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Black female champions in sustainability

When we consider sustainability, it is important for us to view it holistically with a view of people, planet and profit. As we reach the end of Black History Month, with a theme of 'Saluting Our Sisters', we wanted to highlight 6 black female sustainability warriors whose voices have been able to create impressive change in the climate change movement.

Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan politician and environmental activist who was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize for Peace, becoming the first Black African woman to win a Nobel Prize. Her work was often considered both unwelcome and subversive in her own country, where her outspokenness constituted stepping far outside traditional gender roles. Maathai developed the idea that village women could improve the environment by planting trees to provide a fuel source and to slow the processes of deforestation and desertification. The Green Belt Movement, an organisation she founded in 1977, has planted over 30 million trees. As a result of the movement, similar initiatives were begun in other African countries, including Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe.

Kari Fulton works to mobilise action with others by building awareness of the connection between environmental and social justice issues. She led the youth campaign for the Environmental Justice and Climate Change (EJCC) initiative of the United Nations, in which she trains young people (with focus on students of colour at historically black colleges) about the importance of the green movement. She has worked with various coalitions to coordinate campaigns, conferences including Power Shift (one of the largest youth climate summits).

Marjorie Richard is the first African-American to win the Goldman Environmental Prize. Growing up in a historically African-American neighbourhood in Louisiana, she was aware of the devastating health problems her community faced as a result of a nearby refinery. The defining moment which convinced her to become an activist occurred in 1973 when a pipeline exploded, knocking one house off its foundation and killing an elderly woman and a teenage boy. Richard installed a camera in her trailer home to broadcast live feeds of the refinery emitting petrochemical by-products to shed light on her community's situation. She led the front line of a long battle to hold that refinery accountable, securing an agreement from them to reduce their toxic emissions by 30 percent, contribute $5 million to a community development fund, and finance the relocation of her neighbours in Louisiana.

Mikaela Loach is a climate justice activist based in Edinburgh, Scotland who has been nominated for the Global Citizen Prize, the UK’s Hero Award. Loach is one of three claimants who took the UK government to court to challenge the Oil & Gas Association’s policy in the North Sea and the government subsidies it received. Committed to making the climate movement more inclusive, she uses her Instagram to highlight harm caused by the fossil fuel industry and the ways the climate crisis intersects with racial justice, migrant justice, and refugee rights. She recently released her book: 'IT'S NOT THAT RADICAL: Climate Action To Transform Our World'.

Genesis Butler is a 15-year-old environmental and animal rights activist and one of the youngest people to ever give a TEDx talk. Inspired by her great uncle, the civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, Genesis’ talk “A 10 year old’s vision for healing the planet” discusses the negative impact of animal agriculture on the environment. You can watch it here:

Hazel M. Johnson is largely responsible for the environmental justice movement we have today. Hazel fought for clean water, air and increased awareness about the health impacts that affected her community in Chicago, which was located on top of a toxic waste site. Through her advocacy and discovery that many Black communities were disproportionately surrounded by environmental hazards, Johnson changed the history of the environmental movement and sparked new research that analysed the relationship between identity and environmental hazards. She founded the People for Community Recovery organisation in 1979 to address both environmental and renters’ rights concerns in her community. By doing so, she helped spark the creation of similar environmental justice organisations around the world.

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