America’s legacy of environmental racism has both a long history and a long reach for Black Americans.

Decades of exposure to industrial pollution has resulted in striking disparities. Around 13% of Black children have asthma compared to 7% of white children nationwide. Black people are exposed to 1.54 times more fine particulate matter than white people, and Black people experience 56% more pollution than their consumption generates.

Chicago’s environmental justice advocates are working to address the systematic structures that created these inequities. They say a greener future is possible as long as the city and industry are willing to do the work.

Naomi Davis, founder and CEO of Blacks in Green, said her organization’s “Sustainable Square Mile” plan offers a blueprint for creating communities in which industry and healthy living are supported by each other.

“It advances environmental justice by creating economies, for example, in energy. The idea that we are recreating the synergies that were lost back in the day when Black families could walk to work, walk to shop, walk to learn, walk to play, where neighbor dollars could circulate to fertilize our self-interests, where we own the businesses, where we own the land and where we live the conservation lifestyle,” Davis said. “So the idea that we are historically these superb stewards of the land and the resources that the land generates, which is everything. And so the idea that justice is the ability for black communities to own themselves. Black contractors for Black communities … These are the elements of environmental justice in action on the ground.”

Chicagoan Dorothy Jean Tillman, 16, said from her perspective, the biggest challenge is holding the government to account for equitable distribution of resources.

“For Chicago, if you go downtown to these different places, they are ‘green this’ and ‘green that’ and they’re making sure that they are leaving a good green footprint on the world, but then you go to the South Side and they’re really not doing what they need to do to make sure that things are good there,” Tillman said. “And that’s a large part of the city. And at that point now, Chicago as a whole is compromised environmentally.”

Tillman’s organization, the Dorothy Jeanius STEAM Leadership Institute, convened a discussion on global leadership in STEAM on Earth Day and is taking a group of students to Ghana in June to work with students there on environmental justice.

Cheryl Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery, said that the city must engage young people like Tillman in the work of environmental activism to create lasting change.

“I think there’s a responsibility from government, particularly the city and the state, to make sure that communities that have been [negatively impacted by] the operation of these dirty industries have the education and the tools to be able to learn to become environmental engineers and scientists in our community,” Johnson said. “They’re the one that created this burden in our community, so they should have the responsibility in enhancing and remediating some of the harms that they created.”

Johnson has a concrete recommendation for holding industry accountable for its output.

“One of the things that we need to have is an independent environmental justice review board. This review board has the right to look at the application of many of the industries are trying to get from our city or our state,” she said.

Isis Bazaldua co-founded her organization Bridges//Puentes Justice Collective of the Southeast in 2020. She said that what got her started in activism is learning about the fights earlier generations endured.

“Many people around 14 to 16 do not understand the petcoke protests that occurred during 2011, 2010. And some students have never even heard of petcoke due to people putting up a front to protect our future generations,” Bazaldua said. “So we do need to discuss about how historically the South Side of Chicago has been known to build downtown Chicago and now has been left as a dumping ground for the same city it built.

“We need industries to do more,” Bazaldua continued. “It doesn’t matter if you say ‘this shirt was made with 50% less water’ when you still are polluting those pollutants back into these Black and brown communities where children will continuously get asthma.”

Eduardo Flores, a member of Clean Power Lake County’s steering committee, said that while remediating industrial abuse is paramount to environmental justice, there are simpler, smaller things administrations can do to achieve healthier communities.

“I feel like one of the key things that a lot of people don’t realize is that in these communities, there may be green spaces such as parks or maybe even forest preserves if they’re lucky, but there’s not much else in between,” he said. “We need to see more trees in the neighborhoods, we need to see more community gardens, we need to see like green spaces on roofs … so that we can have more green environment and healthier air.”

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