Strong Leaders Matter

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.

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