Environmental Justice: Recognizing the History and its Founders
By Matt Mahoney | January 14, 2022
In 2021, Pennsylvania state government officials introduced legislation to strengthen our state’s Environmental Justice system. The executive order from Governor Tom Wolf and supporting bills introduced by State Representatives Donna Bullock, Malcolm Kenyatta, and Chris Rabb, and state Senator Vincent Hughes, would codify and reinforce environmental justice as a priority for Pennsylvania.
The announcement coincided with the thirty year anniversary of The First National People of Color Environmental Summit in Washington, D.C. Environmental leaders from across the world participated in this gathering that would fundamentally redefine environmentalism in public policy discourse.
For some, environmental policy only meant protecting natural landscapes, wetlands and habitats for wildlife, leaving cultural environments, urban habitats, and other overburdened environments out of mainstream policy debates. Yet for generations, community leaders insisted on a holistic definition of environmentalism. During the 1991 Summit, they created 17 Principles of Environmental Justice to integrate culture, class, race, and region into the environmental policy discussion.
One of the Summit’s participants, Hazel M. Johnson, traveled from Chicago’s Atgeld Gardens, a housing project of Chicago’s Housing Authority, where she lived with her husband and children. Atgeld Gardens was surrounded by industrial pollution, so when Hazel’s husband died unexpectedly at the age of 41 from lung cancer, she started leaning into local health issues and informing government officials of her community’s poor environmental conditions. She formed People for Community Recovery where she surveyed residents and compiled quantifiable evidence of the disproportionate health impacts caused by environmental pollution in her urban community.
Over the decades, Hazel’s work led her to become known as the Mother of Environmental Justice, earning the distinction through her commitment to advocating for Main Street on Constitution Avenue and ensuring justice, equity and mutual respect are woven into the fabric of environmental policy discourse. People for Community Recovery is now led by Hazel’s daughter, Cheryl Johnson, continuing her mother’s legacy and representing the generational commitment necessary for Environmental Justice to stand on its own.
As Pennsylvania’s law currently stands, our Commonwealth could abandon Environmental Justice programs if a future Governor or Secretary doesn’t value it, highlighting the persistent fragility of our public policy landscape. Hazel’s work demonstrates the power of advocating for justice, and highlights the work we still need to do.