Hazel Johnson is now known as the “mother of the environmental justice movement,” but back in 1979 she was a mother of seven children with respiratory and skin problems, and the widow of a husband who died from lung cancer a decade prior. Living in Altgeld Gardens on the South Side of Chicago, in a housing project that was surrounded by factories, landfills, industrial buildings, and sewage treatment plants, Johnson began to investigate the chronic health impacts on her community from surrounding air and water pollution. She learned that her family and her neighbors had been exposed to toxic fumes, asbestos, and contaminated drinking water, and that her community had the highest cancer rate in the city – leading her to call Altgeld Gardens “The Toxic Donut.”

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Hazel Johnson

1979 was the year that Johnson founded the nonprofit People for Community Recovery, which by 1989 convinced the Chicago Housing Authority to remove asbestos from Altgeld Gardens. Through her efforts, she met a young Barack Obama during his community organizing days. Johnson also convinced the city to test drinking water in a Far South Side neighborhood, and urged President Bill Clinton to sign the Environmental Justice executive order, which was the first major federal action on environmental justice and directed all federal agencies to identify and address disproportionately high health and environmental impacts of their programs on minority and low-income communities.

Hazel Johnson’s legacy lives on in Chicago, where I have had the privilege of learning about this city’s incredible environmental justice advocates. Chicago continues to face many environmental problems that disproportionately impact certain communities, including but not limited to the following:

  • Localized contaminants like lead in homes – this spring, brain-damaging lead levels were found in tap water in hundreds of homes across Chicago.
  • Water pollution from industrial processes and run-off – it is very common for Lake Michigan beaches to be closed to swimming due to high levels of bacteria in the water from stormwater run-off after heavy rains.
  • Air pollution from coal plants and diesel trucks – until 2012, there were two coal plants operating in or near Chicago, and coal makes up 41% of Illinois’ energy production. As a major transportation hub, Chicago has several industrial corridors that experience a high amount of truck traffic, emitting diesel pollution in local communities.
  • Unequal access to green space like parks, community gardens, and tree-lined streets – as of 2010, Chicago had 15 percent tree cover, compared to a recommended 40-60% cover in urban areas.
  • Unequal access to healthy, nutritious food – a 2006 study showed that majority Hispanic and/or Black neighborhoods in Chicago had, on average, a higher distance to grocery stores than majority White neighborhoods. I have heard anecdotal accounts of neighborhoods where liquor stores are more convenient and greatly outnumber grocery stores.
  • Impacts from flooding events and heat waves – these will only become stronger and more frequent with climate change, and disproportionately affect certain neighborhoods that have less road maintenance and less green space, and people that don’t have AC, flood insurance, or water-tight basements, as well as the young and old that are more susceptible to harm from extreme weather.

There are many environmental justice advocates across Chicagoland, but one group that I am most familiar with is the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) in the majority Mexican-American neighborhood of Little Village (“La Villita”) on the West Side of Chicago. They, and their Executive Director Kim Wasserman-Nieto, are famous for shutting down the Crawford coal plant in their neighborhood, which also spurred the shutdown of the Fisk Generating Station, another coal plant, in the Pilsen neighborhood. Wasserman first became a community organizer in 1998 after her newborn suffered from an asthma attack, likely spurred by pollutants released by the Crawford plant. Her efforts to shut down the coal plant with LVEJO led her to win the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2013.

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Kimberly Wasserman-Nieto (Courtesy WBEZ)

And while the Crawford plant is no longer running, the battle is not over – LVEJO has had to fight to be adequately included in the decision-making process for how to use the space. In February, it was announced that the Crawford site will be replaced with a logistics hub – which locals see as swapping one type of dangerous pollution for another. This intersects with LVEJO’s current campaign against diesel trucks in their neighborhood. The organization has worked on many other local environmental issues with many successes – a new community park, a community garden, and a new bus line to improve access to public transportation, among others.

LVEJO also leads Toxic Tours through their neighborhood, one of which I was lucky enough to experience through work. During the tour, Wasserman and her colleagues showed us through the neighborhood, from the Crawford plant to the new La Villita park, and told the story of their extremely effective and community-centered activism. Out of Chicago’s rampant environmental problems and inequalities has arisen a rich ecosystem of environmental justice advocates, whose voices and stories deserve to be amplified – and whose concerns need to be much better addressed by local governments and businesses. Thank you to Wasserman and her colleagues for the tour and for their decades of doing this critical work.

*Cover photo: The Crawford plant overlooking Chicago neighborhoods (Energy News Network)

This post is the second in an environmental blog series about my new home of Chicago. You can read the first post about the Midwest and climate change here