Loveland Magazine is one of the 400 news outlets worldwide, with a combined audience of over 2 billion people “Covering Climate Now”, a global journalism initiative committed to bringing more and better coverage to the defining story of our time.
The initiative, was co-founded by The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review
Mihaela Manova is “Covering Climate Now” in Loveland, Ohio as an editor for Loveland Magazine
By: Mihaela Manova
Ten years after her death, Hazel M. Johnson’s impact doesn’t seem to stop.
Dubbed “the mother of environmental justice,” Johnson started her campaign in Altgeld Gardens, located in South Side Chicago. In the mid-1950s, the New Orleans native dedicated herself to changing her new community and removing the noxious chemicals caused by various forms of pollution.
According to Vice, Altgeld Gardens is a 4,000 resident public housing complex, “surrounded by landfills, factories, and sewage treatment plans.” In the South Side, there has been a spike in deaths from cancer, mainly from air and water pollution.
Grist reports that there were “roughly 50 documented landfills and nearly 300 underground chemical storage tanks.” The water in the area was contaminated with elements like nitrogen and phosphorus, affecting the community’s health in the years to come.
In 1969, Hazel’s husband, John Johnson, died of lung cancer at age 41.
In Altgeld Gardens, there was a rise in cancer cases and respiratory ailments. One of the instances were Johnson’s neighbors, four little girls, that died from cancer due to the poor conditions.
As the cancer rates were increasing, Johnson decided to do something about it.
The People for Community Recovery, or PCR, was founded by Johnson in 1979 and was dubbed a nonprofit in 1982. At the start of the program, Johnson gathered her neighbors to conduct health surveys of the community, proving how harsh the environment impacted its residents.
The organization had many triumphs through their actions and advocacy, drawing attention to the cause on a larger scale.
In the 90s and 2000s, PCR lobbied for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for new water and sewage lines and acted locally with Chicago’s Housing Authority in Altgeld Gardens to reduce lead dust and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the soil.
With countless other accomplishments, Johnson was credited for her work numerous times in the White House.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, during President George H.W. Bush’s presidency, Johnson was presented with the EPA’s Environment and Conservation Challenge Award.
Two years later, President Bill Clinton signed the first executive order on environmental justice. The order directed the EPA and the federal government to pay attention to at-risk communities. During Al Gore’s candidacy for president, Johnson also worked with him on his climate and environmental platform.
But Johnson worked with one president before his candidacy.
During Barack Obama’s role as executive director of the Developing Communities Project, he collaborated with Johnson and other leaders to talk about Altgeld Gardens’ problems. As reported by NCR, before Obama was accepted to Harvard Law School, he would be seen strategizing with Johnson at the family’s kitchen table.
And to this day, Johnson’s legacy still lives on.
Bobby Rush, a Democrat that represents the Southeast Side community in Congress, introduced a new bill that could make April “Hazel M. Johnson Environmental Justice Month.” As Grist revealed, the award would posthumously award her with the Congressional Gold Medal and her own postage stamp.
The bill has been introduced as of February 2, 2021 and was proposed by the House – Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources committees. As it is also sponsored by Rush, the bill urges the people of the U.S. to recognize the month of April as “Hazel M. Johnson Environmental Justice Month.” To read the bill in full, click here.
Now, Johnson’s role is passed onto generations.
At this time, PCR is led by Cheryl Johnson, Hazel’s daughter. Under her leadership, Cheryl and her team have stopped the Chicago Housing Authority to demolish 648 vacant apartments and continue redeveloping Altgeld Gardens. Cheryl’s team has also advocated against a scrapyard being relocated to their community, as it was closed down in a wealthier and whiter neighborhood.
As the front page of the PCR website reads, “The Voice of the Voiceless,” many residents have been able to rise and collaborate against their unjust conditions.
Seems like Johnson’s impact hasn’t stopped.
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