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Remembering Activist Hazel M. Johnson, the “Mother of Environmental Justice,” on #EarthDay – Good Black News

[Photo: Hazel M. Johnson via peopleforcommunityrecovery.org]

by Lori Lakin Hutcherson (@lakinhutcherson)

Today, GBN celebrates Hazel M. Johnson, the community activist who sought to clean up the “Toxic Doughnut” that encircled her community on the South Side of Chicago, and in the process became known as the “Mother of Environmental Justice.”

To read about Johnson, read on. To hear about her, press PLAY:

[You can subscribe to the Good Black News Daily Drop Podcast via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, rss.com or create your own RSS Feed. Or listen every day here on the main page. Full transcript below]:

Hey, this is Lori Lakin Hutcherson, founder and editor in chief of goodblacknews.org, here to share with you a daily drop of Good Black News for Friday, April 22nd, 2022, based on the “A Year of Good Black News Page-A-Day Calendar” published by Workman Publishing.

Known as the “Mother of Environmental Justice,” Hazel M. Johnson did not choose the path that lead her to her title, but rather was called to it when her husband died of cancer in 1969 and her world was turned upside down.

Soon after his passing, the widowed mother of seven learned from a local TV program that people who lived on the South Side of Chicago had the highest cancer rates in the city. Hazel was determined to find out why.

Johnson discovered that chemical companies, refineries, and steel mills nearby were shooting toxins into the air and dumping industrial waste into the local river, which locals fished in, making Altgeld Gardens where she lived a perfect storm of air, water and land contamination which Johnson herself would later call the “Toxic Doughnut.”

She also found out that Altgeld Gardens had a toxic past that went even deeper.

Originally established as a federal housing project for World War II African American veterans, Altgeld Gardens was built atop land that had been an industrial sludge dump for the Pullman Motor Company from 1863 until the early 20th century.

Altgeld Gardens, it turned out, had the highest concentration of hazardous waste sites in the entire nation.

Hazel Johnson went door-to-door collecting data from friends and neighbors and started calling city and state health departments to investigate the industrial pollution in her community.

In 1982, she founded an organization called People for Community Recovery to fight environmental racism at the grassroots level.

PCR, made up mainly of mothers and local residents who were volunteers, pushed for city and state officials to do epidemiological studies of Altgeld Gardens because before Hazel started pushing and organizing, no legislative mandate existed to address how industrial pollution was affecting the quality of life for low-income and minority communities.

Hazel and PCR also worked to get rid of the toxins in their physical living spaces and put pressure on the Chicago Housing Authority to remove asbestos from Altgeld Gardens.

Johnson was equally instrumental in convincing city health officials to test the drinking water at Maryland Manor, a South Side neighborhood dependent on well water. Hazel convinced city and state officials to meet her in Altgeld Gardens and she took them on a “toxic tour” so they could see the problems first-hand.

After this tour, tests were conducted in 1984, which revealed cyanide and toxins in the water, and that lead to the installation of new water and sewer lines.

In 1986, Hazel and other activists in PCR protested daily outside the incinerator near Altgeld Gardens where the city was burning its trash and spewing toxins in the air, until finally the Illinois State Environmental Protection Agency charged the incinerator owners a $5 million fine and shut them down.

Johnson’s victories were true examples of “power of the people,” because everyone who made them happen were from low-income areas or lived in public housing. Hazel was not paid for her work, neither were other members of PCR.

But Hazel felt it was her calling andfocused much of her organization’s work on educating minority communities about urban environmental hazards.

Johnson is quoted as saying, “For so long, environmental activism has been primarily a white, middle-class issue, far removed from the daily reality of inner-city life. It’s all very well to embrace saving the rain forests and conserving endangered animal species, but such global initiatives don’t even begin to impact communities inhabited by people of color.”

In fact, let’s hear Johnson herself speaking out against South Side pollution at a 1990 Chicago Town Hall:

“Interviewer 1: You want to close all the industry?

Hazel M. Johnson: Sure I do.  Human health come first. That’s the problem with the industry is the politicians and everybody else to care about the bucks. But what is happening to people health?

I1: But people have to eat. Don’t they need jobs?

HJ: Sure. Let’s put that in an area where no one live, in a non residential area. Instead of piling all this around us. We are like sitting in a center of a donut. We have steel mills, treatment plants, hazardous waste incinerators, a paint factory, we have it all. And I don’t think that in my community should share the burden for the whole city of Chicago and we’ve been doing it ever since 1863. Now it’s time to just do something for us.

I1: So you say you either move the people I want to see if I understand you say either move the people out of harm’s way or or shut down the one or the other. Get going on it.

HJ: Right. And I prefer being relocated.

Interviewer 2: Is there a middle ground? Can you come to some kind of agreement with these companies?

HJ: No. We’re not compromising with these people in the company. We want them closed down because we feel that they are affecting our health while they’re making millions of dollars each year.”

Hazel’s tireless work in Chicago led to the national stage, where she joined other activists in urging President Bill Clinton to sign an Environmental Justice Executive Order, that would hold the federal government accountable to urban communities exposed to pollution.

Johnson served on the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s first National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and this work ultimately led to Executive Order #12898 on Environmental Justice issued by President Clinton in 1994.

The order directed federal agencies to identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low-income populations. The order also directed each agency to develop a strategy for implementing environmental justice.

While a huge step forward in recognizing environmental racism nationally, and the need for environmental justice, not unlike Brown v. The Board of Education, many states and cities were slow to implement or follow the Executive Order. Which meant Hazel’s and PCR’s work was — and is – decades later, far from over.

Hazel Johnson passed in 2011, but her legacy still stands via her organization People for Community Recovery, which is now run by her equally intelligent and charismatic daughter Cheryl Johnson.

As Hazel’s grandson said at the 2016 dedication of the street naming of “Hazel Johnson EJ Way” in Altgeld Gardens: “My grandmother spent 50 to 55 years of her life as a wife and mother and later a widow. She spent the last 20-25 years of her life as an advocate fighting for equality and justice, was honored by two presidents [Bush and Clinton] and mentored a third [Obama] … It’s never too late to make a difference.”

To learn more about Hazel M. Johnson, check out peopleforcommunityrecovery.org where you can also donate, check out the Chicago Public Library’s information on Johnson, and watch the CBS Chicago feature on Johnson from 2021. Links to these and other sources are provided in today’s show notes and in the episode’s full transcript posted on goodblacknews.org

This has been a daily drop of Good Black News, written, produced and hosted by me, Lori Lakin Hutcherson. Beats provided by freebeats.io and produced by White Hot.

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