May 18, 2022

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9 Black environmentalists you should know about


There are way too many Black environmentalists doing important work to list in a single article. But in honor of Black History Month, here are just a few who are making a big difference in the world, from scientists to vegan chefs.

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Walter McDowney

From the time he was just a boy living in the Washington, DC area, Walter McDowney was fascinated by Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. He loved learning about both the history and the natural world at Kenilworth, which is now preserved by the National Park Service.

In 1967, he became Kenilworth’s first African American park ranger. He took local urban kids on their first camping trips, sharing his enthusiasm for nature. In 1985, he won the National Park Service’s highest honor, the Freeman Tilden Award for excellence in interpretation. Through his involvement with developing the Junior Ranger Program, he turned untold numbers of children of all races into budding environmentalists.

Related: How to support environmental justice

Erika Boyd

Erika Boyd has always loved food. Her mother was a nutritionist who ran a community food service program for the city of Detroit. Her grandmother taught her how to cook soul food dishes and her father co-owned and cooked at a Detroit café. But after losing her father to cancer in 2010, Boyd started rethinking her family’s diet. She veganized soul food recipes.

In 2012, she partnered with entrepreneur Kirsten Ussery to open Detroit Vegan Soul. Since then, the pair have been educating fellow Detroiters about the health and environmental benefits of veganism.

As they say on their website, “Detroit Vegan Soul helps people live healthier lives by providing great-tasting, high-quality, nutritious vegan food that appeals to everyone while at the same time doing our part to support a sustainable earth.”

Dr. Beverly L. Wright

Dr. Wright founded the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, a community/university partnership that helps people along the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor. The center investigates health and environmental inequities in the area and trains a new generation of underserved populations for environmental justice jobs.

Disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the BP Deep Water Horizon oil spill have kept the center busy. Wright co-authored two books, “Race, Place & the Environment After Hurricane Katrina” and “The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response Endangers African-American Communities.”

Genesis Butler

Fourteen-year-old animal rights activist Genesis Butler has already been making international news for several years, notably for asking that Pope Francis go vegan for Lent in 2019. Disappointingly, he didn’t — even with a consortium of celebrities backing Butler and offering one million dollars going to a charity of the pope’s choice. Butler has identified as an animal rights activist since the age of six.

“But once I learn about the devastating effects of animal agriculture has on the climate and the environment when I was ten, then I became a climate activist,” she states on her website. She leads the group Youth Climate Save and is one of the youngest people to ever give a TEDx talk.

Rue Mapp

San Francisco Bay Area resident Rue Mapp founded Outdoor Afro to encourage Black people to develop their connection with nature, and learn to love hiking, fishing, camping, biking and kayaking as much as she does. She’s led volunteer trainings for almost a decade now to teach other people to lead nature outings and promote conservation.

Justin Dunnavant and Ayana Flewellen

Drs. Ayana Flewellen and Justin Dunnavant cofounded the Society of Black Archaeologists and are involved with creating more sustainable archeological practices. They work with Diving With a Purpose and the Slave Wrecks Project to document and interpret maritime heritage of the African diaspora. 

Their respect for ecology and involvement of locals in community-based archeology has introduced many Saint Croix youth to scuba diving, archeology and historic preservation at the Estate Little Princess, an 18th century sugar plantation in the Virgin Islands.

Venice R. Williams

As executive director of Alice’s Garden Urban Farm in Milwaukee, Venice R. Williams oversees garden plots, farmers’ markets and events that bring together gardeners from many countries. 

The garden’s aims to “provide models of regenerative farming, community cultural development and economic agricultural enterprises for the global landscape,” according to its website. Williams sees herself as a cultural and spiritual midwife to this verdant, peaceful oasis in Milwaukee. She strongly believes that “she was put in Creation to help bring forth all that is good and whole in people and places.”

Majora Carter

Real estate developer Majora Carter combines urban renewal and environmentalism. She grew up in the South Bronx in the 1970s, where she witnessed a neighborhood decimated by leveling buildings in favor of putting in a highway and other urban problems. As an adult, she set out to revitalize her community. Spearheading the development of Hunts Point Riverside Park is just one of her many accomplishments. She also founded Sustainable South Bronx to improve environmental and economic conditions and provide green job training. Her consulting firm The Marjora Carter Group tackles issues of the intersection of technology, environment and business.

John Francis

A 1971 San Francisco Bay oil spill changed John Francis’ life in a profound way. After scrubbing beaches and trying to save petroleum-coated birds, he decided to give up all motorized transportation. Instead, he walked.

Even though he took a 17-year vow of silence, he still became famous in environmental circles. He spent 22 years walking through the U.S. and South America, which earned him the nickname Planet Walker. When a car hit him in 1990 — just after he started speaking again — he managed to convince the ambulance drivers to let him walk to the hospital.

“Part of the mystery of walking is that the destination is inside us and we really don’t know when we arrive until we arrive,” he said.

He is the author of “Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence.” He holds a PhD in land resources and teaches environmental studies at the university level.

Lead image via Pexels



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