Earth Day at 50: Reflections from Three Environmental Leaders

1) What does Earth Day mean to you?

“I have never been sure what eco-feminism means but when I think of Earth Day, I think of women sheroes like Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai who said, ‘Although this prize comes to me, it acknowledges the work of countless individuals and groups across the globe. They work quietly and often without recognition to protect the environment, promote democracy, defend human rights and ensure equality between women and men. By so doing, they plant seeds of peace.’

So, on this day I think of the dynamism and unerring commitment of women like Margie Richard who secured an agreement from Shell Chemical to reduce its toxic emissions by 30 percent, contribute $5 million to a community development fund, and finance relocation of her Old Diamond neighbors in Louisiana. I think of Hazel Johnson decrying the ‘toxic doughnut’ of pollution and lead poisoning in Chicago’s Altgeld public housing; Dr. Beverly Wright supporting the black folks living and dying in Cancer Alley; Donele Wilkins creating her own just transition of unemployed workers to greener paid jobs; Kim Wasserman, shutting down a coal-fired power plant on Chicago’s southside; the brave women of Standing Rock; Jean Guana, passionate co-founder of the Southwest Organizing Project; and Vernice Miller-Travis, WE ACT’s co-founder and researcher on Toxic Waste and Race, one of the first research studies to describe the reality of environmental racism.

As Dr. Maathai said: ‘The Norwegian Nobel Committee has challenged the world to broaden the understanding of peace: there can be no peace without equitable development; and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space. This shift is an idea whose time has come.’ At the time, I did not truly understand her meaning. But she was prescient in foreseeing our current global incidence of climate refugees and climate migrants who have no right of return and who are further victimized by social disruption and climate gentrification. The time is now for us to focus on, what the earth really means to each and all of us.”

– Peggy Shepard, Co-Founder & Executive Director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice
(photo credit: Glamour Magazine)

“For me, Earth Day stands for the proposition that organizing works, that wildly untenable environmental conditions can mobilize people to demand new leaders, new laws, and new ways of living — and actually deliver change. On Earth Day in 1970, 20 million people hit the streets at once, and we still have bedrock protections to show for it. 2020 is the year that millions more people have to come together to demand justice and action to address our climate emergency. The future is in play right now. The failures of leadership, the consequences of systemic injustice, of ignoring science, of gutting the institutions that are designed to protect us — this is all so painfully clear in this time of pandemic. I believe we can rise to this moment and grow the spirit that animated the first Earth Day, this time insisting on a future that leaves no community behind.”

– Abigail Dillen, President of Earthjustice


“Earth Day means we are in this together. It means solving environmental problems requires hundreds of millions of people – not just lowering their individual carbon footprints, but collectively pushing for clean energy and green jobs and a regenerative food system. It means we have a lot of work to do, and my heart is quite heavy this Earth Day knowing all the critical things the environmental movement has not yet achieved, knowing that awareness is not enough, knowing that immense corporate power and minuscule political bravery are massive hurdles, knowing how close we are to the precipice and how many lives are at risk.

It also means the future is not yet written, and that we must take the pen and write it – or perhaps take watercolors and paint it. It means knowing the odds but continuing to show up, because we have no right to give up on each other or this magnificent planet. It means building the biggest team imaginable, and each contributing to the plethora of climate solutions we have at our fingertips. It means embracing solar panels and photosynthesis. It means re-greening the planet – literally, we need more plants. It means remembering that the Earth is our home, and it’s the only one we’ve got. It means thinking bigger. It means transformation.”

– Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Founder of Urban Ocean Lab and Ocean Collectiv
(photo credit: Marcus Branch)


2) How are you going to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day?

“Originally, I would have competed in WE ACT’s Earth Day 5K race in Riverside Park. However, our current shelter in place mandate means I will compete on my treadmill at home. It is drastically clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the many structural inequities in our society, including the lack of universal health care as millions of laid off workers have lost their employer health insurance at a time when they need it most. It has exposed the environmental racism, the disparate air pollution that has increased the risk and contributed to such high COVID-19 mortality rates in communities of color. And the public discourse on a Green New Deal has increased the advocacy for climate justice and the need for a just transition to a more inclusive and equitable economy as we work to address climate change and the legacy of environmental pollution in communities of color and low income and on indigenous lands.

We are fortunate that at times in history we must heed a call to a new consciousness to reach a higher ground, and to share often forgotten values. This is a time when we have to shed our stereotypes and fears of one another, and come together to reach a higher moral ground. That consciousness is beginning to happen. That time is now; so we give hope to each other

As we continue the fight, I look forward to the day when Earth Day is no longer a cause to raise alarm but rather an opportunity to rejoice and celebrate the successes we have achieved. For I am confident that we will mitigate climate change and the environmental injustices that have plagued low-income communities and communities of color for generations. And I am proud to work toward that day with a savvy, hardworking staff at WE ACT that is making a difference day by day.”

– Peggy Shepard, Co-Founder & Executive Director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice


“I’ll be working! I am so lucky to work at Earthjustice and to work with amazing clients and colleagues like Peggy and the whole staff at WE ACT. On Earth Day, I will be feeling extra gratitude. In the evening, we’ll watch Life on Earth. David Attenborough has been doing a lot of home schooling for us over the last six weeks. It keeps my heart wide open to enter the incredible web of life that needs as many first responders as possible now.”

– Abigail Dillen, President of Earthjustice


“I am going to plant peach trees with my mom, upstate New York at our little farm. I have been sequestered here with her for 40 days now, and it has been the most incredible gift to be able to watch spring unfurl, to go for long walks in the country. For 15 years she has been slowly creating a Climate Victory Garden, with many raised beds for vegetables; with dozens of heritage breeds of free-roaming chickens; with a greenhouse made from reclaimed windows; with fruit trees and berry bushes and herbs; with berms and swales; with massive compost piles; with a barn tiled with solar panels; and with soil we are nurturing so that it can hold more and more carbon.

I am going to celebrate by touching the earth this Earth Day. And I will take time to soak in how immensely lucky I am to be amidst fields and streams and wildlife. And I will hope that the longing for nature many are feeling right now, while being shut inside, will remind us of our innate love of living things, our biophilia, and inspire us to figure out the special ways each of us can contribute to solving the heartbreaking environmental challenges we must face head on. I will be spending the day thinking about how I can contribute more creatively and transformatively to healing this planet.”

– Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Founder of Urban Ocean Lab and Ocean Collectiv


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