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Strong Leaders Matter

2013 March 4

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By Mustafa Santiago Ali

Leadership is important. In the many years I have worked on environmental issues, I have never seen such a rapid transformation around the agency’s work on environmental justice, as I have observed under the leadership of former Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. During her tenure I have witnessed a refocusing of efforts, and a new enthusiasm throughout program offices, regions, and other federal agencies related to environmental justice.

Lisa (left), Cheryl (center) and Hazel (right)

Administrator Jackson’s video, her final as EPA Administrator, is very important for our video series commemorating the 20th anniversary of environmental justice in EPA, because she chose to talk about another great leader in the EJ movement, Hazel Johnson. Mrs. Johnson was affectionately known as the “Mother of Environmental Justice” for her tireless work in the field of social justice for over 40 years. Mrs. Johnson founded the nonprofit “People for Community Recovery” in 1979 at the Altgeld Gardens public housing development on the Southside of Chicago where she lived, in order to address the disproportionate environmental and public health impacts inside her community.

Over the last 20 years, I was privileged to meet Mrs. Johnson a number of times, and hear numerous stories about her guidance and leadership in helping to create the movement that we now call environmental justice.  She lived by the principal that communities should have the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.  One of the things I will always admire about Hazel Johnson was her enduring tenacity for creating positive transformation in communities.

As a trailblazing activist, Hazel brought national attention to EJ and inspired countless other leaders to devote their lives to these issues. In many ways, she helped shape the way we understand the relationships that exist between pollution problems, non-compatible land uses and low-income and minority communities. Because of Mrs. Johnson’s early work around “toxic doughnuts,” a term she used to define the numerous polluting facilities that encircled her community – researchers are now looking at the cumulative impacts that many neighborhoods are facing, and this represents a major shift in assessing risk.

Over the years her work touched and involved many different people, including a young community activist named Barack Obama who helped work on a project to clean up asbestos in Altgeld Gardens properties. Her work with other EJ activists lead to President Bill Clinton signing Executive Order 12898 which focuses federal attention on the environmental and human health conditions in minority and low-income populations with the goal of achieving environmental protection for all communities.

This video underscores the importance of leaders as a part of any movement, and I want to thank both former Administrator Jackson and Hazel Johnson for their commitment to the protection, revitalization and restoration of all communities. Their legacies will continue to grow in present and future generations.

About the author: Mustafa Ali currently serves as the Associate Director for EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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20 Responses leave one →
  1. Lynne Bonnett permalink
    March 4, 2013

    Thank you for all of your hard work. I particularly liked the statement that “If you’re not at the table it’s because you’re probably on the menu”. spoken at Yale Peabody Museum, MLK day 2013. I was there and I heard it. Could you say it again louder and clearer?

    • Marvin S. Robinson, II permalink
      March 4, 2013

      NO, absolutely NO onE- will be able to interact, treat and recognize the MILLIONS of invisible and UN-heard survivvors of Toxic Hazardous Waste: like a LISA JACKSON.
      Originally I was upset, disgusted and rather quietly frustrated that President Obama did NOT draft LOIS GIBBS who survived-and then BRANDED the knowledge about “LOVE CANAL”- to come in and run the Environmental Protection Agency: and then I was introduced to your PORTFOLIO; and MS. LISA JACKSON our efforts and endeavors to try and endure the multitudes of TOXIC HAZARDOUS Waste all around our community of low-income / poor residents became more bare-able with you at the helm. YOU have served our community, regions and nation with an indescribe-able TABLET of just being, ‘INCLUDED and that our complaints and concern were also our are NATIONS’ future CONSCIENCE to protect; as well.
      BLESS YOU, THANK YOU: it doesn’t any LONGER matter who President Obama selects to become the next ADMINSTRATOR of the E.P.A.- if you met the same quiet-GIANT Ms. HAZEL JOHNSON, that I had met and had the privilege to attend meetings with:

      THE void of SERVE to God and country is equal to that of a NOBEL PRIZE-and PURPLE HEART combined: Your labor and love to ‘just TRY and explain to CONGRESS and the corporations’ that all the POOR really want and need is to be treated like we ‘ were and are HUMAN BEINGS. SIMPLY, you could never be replaced: but you will be APPRECIATED with a legacy of EXCELLENCE’ that will last into generations and centuries

      Marvin S. Robinson,II
      Quindaro Ruins / UNDERGROUND RAILROAD-Exercise 2013

  2. Irma Anderson permalink
    March 5, 2013

    Lisa Jackson like Obama has not helped the Black community but like Obama uses us when it’s convenient. I met with Lisa Jackson in 2010 at a town hall meeting in Oakland where she promised to help me relocate off of the toxic dump called Midway Village in Daly City CA, a low-income HUD funded housing that was built on over 350 toxic chemicals. Although officials reports confirm the toxins are underneath our units, and our furnaces draw in toxins from outside, Lisa did no follow through on her promise to help me. I have cancer and have been going thru chemo. Many of my neighbors have died including some housing employees yet our cries of help have went unanswered especially under Lisa Jackson’s watch. She put on a pretense of helping in front of the cameras, but when there were no cameras she did exactly like all the others, ignored our suffering and death. Putting on this front making it appear Lisa Jackson has done so much for Environmental Justice is a fake and a huge fraud being displayed to the public and as usual at the huge expense of our Black Communities who Lisa nor Obama has done anything for. If there is anyone out there honestly and truly for Environmental Justice and have the power to help me get off this toxic dump I appeal to you, because so far my cries and pleas for help to move to safe housing have been ignored. Glad to see Lisa go, and don’t have faith that anyone with integrity will replace her especially not on Obama’s watch.

