Exploring the history of environmental activism in communities of color

The environmental movement took its first steps in Cleveland, many from neighborhoods that struggle to connect with greenspaces today.

Cleveland Metropolitan School District students participate in Camp Clean Water, a summer camp experience designed by the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.

The early days of the environmental movement, especially in Cleveland where a moment shaped a national narrative, featured many faces. Some you’ve seen, some names you’ll recognize. But not all.

On February 28, three of our Employee Resource Groups welcomed guest speakers to explore the past and present realities of environmental activism in the Black community and also looked to its future for of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in Northeast Ohio.

Our past

Dr. Regennia Williams, Distinguished Scholar of African American History and Culture at the Western Reserve Historical Society, presented several BIPOC faces from Cleveland’s environmental movement.

Cleveland Mayor Carl B. Stokes, who was mayor at the time of the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, argued that Cleveland wasn’t able to control the pollution within its borders due to lack of control over the suburbs and state regulations. This argument pre-dated the creation of the Cleveland Regional Sewer District (eventually renamed NEORSD) by three years.

“One thing that Carl Stokes noticed, certainly in 1969 and 1970,” Williams said, “was that some of the worst pollution was in the lower income areas of this region, and so there were a lot of injustices associated with environmental racism.”

Cleveland mayor Carl B. Stokes along the Cuyahoga River.

She went on to tell the story of Cleveland entrepreneur Garrett A. Morgan who invented, among other things, a canvas-hood breathing device that was a precursor to the modern gas mask. Using his device, he heroically saved trapped workers in a 1916 tunnel explosion under Lake Erie.

With mentions of Stokes and Morgan, Williams quickly included former East Cleveland council member Jacqueline Gillon who worked for Western Reserve Land Conservancy and was a founder of the Black Environmental Leaders nonprofit in Cleveland. She was an advocate of environmental justice for decades, notably being recognized as one of Crain’s Cleveland Businesswomen of Note in 2020 before her passing in 2021.

“They [Stokes, Morgan, and Gillon] became co-workers in the kingdom of culture,” Williams said, “and we have a cleaner and more sustainable city and region as a result of their work.”

Our present

Journey On Yonder (JOY) founder Kim Woodford talked about the environmental realities of today, including barriers and successes for people and communities of color.

What Woodford calls the “pillars of joy” feature three very specific combinations: “diversity and inclusion, health and wellness, environmental justice and environmental stewardship,” which is why she is so focused on sharing nature-based experiences with traditionally urban residential communities.

She quoted a 2019 article, “The Inequality of America’s Parks and Green Space” as follows:

“residents with higher levels of education and higher incomes were more likely to have more access to both mixed and woody urban vegetation, and racialized residents were less likely to have access to mixed and woody vegetation in large, dense urban areas.”

Regional challenges like climate change and personal struggles like stress and anxiety are magnified in urban neighborhoods, she said.

“Higher levels of stress, anxiety, hypertension and as we have seen through the pandemic, all of a lot of us were affected by it, right?” she asked her audience of NEORSD employees. “But my people of color, specifically African Americans, were dealing with it — the isolation and the depression and the sadness and anxiety — oftentimes more privately than most because it’s still that taboo area of mental wellness and seeking counseling. But I’m saying, ‘It’s OK, let’s talk it out.’” She says experiencing nature “is another avenue of seeking wellness and emotional healing.”

Students explore Cleveland Metroparks during Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s Camp Clean Water.

“My desire to create a space for healthy experiences in nature is rooted in the need for diverse and inclusive representation in the outdoors,” Woodford said of the organization she founded. “Journey on Yonder gives me a chance to collaborate with communities I knew weren’t getting an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and green space.”

Our future

We asked our presenters what in their opinion lay ahead in the world of environmental advocacy and access.

Williams drew attention to small actions like taking personal responsibility to clean up where we can, things children can see and emulate. Wordford continued by suggesting opportunities for greater access to parks and “policy change so that our communities are neighborhoods can reengage in these spaces and feel safe and have a wonderful time doing it.”

At the Sewer District, defined commitments to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and more specifically Environmental Justice acknowledge that today’s investments in our neighborhoods have a history but also must have a sustainable future.



Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District

Official Medium channel of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District in Cleveland, OH