Currently — March 6th, 2023

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In honor of Women’s History Month, Currently is spotlighting the women and femmes who are—and continue to be—the backbone of the environmental and climate justice movement and pioneered the work to protect communities.

Hazel M. Johnson, affectionately named the “Mother of Environmental Justice,” was an environmental activist on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois from the 1970s till her death in 2011. In fact, Johnson was doing environmental work before it was even a real field of study.

In her late 20s, her family moved to Altgeld Gardens Homes, a housing project managed by the Chicago Housing Authority. Originally built to house American war veterans, the area was surrounded by highways, sewage-treatment plants, and industrial buildings. Her neighborhood had high cancer rates and her seven children had several skin and respiratory issues. Following the death of her husband in 1969 from lung cancer, Johnson took matters into her own hands.

She analyzed the placements of toxic waste sites and how it impacted Black communities and correlated to cancer likelihoods. Everything in her home environment, from the air to the water to the land, was full of toxicity. The area was also engulfed with pollution.

She coined the term “toxic doughnut,” and was one of the first people to interrogate why areas with large Black populations were surrounded by landfills and pollution. She validated what her community was experiencing by giving language to researchers, forcing them to acknowledge it as well. She also fought for the Chicago Housing Authority to take accountability for failing to properly maintain buildings and ignoring environmental hazards.

Once again, Johnson took matters into her own hands and ran for—and was elected—to the Altgeld Gardens Local Advisory Council in 1970 and remained in her role until she founded the People for Community Recovery in 1979. The organization worked to fight against environmental racism and empower the community.

The People for Community Recovery held workshops on how to test for lead poisoning and encouraged the youth to get involved with environmental justice. Johnson also got her neighbors to conduct health surveys to further provide proof that low-income Black residents were disproportionately affected by environmental hazards. In 1984, Johnson’s findings and efforts even resulted in the building of water and sewer lines to the area for cleaner water.

Johnson also took her efforts nationally, working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 1994, she was invited to witness the signing of Executive Order 12898: Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.

In 2015, the Illinois General Assembly named 130th Street from the Bishop Ford Freeway to State Street “Hazel Johnson EJ Way” to commemorate her work and legacy. In 2021, Congressman Bobby Rush paid respect to Johnson’s work by designating April Hazel Johnson Environmental Justice Month, awarding her a posthumous presidential medal of freedom.

—Aarohi Sheth

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