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ACT II: Women of Color Remaining at the Head of the EJ Table

By Maliyah Womack

This ain’t Texas, ain’t no hold'em—so let's give women of color their due recognition for leading the environmental justice movement. It's Act II, and we're taking a journey through time to shine a light on some truly powerful women of color who have been working for environmental justice long before it even had a name.

Our history with the environment is deeply intertwined with our culture and heritage. From Harriet Tubman using the stars and the moon to navigate her way to freedom, to the indigenous practices that have sustained ecosystems for generations, women of color have long been stewards of the earth. Despite this legacy, women of color are often marginalized in the modern environmental justice movement, excluded from important discussions and decision-making processes. It's time to recognize and celebrate the pivotal role they have played and continue to play in advocating for environmental justice.

Photo Credit: People for Community Recovery

Let’s kick off this hoedown by highlighting one of the most influential Black women in the environmental justice movement, Hazel M. Johnson. Often referred to as the "Mother of Environmental Justice," Hazel started her work as a result of her direct experiences with environmental injustices. Born and raised in the “Cancer Alley” area of the US, she witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of air pollution on her family. To extend a helping hand to her community, she founded People for Community Recovery in Chicago and tirelessly fought against environmental racism, particularly focusing on issues affecting low-income communities of color.

Another pioneer in the EJ movement is Dr. Beverly Wright, the founder of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. She utilizes not only her personal experiences but also science and research to help provide a cleaner, more just environment for her community. Much like Hazel M. Johnson, Dr. Beverly Wright grew up around the corner from Cancer Alley, which influenced her passion in this field. Her work highlights the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on marginalized communities in the Gulf Coast region.

Photo Creds: WE ACT

No discussion of powerful women of color in the environmental justice movement would be complete without honoring Peggy Shepard. Her journey in the movement began with firsthand experiences of enduring environmental injustices as a true New Yorker. Starting as a grassroots activist, she protested injustices in her community, gradually expanding her efforts to benefit a wider audience. Co-founding WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Peggy became a pivotal figure, advocating tirelessly for environmental health and justice in communities of color across New York City.

From leading the movement in the past to present-day activists, women of color continue to pave the way and make powerful strides in the environmental sector. One astounding present-day activist is Mari Copeny, also known as “Little Miss Flint.” Despite starting her journey at the tender age of 8, her impact has been monumental. Mari gained prominence for her advocacy efforts to secure clean water for Flint, Michigan. While successfully securing $100 million in relief for her city, Mari's work didn't end there. She continues to leverage her influence to empower women and youth in her communities, advocating tirelessly for those around her.

Speaking of young women of color making strides in the environmental justice movement… Another inspirational figure in the environmental justice movement is Maya Penn, an award-winning Gen Z environmental activist and author. Like Mari, Maya began her activism at age. In her journey, she recognized a critical need for change in the fashion industry. This led her to establishing her sustainable fashion brand, Maya’s Ideas. Along with that, Maya founded her nonprofit organization, Maya’s Ideas 4 the Planet, dedicated to advancing environmental justice, addressing gender mental health within the context of climate anxiety, promoting diversity in STEM fields, and championing various other important causes.

Much like Mari, Dr. Beverly Wright, , and many environmentalists before us, our history with the environment runs deep in our familial roots. As we honor these well known womxn of color in the sector, take a moment to honor the other womxn in our lives that have contributed to our individual journeys. Much like our ancestors, these women have been instrumental in transforming the conversation around environmental justice. They turned their passion into action, inspiring communities to stand up and demand change.

While our fight continues, recognizing these amazing women of color who serve as powerful representatives for their communities will help guide us in continuing the fight for environmental justice. Many organizations have taken the first step in voicing and advocating for women of color to take on leadership roles within the environmental justice movement, but let’s continue to push for more than just vocal advocacy. Let’s hold our leaders accountable and truly push for those within our communities to not only have a say but also a seat at the table in making decisions that will impact our communities forever.


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