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January 21, 2011

Environmental Justice Leader Hazel Johnson, 1935-2011

Altgeld Gardens:Life in a Toxic Enviroment from Jennifer T. Lacey on Vimeo.

Hazel Johnson, who pioneered environmental-justice activism for four decades in South Side Chicago and was known as the "Mother of EJ Movement," passed away last week at the age of 75.

Hazel's activism began after her husband died of lung cancer in 1969. As a resident of Chicago's Altgeld Gardens public housing, she began documenting the illnesses and physical ailments that frequented her neighbors and linking them to the polluted water and air.

She founded People for Community Recovery in 1979, which went on a crusade to get asbestos out of buildings. She discovered an inordinate rate of cancer among the middle aged in her area. In particular, four young girls died of cancer "whose bodies were so tiny they could fit in shoe boxes" -- something that resonated deeply with Hazel and the community.

She began networking with other organizations and traced dangerous air and water pollution levels to nearby industry, which was using poor South Side neighborhoods as dumping ground. Hazel discovered Altgeld was surrounded by dozens of landfills and "more than 250 leaking underground storage tanks," which was why she famously dubbed the area a "toxic doughnut." In the mid-1980s, she pushed city officials to test the water, which found cyanide and other toxins. The city responded by installing sewer and water lines.

She met presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton for her work. Hazel one of the many urban activists to push President Clinton to sign an executive order directing federal agencies to consider environmental impacts on minorities.

"Hazel Johnson was truly the mother of environmental justice movement," said Leslie G. Fields, Sierra Club's National Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Director. "By fighting to make her community cleaner, safer and more sustainable, she inspired a generation of activists to do the same in their communities, thereby changing the world."

Among that generation of activists is President Barack Obama, who worked with Ms. Johnson in Chicago as a community organizer in the 1980s.

"I definitely think I've been chosen by a higher power to do this work," she told the Chicago Tribune in a 1995 interview. Hazel's legacy as an activist was her commitment to educating and mobilizing her allies, neighbors, and friends to join the environmental justice movement. Her spirit, influence, and what she embodied will continue to live on.

-- Brian Foley


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