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Mama Johnson: A Visionary Who Inspired Her Country

2014 February 19
Cheryl Johnson,left, and her neices Jazlyn  Keyonna, visit Cheryl's mother, Hazel Johnson at her home in Altgeld Gardens on Chicago's south side.

Cheryl Johnson, left, and her neices Jazlyn and Keyonna, visit Cheryl’s mother, Hazel Johnson at her home in Altgeld Gardens on Chicago’s south side

By Cheryl Johnson

Three years ago, my mother, Hazel Johnson, widely regarded as the “mother of the environmental justice movement,” made her transition from this world she so loved.  As her daughter, I knew firsthand what an extraordinary woman she was and understood there was a guiding force behind the struggles she endured for her fellow man.

As I reflect on her life’s work, I now see she was a woman truly ahead of her time, a true visionary who forecasted the negative outcomes from failing to address blighted environmental and social justice conditions. It turns out that my mom was nearly correct in many of her predictions. If you ever had the opportunity to have been around Hazel Johnson or even heard her speak at one of the many environmental venues she graced, you too would have been witness to her foresight into the harmful effects of high levels of pollution in our air, water, and land.

Hazel (right) at the presidential signing of EO 12898

Hazel (right) at the presidential signing of EO 12898

She was talking about environmental justice before anyone knew what to call it. She also had the foresight to understand the impacts of climate change very early on, especially as it would impact our low income and minority communities. This February 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s signing of the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898. My mother had the honor of playing an instrumental role in its creation with her fellow EJ advocates, and leading up to the Order’s signing on February 11, 1994, Hazel did not describe the harmful impacts on the environment using the familiar term “climate change,” but she did express alarm about the “changes in our weather patterns.” The global citizens of the 21st century are all witness to the extremes in our weather from terrifying floods to severe cold systems.

My mother didn’t know the term “brownfields” before it was coined in 1992, but she constantly spoke out about the growing plague of abandoned industrial facilities and lands which she know would become environmental graveyards for “black and brown communities” that now infect the landscape of our urban meccas. She labeled our own community, the Altgeld Gardens, as ‘the toxic doughnut’ (video link), a symbol that describes a place where people’s lives are engulfed in environmental degradation from environmental exposures and hazards.

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Former Administrator Lisa Jackson talking about the legacy of Hazel

Most important of all, Hazel M. Johnson inspired hundreds of people around the country, if not thousands to seek environmental justice. Her actions inspired people to pursue environmental career opportunities with the purpose of preserving our rights and basic need for survival on this great Earth.  She was the North Star that brought attention to urban environmental pollution issues in her own backyard and grew into the moniker “Mama Johnson” to legions who shared the fervent passion for environmental justice in their communities across the country.

As we mark the 20th Year Anniversary of the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898, pause to reflect on the significance of the legacy she and her fellow justice fighters have left for us as a continual reminder to fight for equal environmental protection for every community that suffers with mother earth.

Thirty five years ago, People for Community Recovery was formed to bring about environmental awareness not only for impacted communities, but to challenge government and businesses to become creative and innovative to protect our environment.  Today, I am stepping in her shoes to fulfill the dream of making Altgeld Gardens an environmentally sustainable village where community, government, universities and businesses can come to the table to create environmental solutions that will save the existence of the human species. I love you mom, and thank you again for all that you left for me and for our country.

About the author: Cheryl Johnson is the executive director of People for Community Recovery, founded in 1979 by her mother to address urban environmental pollution. Today, the organization continues to address that issue, as well as housing rights, youth issues and employment services.

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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14 Responses leave one →
  1. kolp permalink*
    February 19, 2014

    Thank you Cheryl for sharing this amazing story with us. It was very moving and it made me wish I had had the opportunity to meet your mother.

  2. Marva E. King, PhD permalink
    February 19, 2014

    Our very own 20th century Ida B. Wells!! What a wonderful testamony to Hazel Johnson! Thank you so much Cheryl for sharing your Mom (once again) with all of us!! Peace and Love!

