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In Chicago, Environmental Justice Was Birthed by a Black Woman. A New Podcast Tells Her Story.

An audio docuseries about Hazel Johnson recognizes the community organizer's importance in developing the growing movement.

Hazel Johnson founded People for Community Recovery in 1979 to combat the pollution plaguing her South Side Chicago community. (Courtesy of People for Community Recovery)

Like many Black women throughout the history of social movements, Hazel Johnson’s contributions to bettering her community on the South Side of Chicago — and the rest of the country — are often forgotten. But in the 1970s and 1980s, when industrial polluters largely evaded consequences, the Altgeld Gardens public housing resident was one of the nation’s most vocal advocates for environmental cleanups and environmentally safe, affordable housing.

The creators of a new audio docuseries about Johnson, the “mother of environmental justice,” are honoring the community organizer’s importance in developing the growing movement. The series, “Help This Garden Grow,” comes as America’s environmental injustices against Black communities have finally captured national attention, offering a moment to uplift the movement’s pioneers and long-standing history.

Johnson founded People for Community Recovery in 1979, connecting Altgeld Gardens’ air pollution, lead pipes, and asbestos to high cancer rates and the deaths of children and adults, including her husband. 

Before the significant increase in attention and funding for environmental justice projects, PCR successfully lobbied the federal government to force companies to clean up their decommissioned projects. PCR also got the community new water and sewage lines and resources to train residents to become environmental remediation workers.

The docuseries, produced by Respair Production & Media, is intended to serve as a catalyst for future generations by allowing activists, organizers, and everyday community members to participate in the storytelling process. 

“We hope to provide momentum toward building the physical legacy and lineage that Hazel wanted and deserves,” said Daniel Kisslinger, co-host of the series. “The lineage of her work will enable us to survive and thrive as a city and as a community as we fight for environmental justice.”

The group also saw the series as a chance to honor the sometimes forgotten Black history behind America’s environmental movement. 

“Everyone now uses the language of environmental justice, but we thought it was important to acknowledge just how Black that history is,” said Damon Williams, another co-host.

The six-episode series debuted in July and includes dispatches from Johnson, who died in 2011, and her daughter Cheryl Johnson, who has run PCR since her passing. It tracks the trajectory of the mother of seven’s environmental career, from nicknaming the community a “toxic donut” to White House recognition in 1992, and the present-day work in Altgeld Gardens. Last year, activists made international headlines for participating in a hunger strike against Chicago’s attempt to move a polluting scrapyard from a wealthy, white neighborhood to majority Black and Latino neighborhoods on the Southeast Side. 

To listen to the series on Spotify, click here. To listen on Apple Music, click here.

Capital B recently caught up with Williams and Kisslinger to learn more about Respair Media, the research that went into making the series, and the need to highlight Johnson’s contributions as the environmental movement picks up federal support. 

Capital B: Was there a specific reason or moment that led Respair to focus on Johnson and environmental justice history in Chicago?

Damon Williams: As you pull the thread on any justice-centered movement, you quickly realize how intersected all of the issues are, therefore, so are all of the responses, approaches, efforts, and freedom-making. 

Read more: Why Saving This Stop on the Underground Railroad Is an Act of Climate Justice

Much of our work was centered in response to police and carceral violence in various forms. Still, we’ve always seen the notion of environmental justice as a central part of what liberation looks like, and while doing our research, we started to see the name Hazel Johnson many, many times. Clearly, she was this looming figure with such a legacy and impact that was, in many ways, a compass or a North Star for the dynamic work of environmental justice today.

And so it was from that place of wanting to know more about the history of Chicago, the history of social movements, and seeing that there was a significant figure that was so under-documented. Her life is so important to the work that’s happening now.

Respair’s goals behind sharing news is community-centered. Where does the intention come from?

Williams: We wanted to create a space where folks participating in our city’s movement or cultural spaces could document and tell the stories of their work in a way that was directed to the community itself. So the folks that were interested in creative spaces — whether it is a young person, activist, organizer, educator, musician, poet, or photographer — could document and archive the conditions and the community structures that make such dynamic, transformative work possible, while also speaking directly to those communities and not be operating from an outsider position. Although, obviously, we want folks from all over the city and all over the world to learn from the work.

You both have a good understanding of the city and its history. Was there something new that jumped out at you while doing the research? 

Daniel Kisslinger: One thing for us was just having a deeper understanding of the historical driving forces of industrialization and then the ripple effects of deindustrialization, which we now understand we’re still in the midst of. It helped me really see the timeline of the city’s history differently. 

It’s not just, “Oh, the steel plants left.” What happened while the steel plants were here? What was the devastation enacted on people’s communities, their bodies, their water, and their land? And I’m starting to see the ripple effects of that, things like the smells that stopped people in Johnson’s community from going outside. 

Read more: How a Flooding Crisis Unearthed Another Environmental Injustice in Rural Alabama

Williams: The project allowed us to take a deeper look at the history of the land and the region of Chicago. I learned some fascinating history of the Indigenous peoples that inhabited the lands, how dynamic the history was, and how tragic the project of settler colonialism was. 

But then, a bit more contemporarily, going deeper into the distinction between the environmental justice movement and the larger umbrella of environmentalism. That language was not as precise for me going into this project. Now I recognize that when using the language of environmental justice, just how Black that history is. It was made from engaging and making demands of those institutions that are really harmful and destroy our lives. 

Oftentimes, we’re thinking about the biggest problems when we hear the word environment or when we’re thinking about climate change, we’re thinking about the ozone layer, but you’re not thinking about the air quality in your neighborhood, in your local ZIP code, or what is happening at your school, what is happening in your soil. In environmental justice, solutions are rooted in care and community building, not just spectacle or scientific models. It is actually the type of organizing that all people in all issues need — this radical, almost maternal-like nurturing that all human beings are really responsible for to each other. 

The environmental justice movement is very intersectional, and Johnson saw that early on. Why is it so important to make those connections, like access to housing, to environmental justice?

Kisslinger: Her work’s main thrust was to prioritize the tangible cleanup, remediation and repair of environmental devastation around her public housing [community]. She showed how public housing is weaponized to enable environmental racism to be perpetrated and to continue. 

We are in the midst of a national, historic housing crisis. Chicago is in the midst of the fallout of the largest destruction of public housing in the history of our country over the last 25 years, and we’ve seen the effects of that. We’ve seen the drastic decrease in the Black population. We’ve seen what happens when you dismantle multigenerational communities in terms of what that does to communal fabrics. And then, it is so disruptive to our communities when you couple the destruction of housing with other public divestment and loss of public goods, like mental health clinics or public schools.

So I think this is a great opportunity to use this framing of environmental racism, or environmental justice, to redefine what we mean by the environment. When we say environment, there is nowhere outside the environment. Your community center, school, grocery store, or lack thereof, are environmental conditions. And housing is really at the center of that. 

Cheryl [Johnson] describes environmental justice as an umbrella: If one of those spokes is broken, the umbrella can’t work. So when you have housing precarity, everything else is more difficult, and you’re more susceptible to other harms, including pollution and contamination from the air, water or food. 

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