10 Black Environmental Leaders to FollowNov 17, 2023 11:00AM ● By Boitumelo Masihleho
There is a long, sad history of Black Americans being marginalized within the environmental movement, and systematically excluded from participation in outdoor activities. The fight against institutionalized oppression is becoming more important than ever. Despite these obstacles, Black environmental leaders are shaping many of today’s most important conversations about climate justice and driving cutting-edge research into ecosystems, planetary science, and wildlife. In doing so, they are breaking down barriers that for too long overlooked their contributions and voices. You can follow the amazing work of these 10 inspiring leaders in the environmental movement who are igniting lasting change in their communities and beyond.
Mikaela Loach is a climate justice activist based in Edinburgh, Scotland who has been nominated for the Global Citizen Prize, and the U.K.’s Hero Award. Loach, 25, is a trainee doctor at Edinburgh University and her capacious empathy is part of her armory. Along with her openness and fearlessness, it shapes her inclusive brand of activism, which has seen her take the UK government to court over what she alleged were unlawful tax breaks afforded to North Sea oil and gas companies, share a stage with Bill Gates, and work with refugees in Calais.
In 2020, Cosmopolitan called Loach a “joyful game-changer”, and later that year she launched her Yikes! podcast, while Forbes, Global Citizen, and BBC Woman’s Hour have hailed her as a leading influencer in the UK climate movement. Committed to making the climate movement more inclusive, she uses her Instagram to highlight the harm caused by the fossil fuel industry and the ways the climate crisis intersects with racial justice, migrant justice, and refugee rights.
Nyeema Charmaine Harris is an American environmental scientist who is Associate Professor and Director of the Applied Wildlife Ecology Laboratory at the University of Michigan. Her research considers mammalian carnivores and conservation. A native Philadelphian, Harris is a carnivore ecologist whose research explores carnivore behavior and movement, ecology, and conservation in urban systems and national parks at a global scale with ongoing projects throughout the Americas and Africa. Her work focuses on the myriad of nature’s antagonisms including parasitism, competition, human-wildlife conflict, and predation. Specifically, she critically examines spatial and temporal variations in species interactions, how interactive networks are structured, and the ecological consequences of species loss and land-use change.
Jerome Foster II is a member of President Biden’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council—the youngest White House advisor in U.S. history. Foster is a leading voice for marginalized and working-class communities in spaces pushing for social, economic, and environmental justice. Foster is one of the principal organizers of Fridays for Future, holding weekly climate strikes at the front gates of the White House for over 57 weeks. He previously served as a congressional intern (at the age of 16) for U.S. Rep. John Lewis and served on the Washington, D.C. State Board of Education’s Advisory Council.
Rue Mapp is the Founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, overseeing a carefully selected and trained staff and national volunteer team. Since Outdoor Afro's inception in 2009 as a blog, Rue has captured the attention and support of millions through a multimedia approach that is grounded in personal connections and community organizing. Outdoor Afro is a national not-for-profit organization that has become the nation's leading, cutting-edge network in celebrating and inspiring Black connections and leadership in nature. Mapp was also part of the team that informed the launch of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative. A designer, entrepreneur, and author, Mapp co-created a collection of hiking apparel with outdoor retailer REI and penned the book Nature Swagger, a beautiful compilation of photos and stories about Black joy in nature.
Leah Thomas, aka Green Girl Leah, is an activist for intersectional environmentalism based in southern California and author of the book The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People & Planet. Coining the term ‘eco-communicator’ to describe her style of environmental activism, Thomas uses her passion for writing and creativity to explore and advocate for the critical yet often overlooked relationship between social justice and environmentalism. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, The Washington Post, and Highsnobiety. Thomas advocates for climate change activists to adopt anti-racist approaches in order to facilitate an intersectional environmental movement. She graduated from Chapman University with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Policy and describes her goal as inspiring others to explore new places, live more sustainably, and practice radical self-acceptance.
