Carolyn Finney

Celebrating Black Environmentalists Who Made Sustainability Strides

Sustainability is a collective effort in many ways. It’s simultaneously essential to have leaders at the forefront of driving others to participate. Many Black environmentalists have taken the initiative to encourage others to look closely at nature, making contributions throughout history.


1. Carolyn Finney

Carolyn Finney is the storyteller behind “Black Faces, White Spaces,” which addresses the social relationship between a person’s race and the environment. Finney firmly believes anyone can speak about environmental issues and act regardless of privilege. She hopes to encourage more representation in ecological institutions and involve Black people in policy-making.


2. Leah Penniman

Leah Penniman is an activist for food justice who authored “Farming While Black” — a book on African agriculturists that explores their journey to a food system. She is also one of the minds behind Soul Fire Farm, advocating for eco-friendly farming. The organization grew food and medicine for 225 people weekly via their Solidarity Shares initiative.


3. Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was the first Black African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize for contributing to sustainable development back in 2004. She actively uplifts women of color everywhere as she speaks out on human rights and environmental conservation. Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, responsible for planting 11 billion trees worldwide.


4. Betty Reid Soskin

Betty Reid Soskin is an African American social activist and is one of the oldest National Park Service rangers. During the 2000s, she led many programs on environmental information at the park visitor center. She also created a management plan to conserve the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in California.


5. Charles Young

While talking about the National Parks Service, it’s key to recall Colonel Charles Young. Young became the first African American superintendent in 1903. His most notable achievement was leading an all-Black military unit of heroes dubbed the Buffalo Soldiers, which managed and protected the park from war and wildfires.


6. Mustafa Santiago Ali

Mustafa Santiago Ali is another agent of environmental justice. He worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before finding his way to the National Advocacy Center and National Wildlife Federation. Throughout these roles, Ali has raised various issues and made policies to benefit communities affected by climate change.


7. George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver was a renowned agricultural scientist and the first Black man to get a Bachelor of Science degree. His work in developing crop rotation methods worked wonders in soil preservations. Carver also held beliefs and sought evidence on how different resources from nature are reusable and beneficial to humankind.


8. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist who co-founded the Urban Ocean Lab. Johnson understands coastal communities are in the line of fire when climate change hits, so she seeks environmental justice and policy solutions. Meanwhile, Urban OceanLab became a hub to distribute help to these cities and their people.


9. Jerome Foster II

Jerome Foster II is the White House’s youngest-ever advisor, seen as Gen Z’s voice for environmentalism. Foster is known for organizing Fridays for Future climate strikes behind the White House to promote change.


10. Dudley Edmondson

Dudley Edmondson is a birding enthusiast and professional wildlife photographer who wrote “Black & Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places.” The book shares Edmondson’s personal tales of outdoor photography, while addressing the disconnect people of color might have with nature. His mission is to introduce more people to the great outdoors.


11. Angelou Ezeilo

Angelou Ezeilo is responsible for the Greening Youth Foundation, which offers Black youth environmental education and healthy lifestyle choices. Teaching children about sustainability can provide physical and mental well-being in the long run.


12. John Francis

John Francis created Planet Walk after walking throughout different countries and taking a vow of silence to observe the world around him after an oil spill impacted San Francisco Bay and his community decades ago. Francis’ organization strives to set an example and raise ecological awareness.


13. Will Allen

Will Allen is a retired basketball player who formed a love for urban farming and started Will Allen Farms. He became a proponent of bringing sustainable food systems to life in hopes of making healthy food more accessible and affordable.


14. Ron Finley

Ron Finley is a fashion-designer-turned-environmentalist who raised awareness of guerilla gardening on Ted Talk. Guerilla gardening refers to growing food and plants on unused or neglected land. Now, the Ron Finley Project teaches individuals to revitalize food deserts.


15. Majora Carter

Majora Carter is a real estate developer who sets the standard for environmental urban renewal and revitalization. The construction sector is responsible for 50% of climate change due to waste and energy usage, but Carter focuses on making development projects more economical.


16. Robert Bullard

People call environmental sociologist, Robert Bullard, the Father of Environmental Justice. His book “Dumping in Dixie” points out the landfills and pollution many Black communities face. Bullard continues to improve the impact of these environments on people of color.


17. Nyeema Harris

Nyeema Harris is the Applied Wildlife Ecology Laboratory Director at the University of Michigan. Harris primarily focuses on mitigating human-wildlife conflict, researching carnivores and the ecological implications of their loss. She fights against the narrative of how animals are simply predators and advocates for their conservation in urban communities.


18. Van Jones

Van Jones brought much awareness to expanding clean energy and green jobs while serving as Barack Obama’s Special Advisor for Green Jobs. He continues to advocate for these methods and opportunities under the Green For All organization.


19. Rue Mapp

Rue Mapp founded Outdoor Afro to promote Black people’s bond to the outdoors. People of color are three times more likely to live in spaces without immediate access to nature compared to white people. This gap comes from the historical segregation and discrimination Black people experience to this day. Mapp hopes people of color can find solace in reclaiming the outdoors.

Uplift Black Environmentalists

Countless Black environmentalists have made strides in bringing sustainability to modern society. While giving gratitude and recognition to these efforts, keeping the momentum going is paramount. All these people’s past and present actions inspire coming generations to continue advocating for a cleaner Earth.

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