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Remembering Chicago's Hazel Johnson, mother of the environmental justice movement, 10 years after her passing
A conversation with her daughter, Cheryl, on how the work continues in the Altgeld Gardens neighborhood on the Southeast Side
Hazel Johnson is known as the mother of the environmental justice movement. In the early 1970s, after seeing a television program connecting cancer to certain environments, Ms. Johnson began suspecting her husband’s death from cancer just a few years earlier may also be linked to the environment. She began investigating and found that not only was there a higher rate of cancer among her neighbors in Altgeld Gardens, but also that there were many children in the area, including her own, suffering from various skin and respiratory issues. Ms. Johnson founded the People for Community Recovery organization and was part of a team of activists who urged President Clinton to sign the historic Environmental Justice Executive Order in 1994. Johnson’s daughter, Cheryl, joined me to talk about Ms. Johnson’s legacy 10 years after her passing. One of our 2020 Piping Plover chicks is named Hazel in honor of Ms. Johnson. The following stems from two conversations and was edited to ensure a consistent flow.
Bob Dolgan: How are things right now with People for Community Recovery?
Cheryl Johnson: It’s difficult right now with the climate we’re in with the pandemic. Outside of that we have been stable, the organization never closed its doors, even when we had funding issues. I’d seen a lot of organizations and funders fold. It’s just being blessed to continue to do the work with what we have.
BD: Has your work changed in the past 10 years? During the Trump years?
CJ: Under the current [administration] a lot of rollback happened, now we have to roll back forward. That takes years to unroll something and go back and roll it back. It’s just sad that we have to play politics with people’s lives.
The biggest rollback, and the biggest thing currently, is the national Environmental Protection Act that gives community a voice, that is under threat under the current administration. We still have to make sure that Biden and Harris do the right thing, especially when it comes to equal environmental protection for all and not a selected few. We have to be more engaged in the political process that affects our lives. And to bring peace. We need peace.
BD: Tell me more about your mother.
CJ: My mother was very active in the community, especially with youth. She had seven kids, and I’m her sixth child. And it was her own activism that got her involved. She just heard that the South Side had a high incidence of cancer based on zip code, and she wanted to find out why. She was a leader in the community and on the residential council, the Altgeld Gardens Local Advisory Council. She went to DC to advocate to get a community center, that was one of the biggest things that she did. Before environmental [justice], Provident Hospital was closed and she advocated and the hospital opened up. Back under the Harold Washington Administration, she worked with the city and the state to advocate for Maryland Manor next to us, which was drinking well water but taxed like they had a water supply.
What’s amazed me most about my mom, she came from a family of five and at the age of 12 was an orphan, and was her only living relative on her side of the family on the maternal side. She only had an aunt and a cousin living. She stayed with her aunt in California. At 16, she decided to move back to New Orleans and get a job. She worked until she met my father and then they relocated to Chicago. My father was a laborer and bricklayer before he passed away. She grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, and she remembered ‘cancer alley’ down there, never knowing she’d be fighting industrial pollution in her own neighborhood [in Chicago].
BD: You’re against General Iron’s move to the Southeast Side. Can you share your perspective?
CJ: There are spaces that have no schools, no residential, no playground. If the city really has to put up a site, why across the street from an elementary, a high school and residential? That is so much disregard. We have to make some compromises [for industry]. But how can we leave one neighborhood and come to another neighborhood when it is clearly based on income and race? That isn’t right. We should have some kind of rule, a law or ordinance, that you can’t have a facility in a residential space and close to schools and playgrounds. When the City of Chicago sites an industrial facility, it should never be near a school or residential homes. That’s a total disregard to human health.
One thing about the environmental justice movement, and we have a lot of commonality in this, is that nobody wants to drink contaminated water. Nobody wants to continue to breathe polluted air. And we don’t want our homes and land contaminated. That’s the commonality we have as human beings, and that we always have to protect. Without those protections on our land, will we continue to co-exist with Mother Nature?
That was a statement my mother would always make, ‘If we don’t get our act together, Mother Nature will tell us how to get our act together.’ That was 30 years ago. I look at the natural disasters happening in this country, and I’m like, ‘She was on key.’
Join People for Community Recovery on Hazel Johnson’s birthday, Jan. 25, for a conversation between Cheryl Johnson and the father of the environmental justice movement, Dr. Robert Bullard.
Special thanks to Kara Morrison for contributing research to this piece. There is a wealth of detailed information on People for Community Recovery and Hazel Johnson in the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American Literature and History.
Monty’s mysterious whereabouts revealed
From summertime goose-stepping to wintertime two-stepping. Until last week, we didn’t know exactly where Monty, the famed male of Piping Plover couple Monty and Rose, spent his winters. Rose’s wintering location has been well known, as she has been photographed the past two years at Anclote Key, Fla. Monty, however, was thought to be somewhere on the Gulf Coast of Texas and maybe even in Mexico.
Then came the astonishing news that Monty had been photographed and definitively identified at Bolivar Flats, Texas, near Galveston. It’s a welcome dose of positive news as we eagerly await spring and the return of the plovers. Provided Monty and Rose return safely—and a 1,000-mile traverse is no small task—the question on my mind is where 2020 chicks Esperanza, Hazel and Nish turn up in 2021. Will they be at Montrose? Waukegan? It’s a fun thought to contemplate the summer locale of Chicago-hatched Piping Plovers.
In a year of birding superlatives, Beau Schaefer’s “Green Big Year” is one that stands out. Schaefer, a Lake County resident, racked up 6,119 miles by bicycle and on foot on his way to 276 bird species in 2020. There is much more detail on his blog here. Lake-Cook Audubon will feature Schaefer in an event tomorrow night at 7…..With the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden this week, it’s an ideal time to consider what actions will be taken to protect birds after so many policies have been unraveled since 2017. The National Audubon Society has a summary of possible measures here.