Peggy Shepard is co-founder and executive director of WE ACT For Environmental Justice and has a long history of organizing and engaging Northern Manhattan residents in community-based planning. She campaigns to address environmental protection and environmental health policy both locally and nationally. WE ACT empowers and organizes low-income, people of color to build healthy communities for all.
Shepard has been named co-chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and chair of the New York City Environmental Justice Advisory Board and was the first female chair of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She also serves on the Executive Committee of the National Black Environmental Justice Network and the Board of Advisors of the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. She has been awarded the Jane Jacobs Medal from the Rockefeller Foundation for Lifetime Achievement in 2008, the Dean's Distinguished Service Award from the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, and Honorary Doctorates from Smith College in 2010. In 2021, she was made Knight of the French National Order of Merit.
Omar Freilla is an Afro-Dominican Bronx native, serial trailblazer, social entrepreneur, and movement builder with a passion for community self-determination and creating solutions to social, environmental, and economic injustice. Freilla is the Founder of Green Worker Cooperatives and creator of the academy model of cooperative development. Green Worker Cooperatives is a South Bronx-based organization dedicated to incubating worker-owned green businesses in order to build a strong local economy rooted in democracy and environmental justice.
His writings have appeared in numerous books, blogs, and articles and he has been featured in several documentaries, including Leonardo DiCaprio’s environmental documentary The 11th Hour. Omar has received multiple awards for his work, including the Rockefeller Foundation’s Jane Jacobs Medal for New Ideas and Activism, and inclusion in various “Power 100” lists published by magazines such as Ebony, Essence, and The Root. Freilla’s passion for community self-determination, personal transformation, and creating solutions to social injustice drives the incredible work he does.
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. Through unsettling facts and humor, Genesis provides insight into how a simple choice can mean the difference between destroying or saving our planet. You can watch the video here.
She went vegan at the age of six and has earned numerous awards and recognitions for her activism, in addition to being featured on an episode of Marvel’s Hero Project by Disney+. Genesis is currently leading the Youth Climate Save movement, the first youth-led environmental organization that focuses on animal agriculture’s impact on climate change and aims to give all young voices a platform. Another way Genesis has supported her cause is by starting her own nonprofit organization, Genesis for Animals, which raises money to support animal sanctuaries all over the world that house rescue animals. Genesis regularly volunteers at animal sanctuaries and knows how costly it can be to run the facility and provide for the animals.
Carolyn Finney is a storyteller, author, and cultural geographer who is deeply interested in issues related to identity, difference, creativity, and resilience. She serves as Artist-in-Resident for Environmental Affairs at Middlebury College. The aim of her work is to develop greater cultural competency within environmental organizations and institutions, challenge media outlets on their representation of difference, and increase awareness of how privilege shapes who gets to speak to environmental issues and determine policy and action. Her must-read first book is Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors.
Along with being the new columnist at the Earth Island Journal, she was recently awarded the Alexander and Ilse Melamid Medal from the American Geographical Society and is an artist-in-residence and the Environmental Studies Professor of Practice in the Franklin Environmental Center at Middlebury College. Finney even filmed a commercial for Toyota that highlighted the importance of African Americans getting out into Nature and served on the U.S. National Parks Advisory Board for eight years which assists the National Park Service in engaging in relations of reciprocity with diverse communities.
Samuel Ramsey is an Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Ramsey is the founder and director of the Ramsey Research Foundation and focuses his research on predatory and parasitic insect behavior. As a child, Ramsey suffered from a debilitating fear of insects – a fear he conquered in second grade by educating himself at his local library. Ramsey’s research on the decline of honey bees has taken him around the globe to better understand how pollinator pandemics start – and how they can be stopped.
His work has been recognized nationally and internationally, earning him wide recognition including first place in both categories of the International Three-Minute Thesis Competition, the American Bee Research Conference’s Award for Distinguished Research, the Alumni Excellence Award from the University of Maryland College Park, and the Acarological Society of America’s Highest Award for Advances in Acarology Research.
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