The Sawtell, says the real estate listing, is 40 acres of opportunity — a mixed-use developer’s dream come true not far from the Atlanta Beltline. But decades ago, the massive plot of land along McDonough Avenue in Chosewood Park wasn’t so full of promise.
Residents held prayer vigils and demonstrations to stop the former site of the General Motors plant from becoming a wasteland of junkyards and recycling facilities. It was the late 1990s and they hoped their efforts would eliminate these environmental hazards from their communities.
Black people, and black women in particular, in predominantly black neighborhoods fighting environmental racism were locked out of environmental decision-making, according to a 2011 analysis of three communities in Atlanta featured in the scholarly journal Race, Gender & Class.
“We have always been a part of this movement; we just weren’t necessarily seen in it,” said Fallon McClure of Reform Georgia. “We have all of these ideas about what something looks like, and for climate change right now, that looks like being out there with Jane Fonda and getting arrested. There are cultural differences that come into play to make it look like someone doesn’t care about the environment when that is not necessarily true.”
From working the land as enslaved people to fighting injustices such as contaminated water, lack of transportation and industrial waste in their neighborhoods, African Americans, including those in Atlanta, have always been connected to the environment, said scholars. Black people believed these were matters of civil rights, creating the foundation of the environmental justice movement.
“When we lift up those that are in the margins of society, those that are disproportionately impacted by policies in our communities, we also support everyone else,” said James Major Woodall, 26, the newly elected, and youngest president of the Georgia chapter of the NAACP. Georgia, he said, is again poised to lead the country in lobbying for environmental justice.
In the 1990s, Atlanta was ground zero for people of color who identified and fought against the environmental hazards damaging their communities. A new black Southern identity was forming and the “black mecca” was bursting with black creativity and progress in areas including entertainment and business. The era would lay the groundwork for today’s black environmentalists who are being recognized for their stewardship.
Shared history inspires new voices
Several years ago, Jasmine Crowe, 36, spent weekends cooking batches of food in her kitchen, packing it up and taking it to feed the homeless in the streets of downtown Atlanta. People asked Crowe who was providing the food for her to give away and she would tell them she had no donors, she provided all of the food. But the question got Crowe thinking on a larger scale about food waste and the environmental impact.
Goodr, which Crowe founded in 2017, uses technology to route excess food from clients — restaurants, convention centers and airports — to charities. Goodr employees pick up leftover food from clients, package it if needed, and drive it to local nonprofits including shelters.
The company has saved more than 3 million pounds of food that would have been wasted. Goodr is now diversifying into composting with the goal of reducing even more waste. “We are making an impact socially and environmentally,” said its director of sustainability, Zeb McLaurin, 25. “People are starting to understand food waste is a huge contributor of greenhouse gases.”
That includes more African Americans who collectively were believed to be so preoccupied with matters of survival that they did not have time to engage in environmental concerns.
“The conventional wisdom is that, due to greater concerns about jobs, crime, education and other ‘survival’ issues, African Americans are unconcerned about the environment,” said study author Paul Mohai in a 2003 study for the University of Michigan. Mohai, then associate professor at the university’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, found that African Americans were more likely to be more concerned about the environment and make lifestyle choices to protect the environment. African Americans in Congress had been the strongest and most consistent supporters of environmental protection legislation over the previous two decades, Mohai found.
“We are making an impact socially and environmentally. People are starting to understand food waste is a huge contributor of greenhouse gases.” — Zeb McLaurin, director of sustainability
While climate concerns such as intense heat and stronger storms can disproportionately impact people of color, only 14.5% of environmental organizations report any diversity data, according to a 2018 study by Dorceta Taylor, a professor of environmental sociology at the University of Michigan. Black and white environmentalists ultimately want the same things, she said, but they have lived experiences with the environment that are different.
“It is an absurd notion to think an entire race of people are either not connected to the environment or don’t care about it or are not knowledgeable about it because it has been absolutely fundamental to our survival and our experience to be connected to the environment,” said Taylor. “In Africa, we were herders, people who collected food and foraged. Those skills and that knowledge and those experiences didn’t die on the slave ship over.”
A movement gains momentum
The U.S. government, recognizing the need to provide financial and technical assistance to help communities of color get rid of environmental hazards and build more sustainable neighborhoods, created the Office of Environmental Justice in 1992.
A decade earlier, leaders of the civil rights movement, such as the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, future president of the NAACP, and Atlanta’s own the Rev. Joseph Lowery, had both been involved in a 1982 protest that helped put black environmentalism in the spotlight.
“In Africa, we were herders, people who collected food and foraged. Those skills and that knowledge and those experiences didn’t die on the slave ship over.” —Dorceta Taylor, a professor of environmental sociology at the University of Michigan
In September of that year, as dump trucks rolled into the small city of Afton, North Carolina, to deposit soil containing toxic chemicals into a newly constructed landfill, African Americans sat in the roadway blocking the trucks’ path. Six weeks of protest followed. They didn’t win that battle — the waste was eventually deposited into the landfill — but the spark of a new movement was born.
Closer to home, neighborhoods like Chosewood Park, South Atlanta and Lakewood Heights began demanding accountability from government agencies and fought big industry, said Robert Bullard, founder of Atlanta’s Environmental Justice Research Center at Clark Atlanta University.
Not everyone took notice of those efforts. “Even in a predominantly black city with lots of environmental issues, organizations that had ‘environment’ in their names that were working on environmental issues were tone-deaf to environmental justice and issues around race,” Bullard said. “The idea was that environmentalism is the domain of the white middle-class educated elites.”
Shelley Francis began to understand the environmental disparities in black communities after reading Bullard’s work. “I paid attention to climate change and what is happening. That is up here,” she said, slicing the air above her head with a hand. “Pulling it closer is when I rode Uber in a Nissan Leaf.”
Electric vehicles would become her entry point into environmental advocacy. Francis, 45, and Terry Travis co-founded EVHybridNoire to help companies, consumers, policymakers and auto manufacturers understand the benefits of driving electric and alternative-fuel vehicles. They also aim to dispel myths that prevent more African Americans from owning electric cars. Atlanta now accounts for 16% of the group’s 3,000 global members, and the city recently hosted the largest gathering of electric vehicle owners outside of California, Francis said.
From renewable energy and coal ash to food deserts and community reinvestment, Atlanta’s black environmentalists are working in all aspects of the environment and making sure they keep a sharp eye on equity.
“If (black people) don’t have water, mountains and trees and think we are only going to be in the city, we are working on an extinction project,” said Taylor from the University of Michigan. “We have a burgeoning number of folks that are really taking that mantle back.”
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