The history between the Black community and our natural world is deep-rooted, rich and immensely complex. Despite their significant contributions to the movement, the impact and efforts of Black environmentalists are often overlooked. But make no mistake, Black environmentalists have always been leaders, trailblazers and passionate change-makers in the environmental movement.
Intersectionality within the environmental movement is essential in making change, but often overlooked or misunderstood. Meet five Black environmentalists who have dedicated their lives and careers to preserving, exploring and organizing communities to protect our natural world— all while advocating for intersectionality in the environmental movement.
Photo by New Leaders Initiative
“I took that frustration of being the supposed angry black girl and I would attempt to reclaim it. I felt like if I would be labeled as angry I might as well continue being labeled as angry and use it to defend so many people who did not have that voice.”
Isra Hirsi is a high school student in Minnesota and Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of the US Youth Climate Strike. She led the organization while more than 100,000 young people participated in the strike for climate justice, going down in history as a major turning point for environmental action. Isra gave a Ted Talk where she shared her experience as being labeled “the angry Black girl”— a title that she has reclaimed and used to fuel her work.
Isra started her activism and involvement at a young age. Now, she has taken a step back from organizing. Isra has made it clear that her goals are to better her community— not to pursue fame. A lot of environmentalists cite nature as their reason for taking action, but Isra cites her community. She seeks to build an environmental justice movement that young people of colors can see themselves in. Isra hopes to attend college and become a public defender or social worker. For now, she’s focused on creating an inclusive and accessible movement within her community.
Photo via Eileen Fisher
DR. AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON
"It’s so easy to think about the typical environmentalist as this stereotype of a fit white guy stepping out of a Prius, looking out into the mountains wearing a Patagonia jacket. But I’ve looked into the polling data, and that’s completely false.
It’s young people, and it’s people of color, and it’s women who disproportionately care about environmental and climate issues, and are most supportive of stronger government policies to address them."
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson has been named “the most influential marine biologist of our time by Outside Magazine)— a title well-deserved for her work in protecting oceans and coastal communities. Founder of Urban Ocean Lab, a community-based platform for climate and ocean policy-makers, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson has been a pioneer in her field and vital component to the feminist climate renaissance movement.
In addition to her many, many amazing accomplishments and honors in the environmental activism space, Ayana is a prolific storyteller. Her storytelling is a captivating medium for communicating important issues and getting people involved in climate action. Ayana and journalist Alex Blumberg cohost a podcast: How to Save a Planet. The two discuss how to tackle climate change with a sense of humor while exploring how we can build the type of future we want to live in.
Ayana is also a climate feminist. To share the critical perspectives of women in the climate movement, Ayana and Dr. Katharine Wilkinson coedited All We Can Save, a collection of essays, poetry and art from women at the heart of the environmental movement.
Between mentoring, volunteering, serving on the board of directors for multiple nonprofits (including Billion Oyster Project, Oceanic Global & Environmental Voter Project) and using storytelling to inspire others, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is making waves in the environmental justice movement.
Photo by Bethanie Hines
"We’re starting to shift the visual representation of what getting out into nature looks like—not only who can be in nature, but who can lead."
Rue Mapp is the Founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro— a nonprofit environmental organization that celebrates and inspires Black connections with nature through nation-wide leadership networks. Rue transformed Outdoor Afro from a grassroots foundation into a nationally recognized nonprofit by fostering personal connections, community outreach and organizing.
Rue doesn't just love the outdoors— she loves leading others to love the outdoors. Long hours spent with friends at her family's ranch ignited her love for sharing nature with others and making outdoor adventure a community event. Hospitality was a value instilled by her father, who had a long-standing open invitation for Rue's friends to visit the ranch. This gave Rue the foundation for starting Outdoor Afro.
Since starting, the nonprofit has connected thousands, especially within the Black community, to nature and the benefits of the outdoors. Rue Mapp is also a highly requested speaker, sharing her voice with diverse communities in the United States and Canada.
Photo via Angelou Ezeilo
"This work is important to me because I know that most communities of color are not being represented in the environmental field: they are not aware of the opportunities and joy that the outdoors bring to people. I fell in love with the outdoors as a young girl and that love is what motivates me to ensure that other brown children have access to similar experiences."
Angelou began her career as a Project Manager for the Trust for Public Land, where she advocated for land preservation. In her work, Angelou identified a disconnect between preserved land and community education. She recognized the importance of educating future generations on the natural world and the policies needed to protect it— inspiring her to create Greening Youth Foundation.
Angelou has been dedicated to diversifying the environmental movement throughout her career. She aims to inspire more BIPOC to join the movement and help to create a space where careers in the field are accessible and available and all. Her book, Engage, Connect, Protect: Empowering Diverse Youth as Environmental Leaders busts the myth that environmental issues are primarily of interest to wealthy white communities, and shares how BIPOC communities are often left out of the conversation.
Photo via NPS Photo/Luther Bailey
BETTY REID SOSKIN
“I was the only person of color in the room, and the only person who could look at the sites and instantly recognize them as places of racism and segregation.”
Betty Reid Soskin has shaped the history of the American national parks. She is currently serving as the oldest active U.S. National Park ranger, stationed at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front Park in Richmond, CA. Her history at the park starts in 1942 when the land wasn’t a national park, but a shipyard.
The second World War was the time of Rosie the Riveter— often seen as a pivotal time in empowering women to join the workforce. But in 1942, the United States was still segregated, leaving BIPOC out of the liberation movement. This left Betty with few choices. She worked on the shipyard during the war and would be called sixty years later by the National Park Service, looking to build the Rosie the Riveter historical site.
Betty agreed to help design the park and eventually became a full-time ranger. She is dedicated to telling the untold history and shining a light on who was left behind, despite being excluded from the liberation movement sixty years prior.
“The history that I have lived it was nowhere in sight. Not one minute of it. The opportunity to insert the African American stories is what the park became to me.”
The National Parks Foundation is creating a movie about her life and incredible impact that will undoubtedly go down in history: