Midwest Black Women Climate Justice Leaders

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Last fall, I led a reading group on climate justice and learned about three leaders from the midwest who inspire me. They recognize that climate change is having the greatest impact on communities who have the least. And they share visions and solutions that help us see the way forward for an intersectional climate movement.

I encountered Dr. Dorceta Taylor and Isra Hirsi as I looked for voices that called out the racism in the environmental movement; Dr. Taylor does this through historical and contemporary analysis as a researcher and professor, and Isra Hirsi models this through her activism. I saw Naomi Davis speak at a Lobby Day I attended in Springfield. Through her activism and advocacy, she is helping to demonstrate the power of intersectional organizing. I hope you will be as inspired by them as I have been.

Dr. Dorceta Taylor, Michigan

Dr. Dorceta Taylor grew up in rural Jamaica in the 1960s. As a child, she was in charge of watering the family rose garden, an experience she credits for her early connection to the land. She completed dual doctoral degrees in Environmental Sociology and Environmental Studies at Yale University, but her journey towards prominence in environmental science was a lonely one.

In her first undergraduate class at Northeastern Illinois University, she was the only Black student. When she brought this to the attention of the professor, he claimed that Black students weren’t interested in the environment. This contradicted everything she had experienced in her community growing up.

Dr. Taylor has since helped reframe white people’s perception that Black people haven’t contributed to the environmental movement and aren’t interested. She points out that historic figures like Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved woman in the 1700s, were writing reverently about the environment a century before the widely acclaimed transcendentalists (who were predominantly white and male). And although carpooling is seen as a phenomenon more common among white folks, Dr. Taylor notes that participants in the Montgomery Bus Boycott carpooled long before it was associated with a conservation lifestyle.

More recently, Dr. Taylor has studied the underrepresentation of people of color in environmental organizations. People of color and indigenous people make up 38% of the overall population in the United States, but only 16 percent of employees in environmental organizations. “I find most [organizations] underprice the labor of young people of color,” she notes, and suggests these organizations hire more people of color. She encourages candidates to be firm in their negotiations, and reminds us that good salaries contribute to longer retention of employees who have a critical role to play in fighting for multi-dimensional climate solutions.

Naomi Davis, Illinois

Naomi Davis was born in Queens, New York and moved to Chicago in the ’70s, where she got a degree in law at the John Marshall Law School. She says about herself, “I am the granddaughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, and I was raised with love and respect for the land.” In 2007 she founded a Chicago-based non-profit called Blacks In Green, BIG for short, that “serves as a bridge and catalyst among communities and their stakeholders in the design and development of green, self-sustaining, mixed-income, walkable villages in communities owned and populated by African Americans.”

Why did she start BIG? Davis describes “watching the disintegration of the black community . . . It seemed that we had the worst of everything: health disparities, mis-education, dropouts, hyperincarceration, violence, unprepared parents, unemployment, misery.” She determined that there was an opportunity to capitalize on the green economy in order to revitalize the Black community. She wanted to revive characteristics of the “self-sustaining neighborhood” that she grew up in: it was walkable, there were locally owned businesses, and people were proud of their neighborhood. Just last year, BIG launched the Green Living Room in the West Woodlawn neighborhood, where they put into practice principles of “green village-building.” The Green Living Room is a hub of commerce and community that includes a coffee shop, conference space, green retail with an Afro-centric focus, a computer station and a pollinator garden.

Isra Hirsi, Minnesota

Isra Hirsi is sixteen and she’s a founding organizer and Partnerships Director for the U.S. Youth Climate Strike. She joined her school’s Green Team as a high school freshman, and then got involved with I Matter, a group that helped pass a city-wide climate resolution in Minneapolis, MN, where Isra lives. With a coalition of supporters, Isra helped advocate for a comprehensive plan that puts the city on track to achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. She went on to work with Minnesota Can’t Wait, a group that helped write and introduce a state-wide Green New Deal in 2019.

Isra has been an outspoken advocate for diversity in the climate movement. She is often the only Black person in the room, and she suggests that one thing white people can do is take a step back. She says, “this doesn’t mean dissociating from a group, it means letting others lead.”

The youth climate movement started abroad; as U.S. youth work to build a more diverse coalition of environmental advocates, they also face a unique challenge: there are a significant number of people who don’t believe climate change is real. Isra acknowledges that “it’s a very slow pace, but with politics changing and 2020 [approaching], it’s been a lot easier to talk to people again. These presidential candidates, especially the bigger ones, are talking about how this is a problem. People are realizing we have to do something today.”

Conclusion

These three women make the work of climate justice visible and concrete. They demonstrate a variety of ways to build and advocate for resilient communities. As Walter Moseley writes in his 2006 Life Out of Context, “[I]n working for one good, we are necessarily working for all good. We must try to remember that we are all only partially informed; that someone working on a different tangle may be helping us along the way.” We have brilliant, strong, and visionary leaders to follow; and we need everyone to be part of the untangling.

Miriam is the executive director of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center. She is a former elementary school librarian in the Champaign Schools. She reviews children’s books for the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books and plays flute with several bands including the Mean Lids.

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