Continuing our series focusing on the contributions of historically under-recognized groups to the conservation and environmental advocacy movement, this month we are highlighting the work of Hazel M. Johnson. Known as “The Mother of Environmental Justice” for her grassroots efforts to combat environmental racism, Johnson was a working-class woman who lived in a housing project managed by the Chicago Housing Authority on the South Side of Chicago for most of her adult life.
Ten years after her husband died of lung cancer in 1969, she became aware of the high rate of chronic health problems like respiratory and skin conditions among area residents, including her own children. She realized that these illnesses were likely caused by exposure to toxic fumes from local steel mills, refineries, and chemical companies, asbestos used in the construction of the buildings they lived in, and contaminated drinking water. In addition, the housing project itself was built on top of land that had previously been used as a toxic sludge dump for the Pullman Motor Company. Residents of the area were found to have the highest incidence of cancer in the city of Chicago.
With information collected by going door-to-door in her community, Johnson began to call on city and state health departments to investigate industrial pollution. In 1982 she founded a nonprofit organization called People for Community Recovery (PCR), which pushed for epidemiological studies of the effects of environmental pollution on area residents. One of the group’s early successes was the introduction of water and sewer lines in the community to replace the well water they had been relying on, which had been found to be contaminated with cyanide and other toxins.
Johnson also focused a great deal of her efforts on educating people in her community about the environmental hazards they all faced every day. Her work on environmental justice issues led to national attention, and she was selected to serve on the US Environmental Protection Agency’s newly established National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. In 1994, the work of the council resulted in President Clinton’s Executive Order on Environmental Justice, which directed federal agencies to identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low-income populations. The order also directed each agency to develop a strategy for implementing environmental justice.
Hazel M. Johnson passed away in 2011 but her legacy lives on. The People for Community Recovery organization continues the work that Johnson began, and is now run by her daughter Cheryl Johnson.
Continuing our series focusing on the contributions of historically under-recognized groups to conservation and environmental sciences, this month we are featuring James A. Richardson, II, who is the Program Administrator for the City of Jacksonville’s Environmental Protection Board (JEPB). Richardson has held the position for nearly nine years where he manages the day-to-day administration of the nine-member board, which has regulatory responsibility for issues associated with air and water pollution as well as odor and noise in Duval County. He also coordinates all public education and community outreach programs for the JEPB.
Richardson is a proud native of Jacksonville and has a long history of engagement with the local community. Before he joined the City, he worked with the United Way of Northeast Florida and JEA. He was the first African American to become the Chair of the Board for the Girl Scouts of Gateway Council, which serves more than 19,000 members in 35 counties across North Florida. He also served as the Founding Board Chair for Groundwork Jacksonville, the organization working to establish the Emerald Trail to connect Jacksonville’s urban core neighborhoods. Richardson has also served as a member of the board of trustees for Jacksonville’s Museum of Science and History (MOSH) and board of directors for the Northeast Florida Region of the U.S. Green Building Council, an organization that offers education and certification programs to encourage environmentally friendly building practices. He currently serves on the board of trustees for the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, board of directors of the Timucuan Parks Foundation and the North Florida Clean Fuels Coalition and is Vice-President of the board of Florida Local Environmental Resource Agencies (FLERA), a statewide organization representing all of the local government environmental programs.
One of Richardson’s major responsibilities with the JEPB is spearheading the annual Environmental Symposium, which is presented in conjunction with the University of North Florida Environmental Center. The symposium, which brings together residents, business, government agencies, utilities and innovators in a forum designed to foster an atmosphere of cooperation in environmental achievement, is one of the largest environmental conferences in the state. Each year the symposium presents a unique opportunity for members of the community to interact with the regulatory agencies responsible for developing and implementing environmental policy. Attendees have an opportunity to better understand environmental goals for our community. The symposium provides valuable opportunities for communication and helps to further the goal of protecting our limited natural resources and improving the quality of life in Northeast Florida.
We are grateful for his many years of dedication to the Jacksonville community and for his commitment to protecting and preserving the environment in Northeast Florida.
Continuing our series focusing on the contributions of historically under-recognized groups to conservation and environmental sciences, this month we are featuring MaVynee Betsch, known in Northeast Florida as “The Beach Lady” for her efforts to protect and preserve American Beach on Amelia Island in Nassau County.
MaVynee Betsch was born in Jacksonville in 1935 to one of the preeminent Black families in the south. Her great grandparents were A.L. Lewis, a leading businessman, civic leader, and philanthropist, and Mary Kingsley Sammis, the great granddaughter of plantation owner Zephaniah Kingsley and his wife Anna Madgigine Jai, Kingsley’s former slave. A.L. Lewis was one of the co-founders of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, the first insurance company in the state of Florida, and went on to become Jacksonville’s first Black millionaire. The town of American Beach was founded by the insurance company under the direction of Mr. Lewis in the 1930s as an oceanside retreat for Black notables as well as middle-class families, who were not free to visit just any beach in the Jim Crow south.
Ms. Betsch studied voice and piano at the Conservatory at Oberlin College and moved to Europe following her graduation in 1955, where she sang lead roles for the German State Opera and other companies. She returned to Jacksonville in 1962 and began to study and promote conservation and protection of the environment, donating her life savings to a variety of environmental causes, especially those involving wildlife like right whales, loggerhead turtles, and monarch butterflies.
