Great Women: 4 Black Female Environmentalists Who Changed History

Great Women: 4 Black Female Environmentalists Who Changed History

With environmental problems becoming more and more severe, there are also more people advocating for changes in the industry and other related fields to protect the environment. This week CLOECO is featuring four black female environmentalists who devoted themselves to make a better world. 


(Photo courtesy of The Brattleboro Reformer)

Wangari Maathai

"Maathai stood up courageously against the former oppressive regime in Kenya. Her unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression—nationally and internationally. She has served as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights and has especially encouraged women to better their situation."

— The Norwegian Nobel Committee, in a statement announcing Maathai as the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner. 

The first black female environmentalist is Wangari Maathai. A renowned Kenyan social, environmental and political activist and the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize.

Maathai was born in 1940 in Kenya, later got educated in the United States at Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College) and University of Pittsburgh, major in biology. She then moved back to Kenya to continue advocating for her political and environmental statements.  

In 1977, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women's rights. In 1984, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award for "converting the Kenyan ecological debate into mass action for reforestation." 

In 2004 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her "contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace", became the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the prize.


(Photo courtesy of Grinnell College)

LaDonna Redmond

“Food justice is not just about nutrition. It’s about dignity, and it’s about being visible.”

The second black female environmentalist is LeDonna Redmond. She is a Minneapolis-based food activist, who has been a dedicated food activist for nearly twenty years now.

She was initially inspired to fight for a fairer food system after facing limited access to nutritious and organic food in her native Chicago community. She then led a food movement to convert vacant city lots into urban farms and to replace junk food with salad bars in the Chicago Public School System. She also co-founded the Chicago Food Systems Collaborative to help solve the issues of food access and public health in low-income communities.

Redmond was named a Responsibility Pioneer in 2009 by TIME Magazine and awarded the Green for All Fellowship in 2007. 

Recently she founded Campaign for Food Justice Now, which focuses on the inequalities within the food system in regards to race, class, and gender. 


(Photo courtesy of TED)

Majora Carter 

The third black female environmentalist is Majora Carter. She is the Co-founder of non-profit environmental justice solutions corporation Sustainable South Bronx, an urban revitalization strategy consultant, and a Peabody Award winning broadcaster. 

Carter was born in 1966 in South Bronx, New York, where she attended primary schools. She then studied film at Wesleyan University and later received a Master of Fine Arts from New York University. 

In August 2001, Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx) and worked as the executive director until 2008. During that time, Carter and SSBx advocated for the development of the Hunt’s Point Riverside Park, which had been an illegal garbage dump. SSBx programs focus on various aspects, including fitness, food choices, air quality, etc. In 2003, SSBx started the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training program, which was one of the nation’s first urban green-collar training and placement programs.

In 2014, Carter was the on-camera and the voice-over host of Water Blues - Green Solutions, a one-hour documentary on Green Infrastructure in several American cities. 

As one of the first six TED talkers to launch the website in 2006, Carter’s talk was full of her energy and passion for urban sustainability and the black community. She devoted her life to promoting her ideas about environmental justice and sustainability, and her company, Majora Carter Group, is also striving to promote green economic tools. 


(Photo courtesy of Goldman Prize)

Marjorie Richard

"You have to go out and command justice. Somebody has to ask God for the inner strength to be bold."

The fourth black female environmentalist is Marjorie Richard. She is the first African-American to win the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2004, for her successful campaign for relocating people who lived in a community close to a chemical plant in Norco, Louisiana.

Richard’s family has lived in Old Diamond for four generations, where it was also known as “Cancer Alley”. At that time, this small town had reportedly high rates of cancer, birth defects, and other serious diseases, and all the ailments were thought to be related to oil refinery plants owned by Shell and its subsidiaries. 

Richard said that the defining event in her life to become an activist was in 1973 when a Shell pipeline exploded and killed an elderly woman and a teenage boy who was mowing the lawn. She recalled spotting a body lying beneath a sheet, and the teenage boy, who was still alive then, was covered with burns and blisters. 

In 1989, Richard, then a middle school teacher, founded Concerned Citizens of Norco to seek justice from Shell of fair and just resettlement costs for her family and her neighbors. Over the next 13 years, Richard led a community campaign about hard science, grassroots organizing, and media savvy. She joined forces with environmentalists and researchers and released a report that showed that the Shell refinery in Norco releases more than 2 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air each year.

In 2000, Shell finally agreed to reduce its emissions by 30% and improve its emergency evacuation routes and to pay voluntary relocation costs for residents who lived on the two streets closest to the plant. Richard later goes on her advocacy for environmental justice and care for black communities. 

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Thank you so much for compiling this information! I was able to learn a lot and I have gained great appreciation for these women.

kellie LeGrand,

I really enjoyed this article. As an African Amerian woman in the textile recycling industry, it is so refreshing to see others who are helping us save our environment. Each of us can do something, no matter how small or big. It will take all of us to save our environment.

Elaine Birks-Mitchell, CEO of The Bra Recyclers

Elaine ,

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