities with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

The Freedom to Breathe Environmental Justice Tour crystallized my own understanding of the movement. Before a hall of hundreds of activists, Colette Pichon Battle, the Executive Director of the Gulf Center for Law And Policy, explained that, “the same companies and institutions that pollute the air and water, that redline communities to live in industrial zones, that are keeping wages low, and are making it harder for poor people to vote are the same companies behind inaction on climate change and rising emissions.” 

Colette’s words always stuck with me. They explained how the challenges we face as a nation are intertwined and propagated by the same industries and institutions. What good is a healthy planet if communities don’t have good jobs, healthcare, or affordable housing? What good is lowering emissions if people don’t have access to affordable and healthy food or a quality public school system? Environmental justice means that nobody is left behind as we make the world a better place. And leaders in the environmental justice movement organize so solutions to the challenges climate change brings will be all-encompassing. 

Addressing climate change begins with facing the systemic inequities that climate change exacerbates. So, as you’ll notice, some of the leaders we’ll celebrate this month won’t have conventional green group bios. I hope that these stories expand your idea of what climate and clean energy leadership looks like. These leaders show us all how addressing poverty through climate and clean energy solutions is the best path to a healthier and more just society for us all. 

Stay Tuned and Happy Black Green History Month!

Bartees Cox