Have you ever wondered what it takes to lead a movement that becomes a global success? These innovative Black women of influence know the ingredients for global change. They not only have the keen insight to see environmental issues, but they also have the strength and courage to translate them into a call for all people to be socially responsible, aware, and responsive.
Born in Kenya, Wangari Maathai was the founder of the Green Belt Movement––a movement that focuses on conserving the forests of Kenya by focusing on local community efforts to protect green spaces by planting trees. Wangari Maathai famously stated, “We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise and walk.” It was this determined attitude that made the Green Belt Movement stand out on a global scale as a model for environmental sustainability rooted in social justice as Maathai invited women to experience empowerment in their communities by standing against deforestation. In fact, Maathai’s grassroots movement was so powerful that she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 due to the tremendous positive impact she made on sustainable development and bringing peace into communities through environmental protection and care.
Continuing with this idea of communal effort, I must mention Rue Mapp. As a Black woman born in Oakland, California, Mapp always nurtured a passion for the outdoors and found a distinct sense of belonging and freedom in them. However, she noticed that the beautiful spaces this Earth has to offer did not represent the Black community to the same degree they represented other ethnic groups. Out of this injustice came Mapp’s vision for equal representation in the outdoors. She founded Outdoor Afro in 2009 to help Black individuals connect with each other in nature by promoting recreational activities in the outdoors that foster community development and cultural expression. Hungry for change, Mapp didn’t stop at Outdoor Afro––even as it became hugely successful. She continued to reach for equality and helped launch the “Let’s Move” program initiated by Michelle Obama, linking the Black community to recreational outlets. Mapp’s work has been globally recognized for promoting environmental sustainability and conservation while fighting for equal representation in the outdoors.
Building on this theme of grassroots environmental sustainability rooted in social justice, I would like to introduce you to Dr. Mildred McClain. She was born in Savannah, Georgia and witnessed first hand how environmental toxicity negatively affects communities, especially those of color. The air in her town was contaminated with pollution from shipping channels in the Savannah Port. Instead of idly sitting by and waiting for a solution, McClain took the issue by its reins and organized community meetings to create a way to combat this pollution. She even encouraged other Black folk in her town to work in environmental fields that directly address environmental issues, such as monitoring air and water quality. McClain founded an organization in 1990 called the Harambee House/Citizens For Environmental Justice that aims to empower communities to develop solutions to issues they face through positivity, growth, and collaboration. McClain extended her community based focus to include youth as well, leading the Black Youth Leadership Development Institute to empower Black youth to be changemakers in their communities.
The list of powerful Black women in the sustainability space is truly endless and it is important to take time to reflect upon their invaluable contributions to this Earth and its people––including you and I. Their work extends far beyond the trees tops of the forest, working at a global level to empower their communities. These groundbreaking women are the faces of change.
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