Office of Environmental Justice

Mama Johnson: A Visionary Who Inspired Her Country

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.


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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Dynamic Redevelopment for Everyone


Mariposa is home to a diverse group of residents who benefit from neighborhood events, nearby amenities, and proximity to public transit. Photo courtesy of the Denver Housing Authority.

By Brett VanAkkeren

Since the mid-1990s, communities have used smart growth development strategies, such as reinvesting in areas that have been neglected or abandoned, to improve the health and welfare of residents.  These strategies make fiscal sense because communities can reuse existing infrastructure, such as roads and utilities, for new construction; environmental sense because communities can clean up and reuse abandoned sites instead of paving over farms and open space; and  economic sense because new development can attract new jobs and investment.

While reinvestment can create desirable places that attract new residents, it can also displace existing residents who can no longer afford to live there. The question in underserved communities is how to grow in ways that benefit both new and existing residents.  The answer lies in equitable development.

denver light railEquitable development is the integration of environmental justice with smart growth development strategies. (See Carlton Eley’s blog post from December 18.) Ideally, the result leads to affordable housing, easy access to nearby jobs and services, affordable public transportation, the removal of environmental health hazards, access to healthy food, and safe ways to walk and bike to everyday destinations.

In Colorado, the Denver Housing Authority supported equitable development by building an affordable housing complex called the Mariposa District near a light rail station. While planning for the Mariposa project, the Authority conducted a Cultural Audit, a health Impact Assessment, a pedestrian quality audit, and three environmental design charrettes that led to intensive community involvement. These tools allowed community members to have meaningful input into decision-making in their community. Other cities can use these tools to replicate Mariposa’s success.

(Watch a video about the Mariposa District, winner of EPA’s 2012 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement in the category of Equitable Development.)

The 2014 New Partners for Smart Growth Conference, February 13-15 in Denver, will offer opportunities for activists, community developers, local government officials, and many others to learn how communities can integrate environmental justice approaches into smart growth and community development programs. The conference kicks off with a half-day equitable development workshop on February 13.  Tours on February 13 and 16 will take participants to see a variety of equitable development projects in the Denver area, including the Mariposa district. Several conference sessions also will focus on equitable development.


Click to read the report

You can find other useful resources on equitable development and smart growth strategies in a report  by EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities (OSC) and Office of Environmental JusticeCreating Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities:  Strategies For Advancing Smart Growth, Environmental Justice And Sustainable Communities, as well as OSC’s Smart Growth and Equitable Development web page. Using equitable development approaches, smart growth practitioners all across the country have helped address the challenges of redevelopment in disadvantaged communities. By attending the New Partners for Smart Growth conference to hear from leaders in this work, you can learn new approaches to take back to your community to help it flourish in ways that benefit everyone.

About the author: Brett VanAkkeren, EPA Office of Sustainable Communities, has worked on smart growth issues at EPA for more than 15 years. 

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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Sustainability for All

By Deeohn Ferris

Untitled-2In many of our communities, if sustainability is going to be sustainable, our nation’s green economy and the investments that flow from those policies must reflect the undeniable fact that all communities are not at the same starting point.  In far too many of our neighborhoods, people who are raising families and working hard to make ends meet face a combination of environmental, social and economic challenges that result in grave hardship.  If the race to sustainability is a race to the top, some of our communities can take the elevator.  Others only have stairs, and some of them have asthma too!

Regarding what’s going on locally and on-the-ground, equitable development is the central point from where the hard issues within sustainability must be dealt with up front.   The real on-ramp to sustainability means recognizing and addressing the inter-relationship of the challenges in our communities. Negative environmental impacts, disproportionate impacts, vacant properties, brownfields, health disparities, blight — these conditions are ubiquitous in neighborhoods where people of color and people with low incomes and less wealth live, work, learn, worship, and play.  Achieving equitable and sustainable development means thoroughly rebuilding our communities – not just the bricks and mortar – but really rebuilding the country’s social and economic fabric.

Untitled-2Thus, to make a fairer starting line for all in our country, we need to recognize opportunities to support the communities that have the greatest proportion of pollution and public health problems. For example, minimizing health disparities by deliberately providing fairer access for health care in low income and minority communities would save these residents billions of dollars in averted medical costs and gained productivity. Ameliorating such persistent inequities is critical for bringing about stability in communities—increasing fair access to housing choices, better schools, better jobs, sustained economic growth – and thus improving their overall ability to achieve community sustainability.

All across the country, dedicated folks are working to address these disparities.  But people of color and low-and-moderate income populations are still struggling for opportunity. Reversing this unfortunate trend necessitates a national transition to sustainability and the emerging green economy, which provides important new ways to tackle community revitalization as well as opportunities to do so in an equitable manner. Some examples of green economy priorities and tools that could address these disparities include:

  • Ensuring the right to a clean, safe environment for everyone.
  • Establishing inclusive decision making structures that provide resources and facilitate community engagement in planning and investments.
  • Making certain that decision-making is democratic, transparent and fair.
  • Distributing the economic and health benefits of energy conservation through green housing and retrofits.
  • Creating jobs that are safe, green and upwardly mobile.
  • Emphasizing workforce preparedness, development, and training.
  • Providing financial and other incentives that encourage entrepreneurship and local ownership of renewable energy and renewable energy technologies.
  • Guaranteeing that there are sufficient transportation options, including affordable public transit that gets people to jobs.
  • And ensuring the highest quality education and food security for all of our children.

Untitled-3Which neighborhoods are built and rebuilt and how they are built and rebuilt have far-reaching consequences in the race towards sustainability. Prioritizing historically disadvantaged and distressed communities to engage and benefit from sustainability outcomes is an investment in the future.  I believe everyone in our nation should have the same opportunity to flourish.  But achieving such a lofty goal requires community sustainability with conscious linkages to social and economic equity goals, green economy tools and environmental justice.

About the author: Deeohn Ferris is President of Sustainable Community Development Group, a not-for-profit national research and policy innovator dedicated to advancing sustainability and public health through equitable neighborhood development, smart growth and the green economy.  She is a former EPA enforcement lawyer, now a renowned provider of equitable development expertise and technical assistance that tackles sustainability in communities of color and low wealth neighborhoods.   Deeohn was on the ground floor of drafting the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898 and the first Chair of NEJAC’s Enforcement Subcommittee.   

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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