8 Black Environmentalists Working To Protect and Preserve The Planet

Celebrate these green activists who are working to create a better world for us all.

There's so much to learn about sustainability, environmental activism, water pollution, fracking, and climate change, but just thinking about it all can be overwhelming. Fortunately, some environmentalists have made it their mission to help safeguard our planet by educating the public on practices that protect and preserve natural resources.

These environmental champions can't do the work alone. The depletion of our natural resources and pollution are affecting our health and well-being, especially within the Black community and other communities of color. In fact, according to Princeton University, more than half of people living close to hazardous waste are people of color.

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These communities are exposed to heavy pollution, which is leading to deaths from environmental causes. A report by the Environmental Defense Fund finds that Black Americans 65 and older are three times more likely to die from exposure to fine particle air pollution than White Americans over 65.

As a result, these Black environmentalists have made it their life's calling to educate the public about ways we can all protect ourselves from these dangers. Remember, environmental justice doesn't end with Earth Day. Here are eight Black environmentalists who inspire us to take action every day.

  • Jerome Foster II

    Jerome Foster II is the youngest member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and his passion is educating and empowering people to take action around climate change. The Gen-Zer recently stated on social media how honored he is to have been re-elected to the Council for a second term and how he had never imagined "that I would one day have such responsibility and impact within policy."

    He continued, "As a young Black man in America, I've faced many challenges and barriers along the way. But I never let those obstacles stop me from fighting for what I believe in–a world where environmental, social, and economic justice is a reality for everyone."

  • Leah Penniman

    Food justice activist Leah Penniman co-founded Soul Fire Farm, a not-for-profit Afro-Indigenous community-centered farm in upstate New York with a mission to end racism perpetuated in the food system. With respect for the land and a goal to educate people about sustainable agriculture, spiritual activism, health, and environmental justice, the Soul Fire Farm raises and distributes food to help end food apartheid.

    Its programs serve more than 50,000 individuals yearly, including farmer training for people of color growers, land return initiatives, food justice workshops for urban youth, and doorstep harvest delivery for food insecure households.

    Penniman, a self-described “soil nerd” whose second book, Black Earth Wisdom: Soulful Conversations With Black Environmentalists, includes contributors such as author Alice Walker and climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis reminds us that Black cultural heritage and ecological humility go hand-in-hand.

  • Rae Wynn Grant, Ph.D.

    Wildlife ecologist and author, Rae Wynn Grant, uses her platform to inspire more Black people to get involved. Dr. Rae, a fellow at the National Geographic Society, wants everyone to be able to access environmental science because, in doing so, wildlife and its habitat will continue to exist.

    This mom of two, who regularly gives her Instagram followers a glimpse into her personal life while bridging the gap between different species of animals and humans, recently dropped a gem about dogs and bears. “Did you know that dogs and bears share a common ancestor, which is why a lot of the time, if you ever hear a bear make a noise, it actually sounds like a dog bark?” Who knew!

  • Deja Perkins

    Low-income communities and communities of color have been historically and disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution and other hazards, so having a voice from S.T.E.M. leader and TEDx speaker Deja Perkins is essential.

    While the North Carolina-based urban ecologist advocates for equitable access to public spaces like parks, the self-described "birder" wants us to understand that those experiences can also be found close to home.

    Still, systemic structures in place have led to inequitable nature distribution in urban areas. However, part of her platform looks at the harmful effects of city living on people and wildlife and pinpoints how these urban spaces can benefit all living things.

  • Peggy Shepard

    Grassroots activism can be challenging, but Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT For Environmental Justice, a community-based environmental justice organization in New York City, is up for it. With more than 40 years of experience, this environmental activist has a record of engaging residents in community-based planning and campaigns around ecological protection.

    She recently stated during her TED talk, “Environmental justice is a civil rights and human rights analysis of environmental decision making with a focus on the permitting process that gives polluters permission to pollute within a regulatory standard for air, water, and soil.” These allowances impact the health of the people within those communities. She suggests, "To capitalize, we must mobilize a critical mass of people to create real change and to monitor that our policies are implemented in the way that was intended.”

  • Leah Thomas

    In a recent article for Vogue magazine, Leah Thomas, the founder of the Intersectional Environmentalist—a platform dedicated to shifting the narrative of environmental storytelling to center diversity—listed the names of the five women who inspire her to do the work she does.

    Betty Reid Soskin became a park ranger at 85; Hazel M. Johnson fought for clean air and water; Teresa Baker is the co-founder of the non-profit organization The Outdoorist Oath; Gloria Walton is the President and CEO of The Solutions Project; and wildlife ecologist Dr. Rae Wynn Grant (featured above) are all among her environmental heroes.

    Thomas, who is “tired of single-lens environmental narratives,” wants more Black girls worldwide to see themselves reflected so that “they’ll know that they belong in the world of environmentalism.”

  • Betty Reid Soskin

    Betty Reid Soskin, a civil rights activist who retired at age 100 from being the country’s oldest active national park ranger, continues to inspire. Soskin, who worked at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front national historical park (a place to remember how women contributed to the war efforts), became a spokesperson for the diverse experiences of women of color during World War II.

    Soskin, a file clerk in a segregated union hall in the San Francisco Bay area during World War II, brought national attention to our parks and the importance of environmental protections to future generations.

    “What we do or fail to do about global warming and climate change is going to determine whether our grandchildren will inherit a livable climate,” she informed her visitor center audiences at the Rosie Museum, according to the Richmond Pulse. “We met the threat of fascist world domination…but now this generation will have to exceed that mobilization on an international scale, to save the planet.”

  • Bryant Terry

    Chef and award-winning author Bryant Terry is a food justice activist who focuses on creating a sustainable food system that offers healthy and affordable foods. Terry has written books that include vegetarian and vegan recipes. However, he has stated that he doesn’t want veganism to be the focal point.

    “My goal is to get people eating real food again,” said the 2015 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award winner during a podcast with Appalachian Today.

    Terry wants to educate people on what is happening in our food system, how factory farming affects animals, the environment, and local economies, and how “eating more local, seasonal, and sustainable fresh whole foods can have such a positive impact on your own personal well-being,” he stated.

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