Environmental justice leaders share stories of colleagues and ‘unsung heroes’ for Black History Month

“A great cloud of witnesses” gathered for a United Church of Christ commemoration of Black History Month this week.

At the Feb. 14 Black History virtual gathering, “Unsung Heroes of the Environmental Justice Movement,” the Rev. Brooks Berndt, co-host and UCC minister for environmental justice, introduced the famous passage from Hebrews 12 as one that described the many current and past leaders involved in the event.

“I find myself excited that we have our past leaders who have shaped the path for us to run in, and I’m also excited for our present elders who guide us along that path today,” said the Rev. Michael Malcom, co-host and executive director of Alabama Interfaith Power and Light. “And today, we need their voices more than ever. We’ve seen some strides in both the environmental and the climate justice movement and, in those strides, we’ve also seen that we’ve got a whole lot more strides to make. We need to lean on our elders.”

‘Groundbreaking, transformative’

The panel — a “who’s who in environmental justice,” as Berndt described it — included several prolific leaders of today.

One of the speakers, Peggy Shepard, serves as executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice in New York City. She honored activist Cecil Corbin-Mark, who she first met at a neighborhood block party and became a close colleague and fellow advocate in the environmental justice movement.

“The work he did at city and state levels was groundbreaking — it was transformative,” Shepard said.

Corbin-Mark’s work included successfully campaigning New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority to invest in clean fuel buses, lobbying the New York City Council to pass the strongest lead poisoning standard in the country, helping to pass New York State legislation that banned BPA chemicals in children’s products, campaigning to develop a state environmental justice advisory committee and playing a leading role in a coalition working for “asthma-free homes,” among many other accomplishments.  

Shepard, as well as several other panelists, commended Corbin-Mark’s leadership and mentoring.

“So many people come up and tell me that, you know, Cecil was instrumental in helping them do something in their locality,” Shepard said. “We have developed a fellowship program in his name to create the next generation of Cecils.”

The full recording of the commemoration is available on the UCC’s YouTube channel.

‘Built for these fights’

Some of the “sheros” of environmental justice in the South and Gulf Coast were highlighted by speaker Robert Bullard, executive director of Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice, professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University and an author of the “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty” 20th anniversary report commissioned by the UCC in 2007.

Bullard drew attention to environmental justice leaders Patsy Oliver and Margaret Williams, who each became community advocates when they learned their respective communities in East Texas and Florida were built on top of toxic industrial and waste sites. Both successfully fought for residents of their communities to be compensated and relocated, which took commitment over long periods of time — in Oliver’s case, 10 years.

He also shared the story of two grandmothers, Gloria Roberts and Emelda West, who successfully prevented a PVC plant from being built across from an elementary school in Convent, Louisiana.

“These women were warriors — they were built for these fights,” Bullard said. “They didn’t ask for these fights, but it was thrust upon them. I salute them and we lift them up.”

‘Make it right’

Cheryl Johnson, who serves as executive director for the Chicago-based People for Community Recovery, shared about her mother, Hazel Johnson, who founded the organization and has been referred to as a “mother of the environmental justice movement.”

Johnson described how determinedly her mother fought for their Chicago community in response to bad air quality and high illness rates due to the toxic landfill on which their public housing had been built, even in the face of backlash and strong resistance.

It is a legacy that the younger Johnson has been inspired to continue.

“I tell people to get involved with something you care about in your community that you know is wrong,” Johnson said. “It’s going to take people to be engaged to take something wrong and try to make it right. Take your passion if you think something’s wrong in your community, because that’s what she did. She wanted to make a change.”

‘We are all interconnected’

Vernice Miller-Travis, executive vice president of the Metropolitan Group and a contributing author to the UCC’s 1987 landmark report “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States,” spoke passionately about her personal friend and public leader, Dana Alston.

Alston touched countless people throughout her work at the intersection of development, public health, disaster recovery and environmental justice, Miller-Travis said. Together with Hazel Johnson and many others, Alston was involved in the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, of which the UCC was the primary organizer.

“We are all interconnected,” Miller-Travis said. “We are blessed in the environmental justice movement that we attracted everybody. The nationalists were there with us, the faith-based folks were there with us, the folks who worked on reproductive rights were there with us, the people working on neighborhood revitalization were there with us, the public health scientists were there with us … and so many other people.

“We were a huge community of people, and Dana was at the center. And the work that we do now, I say we do it in her honor.”

A recording of the “Unsung Heroes of the Environmental Justice Movement” webinar is available on the UCC’s YouTube channel.

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Categories: United Church of Christ News

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