Black Women Are Leaders in the Climate Movement

Environmentalism, in other words, is a black issue.

By Heather McTeer Toney, national field director of Moms Clean Air Force, July 25, 2019 in the NYTimes.

Dr. Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, an environmental activist, is one of the founders of the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance.
Dr. Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, an environmental activist, is one of the founders of the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance.CreditCreditAudra Melton for The New York Times

Before the first Democratic debate, I watched one of my favorite shows, MSNBC’s AM Joy, excited to see not one, but three people of color tapped to talk about climate change and how candidates were discussing it along the campaign trail. My heart dropped when Tiffany Cross, a guest commentator on the show, stated that while climate change disproportionately impacts communities of color, it’s an issue only in very “niche groups” of those communities. She wasn’t claiming that the issue wasn’t important, but that your average black person didn’t see it as an everyday thing.

Despite stereotypes of a lack of interest in environmental issues among African-Americans, black women, particularly Southern black women, are no strangers to environmental activism. Many of us live in communities with polluted air and water, work in industries from housekeeping to hairdressing where we are surrounded by toxic chemicals and have limited food options that are often impacted by pesticides.

Environmentalism, in other words, is a black issue.

For more than 20 years, Dr. Mildred McClain has been fighting to protect and educate communities of color in Savannah, Ga. When the air was thick with pollution from the shipping channels in the Savannah port in 2018, Dr. McClain convened community meetingsso that people were part of the solution. She encouraged African-Americans in her community to become certified in environmental fields like hazardous waste removal, soil remediation and air monitoring.

Dr. Beverly Wright, a professor of sociology, has been training leaders from our country’s historically black colleges and universities in the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. She started the HBCU Climate Change Consortium and the HBCU-CBO Gulf Equity Consortium, where her students assisted Hurricane Katrina victims, researched climate impacts on vulnerable communities and took their brilliance to places like the COP21 in Paris to witness the negotiation of the Paris Climate Accord.

Dr. Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, a community activist and an assistant professor of environmental and health sciences, helped to start West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA), an organization in West Atlanta that has helped protect an entire community watershed from sewer overflows that affected one of the area’s oldest black neighborhoods.

An informational flyer on environmental wellness available at the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance.
An informational flyer on environmental wellness available at the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance.CreditAudra Melton for The New York Times

We live in pollution, play around it, work for it and pray against it. Hell, we even sing about it. Black women are everyday environmentalists; we just don’t get the headlines too often.

Rarely do we see or hear black voices as part of national conversations about policy solutions, the green economy or clean energy. We’re relegated to providing a comment on environmental justice issues like the water crisis in Flint; or we’re the faces in the photos when candidates need to show that they’re inclusive when talking about climate solutions.

This January in my home state of Mississippi, hundreds of families and farms were overwhelmed with floodwaters. In 2019 alone, the Mississippi Delta has experienced 114 days of high water — the most days of consistent flooding since the Great Flood of 1927. Communities from Belzoni to Anguilla to Rolling Fork to Greenville have been ravaged.

I grew up in the Mississippi Delta, mere blocks from the river. As a child, I both feared and respected it. I was raised in a community of elders who told stories of how women and children were evacuated and more than 700,000 were made homeless by the treacherous 1927 floodwaters. Black men were forced by white landowners and law enforcement — at gunpoint — to build barriers. Black women could get food for their children only through a white person to whom they “belonged” or for whom they worked on their plantation. An estimated 10,000 farm families were stranded near my hometown while they watched in horror as the river kept rising.

Our elders and ancestors lived through emergencies. The 1928 Hurricane of Lake Okeechobee is rumored to be the greatest loss of black life in one day before Hurricane Katrina. At least 2,500 souls perished in that flood, mostly black migrant workers from the Caribbean. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and the Eastern Seaboard Heatwave of 1911 both saw significant loss of life, but also the survival of those who made it through.

When I became mayor of Greenville, Miss., in 2004, I grew from revering the river to respecting its power and understanding the need to protect it. Over the course of my eight years as mayor, Greenville experienced two 500-year flood events.

Despite hearing the Republican rhetoric of “climate change ain’t real,” people knew that something more than a rising river was changing and amiss. Deer and duck seasons weren’t the same as in years past. Cotton and soybean crop yields were different; increased heat, droughts and floods meant more pests and decreased yields. The river waters were coming faster and stronger from the increased snow from the Northeast. It felt like no one was listening to the voices of the poor, of rural folks, of Southerners. We knew then just as we do now: Climate change is a threat to black life.

Earlier this year, I attended the Women’s Auxiliary meeting of the National Baptist Convention in Jackson, Miss. A group of us from Moms Clean Air Force had produced a climate-focused Bible study,but we’d made a miscalculation. In a room of more than 350 black church women leaders, we ran out of the 150 Bible study books we had on hand.

These studies include scriptures, lessons and actions that activate a community to engage on climate. Each lesson included actions that members could take either individually or collectively as a congregation. From simple nature walks with a Sunday school class to calculating your ecological footprint to discussing air pollution and asthma among members; each section of the Bible study ends with an action.

One woman wasn’t leaving without the assurance of getting a study book.

“Listen baby, stick this in your bra, I want to make sure you don’t lose it,” she said to my colleague Shakeila James. We smiled as we knew exactly what she meant.

Only items of precious value and importance are kept in a black woman’s bra. Be it a hidden $20 bill, the phone number of a special person or numbers to be played in the lottery; there is no more secure place on this planet. To be given a note to put in one’s bra, close to the heart, is an unspoken message of trust, and this dear lady was communicating it clearly. My friend stuck the paper with the woman’s name, address and phone number in her bosom. She’d make sure the woman got her book.

It’s now our responsibility together as black women — but even more so as black people — to continue sharing the messages of not only climate but also our expertise on what can be done. We must make our voices heard by contacting our congressperson and senator, and by voting for climate candidates. These actions will get us to the larger goal of passing the kind of big, ambitious federal laws like those requiring 100 percent clean energy that we need to rein in our carbon and methane emissions.

Let us all begin passing the proverbial “bosom notes” through churches, schools, grocery stores and neighborhoods everywhere. Our communities and our mothers are depending on us.