  3. Master Melvin M. Lusterio permalink
    March 5, 2013

    The Good Force be with you!

    Yes, strong leaders matter and you are one of them, Mustafa, aside from Admin Lisa Jackson & Hazel Johnson!

    Live forever & prosper!

  4. Deborah Huffington permalink
    March 5, 2013

    I have been following your blog and video series for a few months and I have to say thank you for such a well written and thoughtful tool to engage with people outside the beltway. I think Lisa Jackson did a great job while she was at EPA and I know it could not have been easy with all the detractors. Mrs. Johnson seems like a phenominal lady and we owe her a debt of gratitude for her work and sacrifices. It seems like she blazed a trail so that others could follow and help make our country a place where everyone can live in a healthy community, it doesn’t seem like is too much to ask for.

    Keep up the good work and I look forward to reading and watching more of this great series.


  5. Jessie permalink
    March 5, 2013

    Mr. Ali I have had the opportunity to hear you speak a couple of times and you always highlight what a great leader Mrs. Johnson was and how she inspired many young people to dedicate their lives to addressing the impacts that are happening in so many communities. Because of the early work done by leaders like Mrs. Johnson, I had a chance to focus one of my school research papers on cumulative impacts and there effects on overburdened communities. Thank you for all your hard work and for sharing Mrs. Hazel Johnson with the rest of the world who may not have heard her story. I plan on letting all my friends know about the video and blog. Strong leaders definitely matter to those of us who are the next generation.

    Jessie Torress

  6. Walter Beary permalink
    March 5, 2013

    I am a long time reader and first time commenter on this blog. I was moved by your latest blog and video, so I wanted to take a moment and let you know that I appreciate the information you are sharing. I can only imagine the struggles that Hazel Johnson went through fighting to get her community healthy air, water and land. Stories like hers are extremely important to share. As you think about future stories, please continue to stay focused on the videos and blogs where community members have the opportunity to share their experiences and lessons learned. They give a voice to those who often are unheard by so many.


  7. Carlton Eley permalink
    March 6, 2013

    As I read the responses about Hazel Johnson’s contributions to the environmental movement as well as what she meant to so many people, I am reminded of Rachel Carson and “Silent Springs.” In brief, I wonder who will write Hazel Johnson’s story for the benefit of future generations.

  8. Jimmy permalink
    March 7, 2013

    Great Blog Ali! In a world where so many good people are torn down when they stand up for what is right, it’s good to see so many being supportive of this blog site. I loved the story of Hazel Johnson, she is a true American hero. We need more leaders like her. Keep up the good work.

  9. Robert Regan permalink
    March 8, 2013

    I thouroughly enjoyed the video and blog. Mrs. Lisa Jackson’s leadership will be missed and Mrs. Hazel Johnson should always be honored as a wonderful leader for all the work she did in her community. Strong leaders do matter and I agree with Mr. Eley, someone should write Ms. Johnson’s story or do a movie on her life.

    Dr. Regan

  10. Kim permalink
    March 9, 2013

    It is great to see a story on such strong women leaders…. I look forward to future blogs and videos from the series.

  11. Robert permalink
    March 16, 2013

    Mr. Ali thank you for this powerful story of courage and conviction. Hazel Johnson was a real patriot and cared for so many.

  12. Jane permalink
    March 23, 2013

    Keep sharing these very important stories – Hazel Johnson helped to save many lives and made the country pay attention to injustices that often get ignored or forgotten. Ali I have seen you speak in Atlanta a few times and you always move those in the audience with your words, when will we see your video?

  13. Devorah permalink
    April 11, 2013

    Excellent Blog and Video……….Its great to see these stories of communities creating better and healthier neighborhoods.

  14. Liam permalink
    April 11, 2013

    Strong leaders do matter, they are the ones who have the vision to see beyond the horizon. Love this site, I’m learning alot about environmental justice through your blog.


  15. Cesar permalink
    August 9, 2013

    Thank you for honoring Ms. Hazel Johnson in my estimation she is one of those unsung heroes of the 20th Century. Its a shame that more people don’t know that she was one of the first people that President Obama worked with in Chicago. Maybe there should be a blog on the presidents early work in the Chicago environmental movement!


  16. Jose permalink
    February 24, 2014

    Thank you Mustafa for highlighting Hazel. She was always and inspiration to me and I cherish her smile and her motherly eyes to this moment. I would often ask her advise and sometimes get that stern look back from her as she said “keep up the fight”. I miss you very much Hazel (your Movement son). – Jose T. Bravo

  17. Mel permalink
    August 26, 2014

    Hazel we will never forget all you did for communities!

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