11 African Americans Who Are Greening the Nation

Making a difference

Growing Power.

Black History Month is a time to honor those African Americans who have made a difference in the world, and here at Mother Nature Network, we'd like to pay tribute to 12 who are working to make our planet healthier, safer and greener for all its inhabitants.

Shelton Johnson

The Oprah Winfrey Show/Harpo Studios.

Johnson has worked in the National Park Service for more than 20 years and recently won the National Freeman Tilden Award for his work with black youth in Yosemite National Park. An expert on the history of America’s Buffalo Soldiers, Johnson has dedicated his work to helping minorities —particularly African Americans — connect to the natural world. He says that “one of the great losses to African culture from slavery was the loss of kinship with the earth.” In addition to working as a park ranger, Johnson also recently collaborated with Ken Burns to create the landmark documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” This recent episode of Oprah featured Johnson helping Winfrey (far left) and best friend Gayle King (center) go camping at Yosemite.

Will.i.am

Jason Kempin/Getty Images.

Will.i.am. of Black Eyed Peas fame was so inspired by Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” that he wrote two songs, “S.O.S. (Mother Nature)” and “Take Our Planet Back,” to educate his fans about global warming and inspire them to take action. The “Take Our Planet Back” video features clips of Gore and montages of the environmental challenges the Earth faces. The musical star also drives an electric car and has installed solar panels on his home. His goal is to become completely energy self-sufficient and says, “I am brown, but I want to be green.”

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins

Wikipedia Commons.

Ellis-Lamkins previously worked as head of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council and Working Partnerships USA, and today she is the CEO of Green For All, a national organization that works to decrease poverty through the development of green jobs. One of her first initiatives at the organization was to build a coalition of groups involved in climate change and energy issues. This coalition then successfully lobbied to include certain provisions in the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 like ensuring low-income communities would have access to green jobs created by the legislation.

Bryant Terry

Sara Remington.

Terry is an eco chef, food justice activist and the author of two books on healthy food and cooking: “Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy and Creative African-American Cuisine” and “Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen.” He traces his interest in food, farming and health to his grandparents who taught him how to grow, prepare and appreciate food, and today he’s working to build a more sustainable food system that provides people of all races and socioeconomic statuses with healthy and delicious food options. In 2002, Terry founded b-healthy, an initiative to empower youth to become more involved in developing a sustainable food system.

Lisa P. Jackson

Wikimedia Commons.

Jackson is the first African American to serve as EPA administrator, and she’s had a long history with the organization. When she finished graduate school, Jackson began working with Clean Sites, a nonprofit that brokered deals to clean up hazardous waste sites; however, she saw that the EPA was the real powerhouse in driving those cleanups and she began working there in 1986 as an engineer. Since becoming the head of the EPA in 2009, Jackson has passed unprecedented limits on air and water pollution, and she’s made it a priority to focus on those groups who are particularly vulnerable to environmental and health threats, including children, the elderly and low-income communities.

Will Allen

Growing Power.

Allen is an urban farmer and the co-founder and CEO of Growing Power, a national nonprofit organization that helps bring healthy food to underserved urban areas. Recognizing that the unhealthy diets common in low-income, urban populations can create problems like diabetes and childhood obesity, Allen began developing farming methods and educational programs that could give these people access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. Today, Growing Power grows produce in urban farms in both Milwaukee and Chicago, and it works with local organizations to run initiatives like the Farm-City Market Basket Program, which provides a weekly basket of fresh produce to low-income residents at a reduced cost. Growing Power also works with teens and young adults to produce healthy foods for their communities and provide training for those interested in establishing similar farms in other cities.

Robert Bullard

Ric Field/AP.

Bullard is considered the “father of environmental justice” and has been publishing books and reports on environmental dangers — and how minorities often live in such toxic areas — for more than three decades. He worked with the Clinton administration to incorporate environmental justice for minorities into the practice of multiple government agencies, and he also helped establish the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. He currently runs the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University and frequently consults with policymakers on how best to protect vulnerable communities from environmental hazards.

Majora Carter

Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images.

Carter has been described as a visionary in environmental urban renewal and is known for her motto, “Green the ghetto!” Carter helped bring the South Bronx its first open-waterfront park in 60 years and won a $1.25 million grant to create the South Bronx Greenway. Thanks to her efforts, Bronx residents can now enjoy open greenspace with river access and bike and pedestrian paths. Carter served as the executive director of Sustainable South Bronx for seven years where she encouraged green economic development, green job training and community education on fitness, food and air quality. Today, Carter is the president of her own consulting organization, the Majora Carter Group, where she advises companies and community groups on resolving environmental problems.

John Francis

Art Rogers/Pt. Reyes.

In 1971, Francis witnessed two tankers collide beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, spilling more than half a million gallons of oil into the bay, and he had a strange thought: What would happen if people stopped using cars? For the next 22 years Francis refused to ride in motorized vehicles, and for 17 of those years he took a vow of silence. During his silence, Francis reconnected with nature and completed three college degrees, culminating in a Ph.D. in land management. Francis also wrote the inspiring book “Planetwalker” and created an earth-stewardship group known as Planetwalk. Francis has also been employed by the Coast Guard where he has worked on oil spill legislation, and in 1991 he was named a UN Environmental Program Goodwill ambassador.

Van Jones

psd/Flickr.

Jones is the co-founder of three nonprofit organizations, including Green For All, a national organization that is working to build a green economy to reduce poverty. Today, he’s a senior policy adviser for the nonprofit. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Jones to the newly created position of special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. During this time, he worked with various government agencies to advance climate and energy initiatives, with a special focus on improving low-income communities. Jones is also the author of “The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems,” which outlines a plan to solve both socioeconomic inequality and environmental problems.

Jerome Ringo

Wikimedia Commons.

Ringo began his environmental activism in 1991 by becoming the first African American to join the Calcasieu League for Environmental Action Now (CLEAN), an affiliate of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation. In 1996, he began serving on the National Wildlife Federation’s board of directors, and by 2005, he was chairman, making him the first African American to head a major conservation organization. Ringo is also an environmental justice advocate who fights for safer working conditions, clean energy and green jobs, most directly through his presidency in the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of groups that represent various environmental interests, labor unions and community organizations.