Generation Z Black woman smiles as she takes a break from community service work in a Houston-area urban garden
Participant in the Toyota Green Initiative at the Blodgett Urban Garden at TSU in 2017. Credit: Aswad Walker

“That environmental sh*t is for them white boys and them flower-children white girls running around barefoot, feet dirty,” Fenton Ralph said.

“Earth Day? What that got to do with the price of tea in China,” chimed Sylvia Santos, a Houston-area Afro Latina.

“All that environmental talk is for Whole Earth-shopping, quinoa-eating, liberal white college kids who don’t have to worry about systemic racism, and have time and energy for saving the whales, dolphins, dogs, the planet and everything alive but Black people. That is, until they graduate and become the same conservative Republicans who are anti-everybody and anti-planet, as well,” Elise Horne said.

These three quotes summarize much of what Black people have thought about the environmental movement, including its biggest day — Earth Day.

However, Word In Black reporter Maya Richard-Craven argues that Earth Day and all the environmental work that surrounds it, should be high on the list of Black people’s priorities.

“Do you remember a time when Black folk weren’t affected by climate change? Probably not, considering that the climate crisis has been hurting us for decades,” said Richard-Craven. “We receive little to no support when it comes to receiving aid during a climate-related disaster. But Black folk can get in the fight for climate justice because climate change is affecting all of us.”

In other words, environmental justice is not, what some have labeled it in the past, a “white” issue.

“We have to breathe this air too,” said Afrencia Farqua, a Houston environmental champion. “We have to drink the water available to us on this planet and eat the food grown from earth, just like everybody else. The fact that Black people are not central to the decision-making rooms in Congress and in big business doesn’t mean we aren’t impacted by climate issues.”

Farqua’s words ring even truer when you realize the person celebrated as the “Father of the Environmental Justice Movement” is a Black man. In fact, he’s a local, Houston-based brother — Dr. Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University, and world-renowned for his work fighting for environmental justice for communities of color.

And there are several good reasons why Bullard has been on this battlefield for decades.

Black people are 75% more likely to live near oil and gas refineries. Exposure to dirty air can result in serious health conditions and death. From lung cancer to asthma, there are so many ways pollution can impact the health and wellness of Black folk.

In Richard-Craven’s article “3 Black-Centered Reasons to Take Action on Earth Day,” she noted: “Another result of climate change is extreme temperatures are a direct result of climate change. Around 65,000 Americans go to the emergency room for heat-related health problems, and over 700 people die from exposure to extreme heat every year. From 2004-2018, Black folk had more deaths due to extreme heat than most racial groups, with 1,965 deaths.”

And as Bullard has argued for years, climate-related disasters hit Black communities that hardest.

“Black communities bear the brunt of environmental hazards. Earth Day is about ensuring that we bring awareness to environmental concerns,” says Abre’ Conner, the director of Environmental and Climate Justice at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, another activist quoted by Richard-Craven.

“Over the years, there has been a growing number of Black organizations and activists joining the fight for a cleaner, safer planet. But truth be told, we, Black people and other people of color, were the first environmentalists, the first eco-activists, the first conservationists,” said Chi Trenton, a self-described Earth-First fighter.

Karla Aguilar, development director at National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures and an Indigenous Peoples activist believes Blacks and all people of color should recognize there is tremendous power in all of us being able to connect with the source of all life and strength in nature.

“She (Earth) is the source of tremendous teachings and guidance from the ancestors wound into the regenerative soil the deeply rooted trees,” said Aguilar. “It is our very disconnection from nature that keeps us divided from each other as people because we instead look at the world from a colonizers lens rather than the one of our ancestral lineages – whom virtually all had land-based spiritual practices.”

Educator and University of Houston alum Carl Brown believes the benefits of Blacks getting involved in Earth Day and other environmental improvement efforts is a no-brainer.

“Environmental justice means no dumping or building toxic facilities in minority neighborhoods. Clean Air equals better health. A cleaner neighborhood means your community is less likely to be gentrified and replaced,” stated Brown, who offered some specific action steps.

“Get up to code and restore your community with modern materials. Recycling, reusing and reducing waste creates pride and longevity in your community.”

“We have to understand that becoming committed to fighting our own fights around Earth Day and beyond ensures our future,” says Cynthia Swann, chief of staff to the executive vice president of campaigns and advocacy at Hip Hop Caucus.

I'm originally from Cincinnati. I'm a husband and father to six children. I'm an associate pastor for the Shrine of Black Madonna (Houston). I am a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston...