5 Black Environmental Activists to Follow

Marley Flueger
June 16, 2022

Black environmental activists have always been at the forefront of efforts to protect our planet and address environmental racism. But Black Americans (and people of color worldwide) are often underrepresented in conversations about the environment. From white environmentalist stereotypes to the “white vegan” myth – social perceptions don’t always match up with reality. 

What is environmental racism? 

Environmental racism refers to the ways environmental hazards disproportionately burden people of color. As a result of systemic racism in policy-making, communities of color are far more likely to be exposed to air pollution, hazardous waste, lead poisoning, and contaminated drinking water. This contributes to greater rates of health issues like asthma, lung conditions, high blood pressure, and heart attacks in these communities. 

The environmental justice movement works to raise awareness of and dismantle the structures enabling the unfair treatment of communities of color (often by the same industries and polluters driving the climate crisis). We can’t separate the fight to reverse climate change from the fight for human dignity and social justice – and we shouldn’t.

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This Juneteenth, follow and learn from Black environmental activists working to create a sustainable, just future for all. 

Social Spotlight: 5 Black Environmental Activists to Follow

1. Leah Thomas 

Location: California

Instagram: @greengirlleah; @intersectionalenvironmentalist

Twitter: @leahtommi; @isxenviro

A Conversation With Leah Thomas, Intersectional Environmentalist
Photo: Val Vega
Intersectional environmentalism is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. - Leah Thomas for Vogue

If you’ve ever used the term intersectional environmentalist, you have Leah Thomas to thank. A self-described “eco-communicator,” Thomas draws on Black feminist ideals and Intersectional theory to advocate for diversity and equity in the environmental movement. Through her writing and advocacy, she explores the link between social justice, environmental racism, and the pursuit of a sustainable future. 

Thomas is the founder of the eco-lifestyle account Green Girl Leah and the social resource hub Intersectional Environmentalist. Follow for everything from Black Flea Market finds, to posts spotlighting diverse members of the environmental movement, to primers on eco-poetry and indigenous land-stewardship. You can also read Thomas’ essays on intersectional environmentalism in outlets like Elle, Vogue, and the Good Trade

Support Black Environmental Activists: Purchase Leah Thomas’ first book, Intersectional Environmentalism: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People and the Planet

2. Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

Location: New York 

Instagram: @ayanaeliza

Twitter: @ayanaeliza

Ayana E. Johnson (1980- ) •
Photo: TED Radio Hour

Ocean conservation is about people—more specifically, it’s about marginalized people. - Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson for Sierra Club

Climate conversations tend to focus on the air we breathe and the land we live on. But we rely on water, too. A marine biologist, writer, and self-proclaimed “policy nerd,” Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson’s work explores the intersections between ocean conservation, climate change, and environmental justice.

Dr. Johnson is the co-founder of Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for the future of coastal cities, and the All We Can Save Project, a resource-hub for nurturing leadership and connection in the climate movement. She also curates the Climate Venn Diagram, a tool for folks to discover the unique magic they bring to the climate movement. On her personal accounts, Dr. Johnson shares climate calls to action, educates on ocean issues, and weighs in on environmental policy. (Bonus: occasional tree-hugging.)

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Support Black Environmental Activists: Dr. Johnson is the co-editor of All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, an anthology of writings by women climate leaders.

3. Jerome Foster II

Location: Washington, DC

Instagram: @jeromefosterii

Twitter: @JeromeFosterII

I'm hopeful': Jerome Foster, the 18-year-old helping to craft US climate  policy | Climate crisis | The Guardian
Photo: Elias Williams/The Guardian

We need a truly diverse and multigenerational movement made of people from all ages and backgrounds – not just the youth.” - Jerome Foster in NRDC

Every Friday for over a year, Jerome Foster II stood in front of the White House to protest government inaction on climate change. Now, he’s changing systems from within. A member of the Biden administration’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council, 20 year-old Foster is the youngest ever White House advisor. 

A prominent voice in the youth climate movement, Foster was a keynote speaker at the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow in late 2021. He’s also a core organizer for Fridays for Future DC and founder of One Million of Us, a social platform empowering youth to get involved with politics. On his personal accounts, Foster shares content about environmental justice news and policy, as well as on-the-ground footage of national climate strikes

Support Black Environmental Activists: Donate to Fridays for Future US to fund youth fighting and striking for climate justice. 

4. Wawa Gatheru

Location: Connecticut

Instagram: @wawa_gatheru

TikTok: @wawagatheru

Wanjiku (Wawa) Gatheru standing in the Student Union. She is UConn's first Rhodes Scholar.
Photo: Sean Flynn/UConn

“I’d like to see the environmental movement become a movement made in the image of all of us.” - Wawa Gatheru for Green Matters

Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru is a Kenyan-American activist working to create an environmental movement that represents all people. A Rhodes Scholar and All We Can Save Fellow, Gatheru advocates for making social justice and gender equity central to conversations about the environment. 

Gatheru’s experience in environmental spaces motivated her to found Black Girl Environmentalist. This online community connects and supports Black girls, women, and non-binary folks in the environmental movement. On her personal accounts, Gatheru educates about self-love and mindfulness, environmental justice, and topics like ethical climate storytelling and how colonization changed the climate. 

Support Black Climate Activists: Donate to Black Girl Environmentalist to help address the pathway and retention problem for Black girls, women, and non-binary environmentalists.

5. Rue Mapp

Location: California

Instagram: @ruemapp

Twitter: @RueMapp

Photo: Bethanie Hines

“We’ve had this history of violence against Black bodies in the outdoors that we have had to overcome – and through it find atonement and the chance to tell a new narrative.” - Rue Mapp in Andscape

A self-described “network weaver and nature hacktivist,” Rue Mapp is reshaping narratives about Black Americans and the great outdoors. Mapp is the CEO and Founder of OutdoorAfro – a nationwide network celebrating and inspiring Black connections and leadership in nature. 

With 60 chapters in 32 US states, Outdoor Afro connects Black explorers with group activities like hiking, fishing, kayaking, biking, and more. (Even Oprah has joined!) Follow Outdoor Afro and Mapp’s personal accounts for updates on environmental advocacy and snaps from her many, many nature quests. 

Support Black Environmental Activists: Preorder Mapp’s book Nature Swagger: Stories and Visions of Black Joy in the Outdoors, make a direct donation to Outdoor Afro, or join a local meetup.  

Together, we hold the key to a just, sustainable future

We are in a historic moment for transformative change, but none of us alone holds all the answers. When we seek out diverse voices, we broaden our understanding of the fight for a liveable future – and where we, ourselves, fit in. 

Juneteenth commemorates the freeing of the last enslaved African Americans in the United States – a full two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Now a federal holiday, Juneteenth is observed as a day to celebrate Black history, culture, joy, and leadership. 

A climate action practice is the daily exercise of bringing awareness and intention to reduce the carbon emissions within your control.

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