Hazel Johnson was not only my mother, she was the mother of the environmental justice (EJ) movement.
Hazel started organizing in our neighborhood, Altgeld Gardens, on the far southside of Chicago in the late 1970s. At the time, Altgeld residents and other Black, Brown and working class neighborhoods across the country were bearing the burden of toxic pollution and industrial dumping. But such terms as environmental justice and environmental racism were not commonplace back then like they are today. My mom dedicated her life to changing that. She fought for justice in Chicago and raised national awareness about the connections between socioeconomic, public health, and environmental inequities in low-income and communities of color—what we now call environmental racism.
For many reasons, women often do not receive the same recognition for their contributions to social movements as men. Those of us fighting the climate crisis on the front lines—working every day to dismantle the structural racism that got us here—know that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Hazel Johnson, one of the many women trailblazers in our movement, was one of them. At the same time my mother was working to address pollution and housing discrimination in Chicago, community environmental justice struggles were erupting in such places as Warren County, North Carolina, and the section of Louisiana now called Cancer Alley, where my mom was born. Those fights also were led mainly by Black women, who—like the civil rights organizers before them—often went unrecognized compared to their male peers.
My mom, like many other women, got started in the work simply because she cared about her community. She and my father John moved to Altgeld Gardens in Chicago in 1962, but their idyllic life took a turn in 1969 when John was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died weeks later at just 41 years old. Hazel later heard from neighbors about others experiencing cancer and respiratory diseases, such as asthma, and about mothers in the neighborhood with high rates of miscarriages or delivering babies with birth defects. She then discovered that her community had the area’s highest cancer rates and began investigating local environmental conditions.