Celebrating Black Environmentalists

Celebrating Black Environmentalists

Norris McDonald


Norris McDonald is the Founder and President of the African American Environmentalist Association (AAEA), an award-winning researcher and writer, and co-founder of the environmental justice movement in the 1980s where he spearheaded the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice.

The African American Environmentalist Association was founded in 1985. This association is dedicated to increasing African American presence in the environmental movement, enhancing human, animal, and plant ecologies, and promoting the efficient use of natural resources. McDonald was driven to start the AAEA after working as a professional in Washington, DC and witnessing a lack of Black professionals in environmental groups. McDonald continuously aims to increase African American participation in the environmental movement.

McDonald’s environmental mission is underscored by his commitment to social justice issues in minority communities. He has long advocated for green job programs and has led grassroots efforts for recycling, home weatherization, and audits in impoverished neighbourhoods in the Northeast United States. For more than 30 years, McDonald has instigated and led visits to toxic waste sites, power plants, drinking-water plants, sewage treatment plants, and creek walks — all of which have exposed white and privileged environmentalists to the everyday realities of disadvantaged communities of colour; showing that environmentalism is not necessarily a one-size fits all solution.

A few of McDonald’s other achievements include directing the Energy Conservation and Transportation Program at the Environmental Policy Institute, leading the fight in congress in the early 1980s to maintain Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, successfully advocating for the 1986 Federal Shared Energy Savings Act, and attending the the first People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC. McDonald authored Washington, DC’s first pollution report that highlighted the effects of climate change on vulnerable communities in the region and helped to pass the first civil rights legislation of the 21st century titled the No FEAR Act in 2002 with Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo.

Norris McDonald continues to fight for the preservation of the environment and the inclusion of African Americans and marginalized groups in the environmental movement — many of whom are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Dr. Wangari Maathai


Dr. Wangari Maathai was born in Kenya in 1940. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas, a Master of Science from the University of Pittsburgh, and obtained a Ph.D. while studying both in Germany and at the University of Nairobi. Dr. Maathai is the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, the first woman to chair the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi as well as the first woman to act as an associate professor.

It was while she was working with the National Council of Women of Kenya in the late 1970s that Dr. Maathai came up with the idea of community-based tree planting. This idea flourished into the grassroots organization as we know it today, the Green Belt Movement (GBM). The primary focus of the GBM is to alleviate poverty, promote women’s rights, and encourage environmental conservation through the act of tree planting.

Dr. Maathai’s many achievements include serving at the Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources in Kenya (2003-2007), being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (2004), being appointed the Goodwill Ambassador to the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem by Congolese heads of state (2005), founding the Nobel Women’s Initiative with sister laureates (2006), and co-chairing the Congo Basin Fund to help protect Congolese forests (2007).

In 2009, the UN Secretary-General named Dr. Maathai a UN Messenger of Peace with a focus on environment and climate change. The following year, she was appointed to the Millennium Development Goals Advocacy Group with the aim of supporting the Millennium Development Goals; in addition to becoming a trustee of the Karura Forest Environmental Education Trust, which was established to protest vulnerable lands. The Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies (WMI) was founded the same year, in 2010, to amalgamate research related to the GBM that would aid in understanding land use, forestry, agriculture, and resource-based conflicts.

Dr. Maathai passed away in 2011. Her legacy of fighting for democracy, women’s rights, and environmental rights will not be forgotten.


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