5 black leaders working for environmental justice today

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People are saying we have to make our communities more climate-resilient, but it has to be a resilience that cuts across race, class, and geography. — Dr. Robert D. Bullard


We can’t talk about climate justice without talking about racial justice. It has long been established that African-American and Latino communities suffer the effects of climate change and environmental degradation at a disproportionate rate compared to predominantly white communities. 

Let’s start with some statistics:

  • A 2012 NAACP study found that black communities breathe in 40 percent more polluted air than White communities across the US as a result of fossil fuel use. A University of Minnesota study concluded that people of color are 38 percent more likely to be exposed to the asthma-causing pollutant nitrogen oxide from cars, construction equipment, and industrial sources like coal plants.
  • 68 percent of African-Americans live within a 30 mile radius of a coal plant despite making up only 13 percent of the entire US population.
  • Similarly, 39 percent of Latino people live within a 30 mile radius despite making up only 17 percent of the US population.
  • Communities of color are much more likely to live near toxic sites, including sites that store fossil fuel waste products. 

To make matters worse, when affected community members become sick, they are not getting the kind of medical help they need and receive less government aid and support. 

“Communities of color are in double jeopardy” from the climate crisis,” said Dr. Beverly Wright, CEO of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University says. 

“First, if you’re a person of color, particularly Black or Latino, you’re more likely to live near toxic facilities, like petrochemical companies here in Louisiana, producing toxins that shorten and impact quality of life. And then, [our communities] are on the front line of impacts from climate change, living in places where there could be more floods and a higher incidence of different [climate-related] diseases. For poor communities, there’s also not having access to health insurance or medical services. Communities of color are disproportionately affected by all of these things.”

Black leaders are taking charge in the fight for environmental justice.

The popular climate justice movement presents itself as a white movement and frequently talks over the voices of the black and brown communities most affected by environmental degradation. To combat that misleading and harmful narrative, we wish to present 5 of the leading black voices working for environmental justice today. This post is no substitute for a long-term commitment to racial and environmental justice, but amplifying the voices of poc in this struggle is a step in shaping a safer environment for everyone. 

Adrienne Hollis, Senior Climate Justice and Health Scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Dr. Hollis works with environmental justice communities to identify priority health concerns related to climate change and other environmental assaults, and evaluates climate and energy policy approaches for their ability to effectively address climate change and benefit underserved communities. She develops and implements projects to document health impacts of climate change on communities of color, and ensures scientific information from UCS is communicated in a culturally competent and helpful manner to vulnerable populations. Within the Climate & Energy program, she is developing and scoping a new research agenda and strategy on climate and health; evaluating climate and energy policies aimed at reducing exposure to negative health and environmental impacts; and recommending policy approaches to foster inclusiveness and greater benefits to underserved communities, and effectively address climate change.


Jacqueline Patterson, Director of Environmental and Climate Justice at the NAACP 

Currently the Director of Environmental and Climate Justice at the NAACP, Jacqui Patterson, MSW, MPH, has served as a trainer, organizer, researcher, program manager, and policy analyst on international and domestic issues including women’s rights, HIV&AIDS, violence against women, racial justice, economic justice, and environmental and climate justice, with organizations including Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Baltimore City Healthy Start, IMA World Health, United for a Fair Economy, ActionAid, Health GAP, and the organization she co-founded, Women of Color United. She also currently serves on the Boards of Directors for the Center for Story Based Strategy, the Institute of the Black World and the US Climate Action Network, as well as on the Steering Committee for Interfaith Moral Action on Climate and Advisory Board for Center for Earth Ethics.


Leslie Fields, director of the Sierra Club's Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Program

Leslie Fields, Esq., brings over twenty years of federal, local and international environmental justice, environmental law and policy experience to the Sierra Club as the Director, Environmental Justice & Community Partnerships Program. Fields is the former International Director of Friends of the Earth-US (an environmental NGO) in Washington, D.C. Fields is currently an adjunct law professor at Howard University School of Law. She serves as a Commissioner on the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies’ Commission to Engage African Americans on Energy, Climate and the Environment. Leslie Fields is a graduate of Cornell University and the Georgetown University Law Center.


Mary Annaïse Heglar

“Mary Annaïse Heglar is a writer who focuses primarily on personal essays about the intersections of climate and justice. She also serves as director of publications for the National Resources Defense Council, and is currently a writer-in-residence at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, where she is working on both short- and long-form pieces about climate change and its human impacts.” -The Oberlin Review

Robert D. Bullard, Considered the Father of Environmental Justice


Robert D. Bullard is often described as the father of environmental justice. He is the former Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University 2011-2016. Professor Bullard currently is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy. Prior to coming to TSU he was founding Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. He received his Ph.D. degree from Iowa State University. He is an award-winning author of eighteen books that address sustainable development, environmental racism, urban land use, industrial facility siting, community reinvestment, housing, transportation, climate justice, disasters, emergency response, and community resilience, smart growth, and regional equity. He is co-founder of the HBCU Climate Change Consortium. 

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