Climate Action

Visionary Black Environmentalists Making A Difference

The very first Earth Day back in 1970 was the largest civic demonstration in history, when 20 million people across America demanded action to protect the environment. As influential as that day was, it was not critic-free. Back then, some Black activists felt that it took attention away from the racial injustice movement that was also growing across the nation, and lamented that a new movement was diverting attention away from it. 

Calls for racial justice and equity have not stopped since then, but now Black environmentalists are making their mark in the ‘green’ movement too, and are finding an important way of dovetailing the two causes. Environmental racism acknowledges climate change and pollution can have disproportionately harmful social, economic, and public health impacts on marginalized populations. 

Communities of color are much more likely to be targeted as sites for factories and hazardous waste manufacturing. A landmark study from 1987 discovered that race, not income, was the biggest factor in determining where these sorts of industrial facilities were situated.  White families with under $10,000 in annual income are far less likely to find themselves living next to a plastic factory than a Black family with an income of $50,000. Living near hydraulic fracturing wells, exposure to airborne toxins like benzene as well as harmful gasses like nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, even your proximity to landfills sites — all of these factors increase for non-white families. 

Which is why it is critically important to acknowledge the unique obstacles faced by these communities and the young environmentalists of color who are fighting to have their voices heard. This Black History Month, we recognize four Black environmentalists, under 30 years old, who are inspiring change.

Leah Thomas

Leah Thomas, originally from St. Louis, now resides in Southern California. She describes herself as an “intersectional environmental activist” who is exploring the relationship between social justice and environmentalism. 

In 2022, she was named by Time Magazine as a Time 100 Next Generation Leader. Known as Green Girl Leah on social media, she advocates for the voices of people of color to be present in the environmental movement and beyond. She has created resources for information on the subject of inequity as well as launching successful work-shops while emphasizing that “diversity and inclusion and environmentalism is very joyful.”

Leah is the author of the book The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People & Planet and with over 250,000 followers on instagram under the handle @greengirlleah, she truly has become a force to be reckoned with in the fight for environmental justice. As Leah says, “We can’t save the planet without uplifting the voices of its people, especially those most often unheard.”

Mikaela Loach

Mikaela Loach, born in Jamaica but raised in Great Britain, is the best selling author of It’s Not That Radical: Climate Action to Transform Our World. A medical student at Edinburgh University, she is one of the brightest and most vocal young leaders in the fight for environmental justice. In 2020, Mikaela was named by Forbes as one of the most influential women in the UK climate movement, as well as being lauded by Global Citizen and named on BBC radio’s prestigious Woman’s Hour, power List. 

Mikaela, often clad in her favorite bright pink outfits, is not afraid to speak truth to power  — even when it might be uncomfortable. She is radically opposed to billionaire philanthropists trying to save the planet while still benefiting from the industries which are actively destroying it.  Speaking at a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation conference, she felt compelled to share these views.  In Mikaela’s own words: To transform the world — rather than just sticking a band-aid on it — we have to address and disrupt the systems that create oppression in the first place. Philanthrocapitalism doesn’t do that”. 

Michaela is both fearless but welcoming — she encourages a fully inclusive form of activism. In 2021, she famously started taking the British government to court for subsidizing the fossil fuel industry. 

Genesis Butler

Genesis Butler has been an animal activist since the age of six, but she pivoted to fighting for the environment when she realized the devastating impact that animal agriculture had not just on the animals themselves but also on our planet. At the age of 16 years old, Genesis became a vegan. Genesis actively fundraises for animal sanctuaries and advocates for the ‘food’ and ‘lab test’  animals that many of us often forget about such as cows, goats, dogs, mice, rats, sheep and chickens. 

She is one of the youngest people to ever give a TEDx Talk entitled, “A 10 Year Old’s Vision for Healing the Planet,” She used a disarming mix of humor and facts to engage her audience in the connection between animal based agriculture and climate change.  Activism is clearly in her DNA, her great-uncle was civil rights leader Cesar Chavez. Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which united with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to become the United Farm Workers Labor Union. So, while her famous great uncle fought for farm laborer’s rights, his incredible great niece is fighting for farm animals.   She is currently working as an ambassador for EARTHDAY.ORG’s Foodprints for the Future, calling for us all to fight climate change with dietary change. 

Genesis is committed to giving all young people a platform. To that end she presently leads the Youth Climate Save movement, the first youth-led environmental organization that is focused on animal agriculture’s impact on climate change.

Vic Barrett

Vic Barrett’s message is clear: Climate change isn’t just about temperatures and weather, it’s about people. Our earth will be here for millennia, it’s up to us to decide if humanity will be too.

Vic’s climate activism began after his low-lying hometown, White Plains in New York, was impacted by Hurricane Sandy back in 2012. He got to experience first hand the damage a Category 3 ‘super’ hurricane can inflict — his neighborhood lost power and his school and local transport system shut down. While Sandy may be long gone, his home town is still facing the ever-present risk of rising sea levels and frequent storm surges. Motivated by what he experienced firsthand, he became active in the environmental movement at his high school and he hasn’t stopped since. 

Vic spoke in Paris at the UN’s Cop 21, is a plaintiff in the Juliana v. United States lawsuit against the US government for failing to protect the climate for future generations. He marched with 400,000 at the Peoples’ Climate March in New York City, he has attended the World Economic Forum — the list goes on. But Vic’s mantra is not to lecture young people about being at the negotiating table or striving to make UN speeches. Instead, he wants to encourage them to look for what it is they care about and then do something about it. Vic advocates for young people to find a way to make a difference in their own community. He is currently working to involve students of color in environmental activism and is a Fellow with the Alliance for Climate Education. He is an undergraduate at UW-Madison.

EARTHDAY.ORG thanks all of these incredible environmental justice leaders and beyond for their work and for their vision. We need everyone to join together to fight for the health of our planet and for the survival and health of all the creatures that call Earth home. We need ALL communities to feel welcomed and heard in this powerfully important ‘green’ movement. EARTHDAY.ORG sees you all, we hear you all. We are with you all.