  3. Dr. Ethel L. Crisp permalink
    February 19, 2014

    Thanks Cheryl for sharing this testimony of your mother and the outstanding work she accomplished in addressing environmental justice in the city of Chicago. She was the inspiration behind the goals and efforts made by the Environmental Justice Team in EPA Chicago to keep this issue a priority in Region 5. I salute your efforts toward the virtual elimination of disproportionate environmental impacts on minority and low-income communities. She was the mother of the movement and the glorious star we continue to follow!

  4. Carol J. Forrest permalink
    February 19, 2014

    Thank you, Cheryl, for reminding us all about the work that she did and that you continue. I had to honor of meeting her in 1992 and interviewing her for an article for the National Association of Professional Environmental Communicators. That particular article, for which I also interviewed Robert Bullard, was my introduction to EJ. Meeting your mom played a pivotal role in the work I then went on to pursue as an environmental community relations/public involvement professional. I have written extensively on the importance of seeking out and working closely with all stakeholders within a community (and in making sure that the community is defined broadly enough to ensure that all of those who might be affected, concerned, or interested are included). A fair number of people have used my work to improve their public engagement programs — and your mom, Hazel Johnson, provided the initial encouragement.

    Thank you for continuing her good work — and with some of the new tools that EPA has come up with (Plan EJ 2014 and the “Promising Practices” document to encourage proactive public engagement by permit holders), I hope that progress will be made in the very important area of EJ!

  5. David Pellow permalink
    February 20, 2014

    Thank you Cheryl, for this moving testimony and commemoration. As you know, both you and your mother shaped my life and worldview in innumerable ways since we first met in 1992. I thank you both for standing strong and for pushing us to move all of our communities closer toward a vision and practice of environmental justice each day.

  6. Debra permalink
    February 20, 2014

    Cheryl , this is so touching for me . I also sat at your Moms kitchen table as a young child so many times with her baby girl Valerie, and as you stated protecting the environment , especially in Altgeld was her top priority. She was a visionary that challenged anyone attempting to bring injustice to our community as well as the surrounding area. When I was elected as a community leader (Altgeld) your Mom was the only one continuing her pursuit of clean air, lead testing and how to protect our families inside our homes. I beleive she is the main reason waste management was finally closed for dumping… I have always admired her hard work n dedication, that is why I knew in my heart , when it came down to our environmental surroundings. Ms. Johnson was going to be up front and very personal. Ms. Hazel Johnson did not let us down. Her work is to be admired by so many.. Continue to tell her story because it is inspirational. I am forever priviledged to have witnessed her work first hand.

  7. Mustafa Santiago Ali permalink
    February 20, 2014

    Cheryl,

    Words can never express how much your mom meant to so many of us and how she helped build a movement that now reaches around the globe. When I was a young intern, she always made time to mentor me, school me and help me to have an even greater appreciation for the work that needed to be done. She always made those around her know that they were loved but at the same time, that she had high expectations of us as well. She made us all better and her spirit lives on in each of us who do social justice work. She laid a great foundation and I know you will take the work of “People for Community Recovery” to the next level.

    I hope those who may not have been blessed to know Hazel Johnson, will take the time to research her and the ground breaking work she did in Altgeld Gardens and beyond.

    Many Blessings
    Mustafa

  8. James Ehlers permalink
    February 21, 2014

    Still inspired –years and miles, notwithstanding.

    Thank you for your service to humanity, Johnson Family.

    Pax et bonum.

    James Ehlers
    Executive Director
    Lake Champlain International

  9. Hank permalink
    February 22, 2014

    Great but the word’s still not getting out. For example Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon – for crying out loud – apparently has complaints about fracking in HIS back yard but is OK when it’s near other (read: lesser) people. If people who are in control don’t get it, EJ is still no more than a happy idea. Apparently EPA still has work to do – hello. Article: http://www.thewire.com/politics/2014/02/ceo-exxon-stands-homeowners-against-frackers-when-hes-homeowner/358365/

  10. Liam permalink
    February 24, 2014

    Cheryl,

    Your mother is a true “American Hero” we were fortunate to have her for the time that we did. She showed that everyone can help make a positive change. Thank you for sharing her story with the world.

    Liam

  11. James Ehlers permalink
    February 24, 2014

    Still inspired –years and miles, notwithstanding.

    Thank you for your service to humanity, Johnson Family.

    Pax et bonum.

    James Ehlers
    Executive Director
    Lake Champlain International

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