Ohioans Resist Environmental Injustice in Their Communities


Ohioans Resist Environmental Injustice in Their Communities

To connect with the 2023 Black History Month theme “Black Resistance,” we want to share the resilience and determination of place-based initiatives that address the systemic environmental injustices in Black communities across the country.

"If the system won't fix it then we just have to. [...] We can go back as far or as recent as we want, but the same system is in place, the same result is obvious to see. So by any means necessary, I'm going to plant flowers out here." —Clevelander Teela Patterson

A river ablaze. The iconic burning of the Cuyahoga River is considered one of the major catalysts for the environmental movement, ultimately pointing towards correcting environmental justice around the state and the United States as a whole. The fire occurring in this offshoot of Lake Erie wasn’t unpredicted or even uncommon. But this event prompted newly appointed Mayor Carl Stokes to push Congress to take real action, becoming the voice of the broader nationwide demand for improved air and water conditions. In the year to follow, the EPA was established and the Clean Water Act was passed. But as Ohio has grown and developed through the economies of production and manufacturing (link), Black residents have been systematically exposed to environmental dangers and equally denied adequate protection and support. 

Now 50 years later, Ohio residents still face health risks and environmental injustices. Northeast Ohio has been named a “hot spot” of environmental injustice, with high levels of carcinogen-dense air pollution being of greatest concern. According to the 2018 report by United Church of Christ, communities of color make up 91% of the residents within a one-mile radius of the Cleveland Hough neighborhood where one of the most dangerous plants is positioned. MPC Plating manufactures fabricated metals and emits more than 6 million tons of toxic air pollution each year. Hexavalent chromium makes up the majority of these emissions with nickel and trichloroethylene, a carcinogenic solvent, contributing through facility leaks. Prolonged exposure to hexavalent chromium, such as residents may experience when their local air is polluted, can lead to respiratory issues, asthma-like symptoms, and lung cancer. Within that same region of the state, two additional industrial facilities emit an annual sum of 40 million tons of highly toxic air pollution causing a disproportionate health risk to local residents.

Although redlining is no longer legal, advocacy for fossil fuel and industrial priorities has seen support, despite residential pushback. Several environmental justice organizations have exercised their voices in the political sector. In fact, Ohio may be one of the first states to incorporate environmental justice into redistricting discussions

As policy and regulations are a path to creating more agency for some communities, other organizations are focusing on empowering each other. The Ohio Climate Justice Fund is ”an initiative investing in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) organizations in Ohio, working at the intersection of racial justice and climate action.” In 2021 and 2020, the Ohio Climate Justice Fund contributed support to organizations like Healing Spaces – Cleveland, a project designed to amplify the spaces that promote healing and peace. Watch the video interviews that provide insight into community resistance and resilience.

The Black Environmental Leaders Association is another Ohio organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for the Black community. Established in 2018, the BEL was formed to specifically address the disproportionate environmental and systemic injustices inflicted on Ohio’s communities of color. The Black Environmental Leaders work to amplify the opportunities for collaboration and advancement of environmental and economic justice. In 2020, BEL launched the Black Landscapes Matter video series to provide a platform for ongoing discussions about the role of the built environment in restoring or perpetuating environmental and social inequity.

The Global Shapers—Cleveland Hub is an international network of young people driving dialogue, action, and change, with a driven focus on restoring environmental justice. Collaborating with organizations like BEL and the Ohio Environmental Council, the Global Shapers incorporate the skills of local organizations into actionable opportunities for future leaders. 

These two organizations have also joined forces to create a distributive leadership council. Both groups know the value of using commonly shared passion efficiently, which has led them to identify individual skills and expertise that can be applied to one task while allowing others to focus elsewhere. This approach allows emerging leaders the support and resources to generate traction in mitigating environmental injustice in their region. 

These organizations are pushing against the tide of systemic inaction and injustice to provide Ohioans with avenues to actively shape their communities for the better. What is an organization in your neighborhood working for environmental justice?

Learn about Ohio’s NAAEE Affiliate: Environmental Education Council of Ohio. You can also explore more of the JEDI resources NAAEE has compiled on environmental justice, diversity in the field, and justice and equity organizations and thought leaders.