In the 1970s, she made it her life’s mission to protect American Beach from development, fighting many battles to preserve the dunes that protect the beach from erosion, especially the 60-foot Nana dune (named by Betsch herself), which she successfully lobbied to become the property of (and forever protected by) the National Park Service. Through her tireless efforts, American Beach was also placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and she also developed plans for the American Beach Museum, which opened in 2014 and preserves the history of American Beach.
MaVynee Betsch was the unofficial historian of American Beach and up until just a few weeks before her death in 2005, enthusiastically gave Black History tours of the community for visitors. Ms. Betsch is truly a Northeast Florida conservation icon.
Continuing our series focusing on the contributions of historically under-recognized groups to conservation and environmental sciences, this month we are featuring Edward Waters College student Onecia Adams, who is a student participant in Audubon Florida's Conservation Leadership Initiative (CLI). Here is Onecia's story in her own words:
"I was born and raised in a small country called Guyana, a place where many people I meet haven’t heard of before. I spent the most days of my life living in a place that appeared to be devoid of any beauty. Polluted waterways, garbage in the streets and decrepit buildings surrounded me wherever I went. Although there was so much ugly around me, I found beauty and solace in the trees and the ocean. I made a habit of slipping away from my house and venturing out to see the ocean whenever I had a chance. I would sit and watch the waves and mentally drift away to a place that was devoid of pollution and remained in the pristine condition God had created it in. Unfortunately, I would have to return to reality and the scent of dead fish usually did it for me. The ocean was my escape, even though it was visibly polluted, it was the best thing I could experience. I knew that I wanted to always have that place to come to and I knew that I wanted to make it a cleaner, healthier environment. I believe that is how I developed an interest in conservation.
Though the city where I grew up was not a very beautiful place, there are many parts of my country that are exquisitely composed of the best things nature has to offer. I learnt about these beautiful places but I was never afforded the privilege to experience any of them. From the magnificent Kaieteur Falls, the largest single drop waterfall in the world, to the Iwokrama River Lodge, nestled in a very prolific ecosystem brimming with biodiversity, they were all so close but yet out of my reach. I don’t know when or how the desire to see and experience nature was planted inside me, but I know it is the deepest desire I’ve ever had. The more I was denied the opportunity to experience these things because I simply could not afford it or my mother had more important things to do with money, the more I craved it. I knew that I had to change my situation because I could not bear the idea of dying before I had the chance to truly live.
I continue to find myself in less than ideal environments as I pursue my educational goals but I persevere in the hope that someday I will be working to make the world a better, healthier place for all living things. I am currently pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida. This past Fall I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of Audubon’s Conservation Leadership Initiative and have been involved with Duval Audubon Society under my mentor Carolyn Antman. I’ve really enjoyed the learning experiences provided by CLI events even though it was virtual. I was also able to visit the Crosby Sanctuary and it felt really great to experience a natural space after being stuck indoors for too long. I’m very excited to become a part of the conservation community in Duval Audubon and I feel like I am on the brink of being able to experience all the nature I could not growing up and so much more."
Thank you for sharing your inspiring story, Onecia. We are thrilled to be working with you!
Continuing our series focusing on the contributions of historically under-recognized groups to conservation and environmental sciences, this month we are featuring newly-elected member of the Duval Soil and Water Conservation District Ashantae Green, whose term representing Group 4 began on January 1, 2021.
Growing up on Jacksonville’s Eastside, Ashantae witnessed firsthand the impacts of environmental inequities, with higher rates of asthma and heat stroke among neighborhood children due to the lack of trees as well as pollution from factories and roads built right through the area, making the community up to 10 degrees warmer than other areas of town. And it’s not just the Eastside – other Jacksonville neighborhoods are also dealing with air pollution, regular flooding and erosion, contaminated soil, and inequitable access to healthy food.
Ashantae has made significant efforts to address these issues over the last several years. She helped create Circle of Caring Jax, a sustainable non-profit dedicated to helping families by providing educational resources and mostly organic food provided by community gardens and rescued from local farms and grocery stores to divert food waste and address food insecurity in communities. She has also worked with students from grades K-12 to teach them about the choices they can make to ensure the future of this planet, and is active in several nonprofit organizations, including the US Green Building Council, the North Florida Green Chamber of Commerce, the ACE Mentor Program of Northeast Florida, and The Garden Club of Jacksonville. As an architectural and digital designer specializing in Green Building, Ashantae was appointed to the Subcommittee on Education, Protection of Local Neighborhoods, and Community Outreach of Jacksonville City Council’s Special Committee on Resiliency, and advises on environmental planning, community protection, and community outreach.
For more than a year, Ashantae has been an active volunteer with the Duval Soil and Water Conservation District, assisting with planning educational programs and serving as a subject matter expert on sustainability and environmental equity issues. Now that she is an elected member of the District, she will work even harder for the people and the planet.
Ashantae, we applaud your passion for environmental justice and your commitment to encouraging everyone in Duval County to live a green lifestyle!
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