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Environmental Justice Movement Loses Southside Chicago Icon Hazel Johnson

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At 1:42am on Wednesday, January 12, 2011, the nation lost Hazel Johnson, an icon of the Environmental Justice Movement  in the United States. Nearly two decades ago in October 1991, Ms. Johnson was tagged the "Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement" at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. This unofficial title was reaffirmed at the 2002 EJ Summit II held in Washington, DC.  Both summits attracted several thousand leaders from around the world. Â

Ms. Johnson died peacefully in her sleep.  She was a warrior of the first order and a "shero" to millions. She was born January 25, 1935 in New Orleans where she grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward . She would have been 76 on her next birthday. Hazel relocated to Chicago in 1957 and moved into Altgeld Gardens , a public housing development located in the Riverdale Community area. Hazel's husband, John Johnson, died at the age of 41 of lung cancer. She believed pollution contributed to his death. Â

She is best known for her relentless pursuit of environmental justice for low-income black residents. Her even temper and quiet demeanor could disarm the most ardent opponent. She inspired hundreds of grassroots groups to organize and fight for environmental and economic justice. In October 1982, she founded People for Community Recovery (PCR), one of the oldest African American community-based environmental justice organizations in the Midwest.

Her work in Chicago gained prominence several years before another young community organizer Barack Obama took up the environmental justice mantle in her community, and later became President of the United States. The young Obama went on to become her U.S. Senator and the 44th President of the United States. Hazel stayed in her Southside Chicago neighborhood to lead the struggle in Altgeld Gardens, a community of some about 8,000 residents surrounded by pollution and environmental dumping on the poor. Â

She got involved in environmental issues while watching the news and learned that Southeast Chicago had the highest incidence of cancer than any other area within the city. After learning these disturbing facts, she contacted the city and state health department for additional information. She asked the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to mail her a complaint form and in return, she made 1,200 copies of the forms and began knocking on her neighbors' doors asking them to fill it out. She later learned that people were suffering with severe health problems that could be environmentally related. Asthma, cancer, skin rash, kidney and liver problems were documented on the complaint forms.

She often referred to her community as a " toxic doughnut " because of the large number of environmental hazards and waste dumps surrounding her neighborhood. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times back in 1993, Hazel Johnson set her sights on the polluting industries who want to turn her Chicago housing project into a toxic dump. She says, "The people who made this mess know me, and I won't give 'em a minute's peace." She was in their face 24/7 and never retreated. She would not rest until she won justice for all of her neighbors in Chicago and oppressed peoples around the world. Â

Through her perseverance and dedication, Ms. Johnson has successfully brought needed attention to the environmental issues in Southeast Chicago. She had testified before Congress, met three Presidents of the United States, sponsored "toxic tours" of her community with dignitaries, hosted environmental conferences, workshops, and training programs, and lectured at hundred of universities and colleges.

Ms. Johnson served on the U.S. EPA's first National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), established by charter pursuant to the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) on September 30, 1993. The charter for the NEJAC provides the Administrator with advice and recommendations with respect to integrating environmental justice considerations into EPA's programs, policies, and day-to-day activities.

And on February 11, 1994, while attending the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) "Symposium on Health and Research Needs to Ensure Environmental Justice" in Arlington, VA, when she and a handful of EJ leaders were called to the White House to witness President Bill Clinton sign the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898, " Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations."

For the past two decades, Hazel Johnson has been a stalwart in the antiracist movement and a relentless advocate for poor people at home and abroad. She traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992 as part of an environmental justice delegation to the United Nations Earth Summit where she shared her story with Brazilians who faced environmental justice challenges ranging from those in the rainforests of the Amazon to those who lived in favelas or shanty town in the cities. Â In 1996, she carried her environmental justice message abroad to South Africa as part of a twelve-member people of color delegation where she witnessed firsthand the environmental ravages of that country's evil apartheid system. She later participated in several other international meetings, including the 2000 Climate Justice Summit in The Hague, Netherlands, 2001 World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa, and 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa. Â Â

Her story has been told on every major U.S. television network. She has appeared on National Public Radio (NPR) several times. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Emerge, Essence, and Ebony magazine. Â She has even been the subject of puppet shows and plays. Â Her work on the Southside of Chicago has even attracted the foreign press, including the British, French, and German media.Â

She and PCR were featured in the  People of Color Environmental Groups Directory published by the C.S. Mott Foundation in 2000. She has received numerous awards and honors for her important work. Photographs of her are found in Children's Museums, the U.S. Congress, and Chicago Public Libraries. One of the most important awards she accepted on the behalf of PCR is a gold medal from the President's Conservation and Challenge Award for Communication and Education. In 2010, Planet Harmony named her one of "Ten African American Heroes" for her work educating people about the effects of environmental hazards on low-income and people of color communities.

Today, Altgeld Gardens is cleaner and healthier for her work.  And because of her efforts, some of the dirtiest nearby industrial sites have cleaned up their acts. Much work is still needed. Ms. Johnson passed the torch to her daughter Cheryl Johnson to carry on the struggle. Hazel Johnson is survived by her seven children, ten grandchildren, and five great grandchildren. The EJ Movement and the world will miss this great warrior and healer. Her legacy lives on in her work and the thousands of lives she has touched the nearly 76 years she was with us. Â

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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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