If someone admits personal concern about having clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, then, as legendary Black environmental justice advocate Dr. Robert Bullard would remark, “I'd say you're an environmentalist, you just may not know it.” Alabama-born Bullard, whose wife Linda brought the first case that connected environmental and civil injustice to court in 1979, did pioneering research in the course of that lawsuit that kickstarted a long career as an advocate for ecological justice.
His lifetime of advocating and advancing the cause and awareness of environmental justice highlights an acute reality for Black scientists, inventors, innovators, and leaders engaged in the push towards a more sustainable future. While so many others talk of the fierce urgency of change and advancement, often it’s the Black community, who, without their consent, are placed on the frontlines of the struggle for environmental justice, truly understand what’s at stake.
Here’s a look at some of the many pioneering Black thinkers and advocates in the worlds of transportation, electrification, and sustainability, and how their efforts and achievements have helped everybody move closer to a more just, green future.
Founder and CEO of Volt, a Black-owned solar power firm, Campbell has long believed that clean energy, and energy independence, are key means of uplift in BIPOC communities. His firm has worked on pioneering projects across the country, including installing solar panels on the Florida Avenue Baptist church in Washington, D.C., the first African-American church to go solar.
Underserved communities have been hit the hardest by unjust and unwise energy policies, a point Campbell has made during Congressional testimony around national legislation around renewable power. Volt has installed renewables for Accenture, Subaru, D.C. government and Howard University, and Campbell was given the White House Champions of Change Award by President Obama in 2016.
Son of a sharecropper and a former pro basketball player, Milwaukee-based Will Allen understands the power of dedication, perseverance, and community. Dressed in his trademark sleeveless hooded sweatshirts, he’s tirelessly built up an ecosystem of farming, turning asphalt lots into hoop houses, and teaching young children the power of composting and patient farming. In dangerous corners of urban Milwaukee known more for street violence than communal agriculture, Allen created jobs and would even plant “flower bombs” on streetcorners that would brighten intersections and push away drug dealers.
After decades spent advocating for and growing urban farming across the nation and world, helping underserved communities gain access to healthy food, he’s helped create a more sustainable food system for everyone. His efforts have helped seed a global urban agriculture movement, and won him a prestigious John D. and Katherine T. McArthur Foundation Fellow genius grant.
A pioneering Black female mathematician at NASA in the ’50s, Easley’s work as a programmer and coder would eventually be key to early wind and solar projects, and her career reads as Hidden Figures, but for green energy innovations. Her work would later encompass battery design and development for early hybrid vehicles, as well as technologies that boosted the Centaur upper-stage rocket.
Easley’s accomplishments are all the more amazing considering she initially studied chemistry, and dropped out when she was getting married. She saw an ad looking for “human computers” and decided to apply. She would later tell interviewers for a NASA oral history project that she never set out to be a role model or a trailblazer, but that’s exactly what happened.
It took a few tries for Natalie King to find her calling as the leader of Dunamis Clean Energy Partners, which manufactures EV charging stations. After stints running a solar installation firm and LED light company, she was struck by a vision during a nap in church to pivot to EV charging.
Divine inspiration or not, her Detroit-based firm the first in the industry led by a black woman, is set to take off as EVs become more popular. The workforce of roughly 30 is expected to more than double by 2025, and connections with GM and other industry players suggest Dunamis has plenty of room to grow.