Devoting the month of February as a time to recognize African Americans’ contributions to society began with Carter G. Woodson in the early 1920s.
After spending his childhood working on Kentucky coalmines and finishing high school at the age of 22, Woodson went on to earn his doctorate at Harvard University. Reading the history books, he was dismayed at the lack of attention paid to African American history.
So we thought we’d compile our own list of African Americans acting as stewards of the environment. Watch out for these eco-warriors because this won’t be the last time you hear about them.
The Game Changer: Dorecta E. Taylor
During her graduate years at the School of Forestry and Environmental studies at Yale University, Dorecta E. Taylor became interested in an environmental sociological and historical outlook.
But the basic information that Taylor noticed was missing was how to get a job, internship, grant or attend a meeting with an environmental organization, information which is pretty well-known if you are middle-class and connected to the environmental network, she explains.
“Minority students would complete a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree and then find it very difficult to find a job in nonprofits,” Taylor says. “If you look at most environmental nonprofits, they still have a small number of minorities on their staff, they are getting better over time, but they are still small.”
As a result of this finding, Taylor and her students received a grant from the Joyce Foundation in 2002 and then set to “demystify the process.” Where are jobs located? What’s the contact information for people within the environmental organizations? Where can you find grants? And what are the various kinds of skills employers are looking for?
Taylor and her students have posted this information on a Web site, as well as profile of more than 200 minorities, mostly African Americans, who work for the environment, helping to debunk the notion that minority groups are not involved in environmental issues, according to Taylor.
The Small Town Voice: John Rosenthall
As president of the National Small Town Alliance, Rosenthall has helped alleviate some of the environmental problems of small towns nationwide.
Rosenthall works directly with the U.S. Congress and the executive branch to help the federal government understand exactly how these small communities really work. He also lobbies for federal grant money to help small towns lacking environmental regulation and responsibility.
Crumbling wastewater treatment systems that no longer meets today’s standards are some of the biggest environmental problems of small towns with heavy populations of African Americans, says Rosenthall.
He says this is in part a result of the towns’ lack of financial resources to fix and maintain the systems, which, in turn, contaminate drinking water.
“Though the federal government allocates money every year for environmental cleanup activities, the bulk of that money is awarded competitively,” explains Rosenthall. “A small town of 600 can’t compete against the city the size of New Orleans.”
The Capitol Hill Greenie: Norris McDonald
Norris McDonald has devoted the past thirty years of his life to the environment, told in detail in his recently released autobiography, “Norris McDonald: Life of an Environmentalist.”
Based in Washington D.C., McDonald’s resume for the environment is shaped around the values that formed during visits to his grandmother’s farm in eastern North Carolina, where he first garnered a knowledge and love for the environment.
“It was a great memory for me growing up,” says McDonald. “It was pretty self-sufficient, which impressed me looking back, as a Washington-based environmentalist.”
Through implementing internship programs with the mainstream environmental groups and establishing tourism programs of creeks, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, McDonald has helped to share the wonders of the natural world with children from an urban environment.
“Norris is probably one of the most knowledgeable persons about the environment, regardless of race,” says Rosenthall, who works with McDonald on Capitol Hill.
“When you start talking about nuclear energy, cap-and-trade and climate change, Norris knows more about those subjects than almost anybody, or just as much as anybody. He gets into the issues that go beyond the primary concerns of the African-American community.”
The Courtroom Warrior: Samara Swanston
Since 2007, Samara Swanston has been counsel to the Environmental Protection Committee of the New York City Council and writes environmental laws for the city.
Swanston has been practicing environmental law for more than 20 years on local, state and national levels. Fresh out of law school, Swanston’s first case deterred housing-developers from destroying a wetland in Buffalo, N.Y.
But her focus has really been on environmental cases in Suffolk County, one of the most progressive counties concerning the environment in New York. In fact, the first legal action to stop use of DDT occurred in Suffolk County, a legal action instigated by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”
Working as lawyer in Suffolk, Swanston helped gain permanent protection for a 17,000-acre dwarf pine forest. Later, working as a Superfund attorney for the EPA, Swanston was awarded an EPA gold medal – the agency’s highest honor.
Though Swanston grew up in New York City, she has always felt connected to nature; her first career dream at the age of eight was to become a botanist.
“I find if I don’t find time to regenerate by looking at a nice vista, by going digging clams or going digging my fishing pole out, I don’t think I have a quality life.”