There is a long, sad history of Black Americans being marginalized within the environmental movement, and systematically excluded from participation in outdoor activities. It’s a topic that is explored in painstaking detail in Carolyn Finney’s indispensable book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, which describes how government policies—starting with the Homestead Act of 1862, which denied land to emancipated slaves—have maintained generational wealth and opportunity gaps.
Despite these obstacles, Black environmental leaders—including Yale faculty and alumni—are shaping many of today’s most important conversations about climate justice and driving cutting-edge research into ecosystems, planetary science, and wildlife. In doing so, they are breaking down barriers that for too long overlooked their contributions and voices.
In honor of Black History Month, we are spotlighting 15 Black environmental thought-leaders and activists who are redefining what it means to be an environmentalist and nature lover in the 21st century.
Carolyn Finney is a storyteller, author and a cultural geographer who is deeply interested in issues related to identity, difference, creativity, and resilience. She currently serves as Artist-in-Resident for Environmental Affairs at Middlebury College. The aim of her work is to develop greater cultural competency within environmental organizations and institutions, challenge media outlets on their representation of difference, and increase awareness of how privilege shapes who gets to speak to environmental issues and determine policy and action. Her must-read first book is Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors.
Leah Thomas, aka Green Girl Leah, is an activist for intersectional environmentalism based in southern California and author of the book The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People & Planet. She graduated from Chapman University with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Policy and describes her goal as inspiring others to “explore new places, live more sustainably, and practice radical self acceptance.”
Mikaela Loach is a climate justice activist based in Edinburgh, Scotland who has been nominated for the Global Citizen Prize, the U.K.’s Hero Award. Loach is a medical student at the University of Edinburgh and co-host of The Yikes Podcast. She is one of three claimants who took the U.K. government to court to challenge the Oil & Gas Association’s policy in the North Sea and the government subsidies it received. Committed to making the climate movement more inclusive, she uses her Instagram to highlight harm caused by the fossil fuel industry and the ways the climate crisis intersects with racial justice, migrant justice, and refugee rights.
Rue Mapp is the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, a national not-for-profit which celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature. Outdoor Afro formed to create intergenerational joy and healing experiences for Black people and Black communities. Mapp was also part of the team that informed the launch of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative. A designer, entrepreneur, and author, Mapp co-created a collection of hiking apparel with outdoor retailer REI and penned the book Nature Swagger, a beautiful compilation of photos and stories about Black joy in nature.
Nyeema Harris is the Knobloch Family Associate Professor of Wildlife and Land Conservation at Yale School of the Environment. A native Philadelphian, Harris is a carnivore ecologist whose research explores carnivore behavior and movement, ecology, and conservation in urban systems and national parks at a global scale with ongoing projects throughout the Americas and Africa. Her work focuses on the myriad of nature’s antagonisms including parasitism, competition, human-wildlife conflict, and predation. Specifically, she critically examines spatial and temporal variations in species interactions, how interactive networks are structured, and the ecological consequences of species loss and land-use change.
Jerome Foster II is a member of President Biden’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council—the youngest White House advisor in U.S. history. Foster is a leading voice for marginalized and working-class communities in spaces pushing for social, economic, and environmental justice. Foster is one of the major organizers of Fridays for Future, holding weekly climate strikes at the front gates of the White House for over 57 weeks. He previously served as a congressional intern (at the age of 16) for U.S. Rep. John Lewis and served on the Washington, D.C. State Board of Education’s Advisory Council (at the age of 14.)
Alexis Nikole Nelson is an American forager, cook, and internet personality based in Columbus, Ohio, who posts videos of her foraging finds on TikTok and Instagram, along with cooking techniques and historical information. Nelson sees foraging is way to connect with African American and Indigenous food traditions that many people were discouraged or actively prevented from accessing.
Leah Penniman is a Black Kreyol farmer, mother, self-described soil nerd, author, and food justice activist. She co-founded Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, in 2010 with the mission to end racism in the food system and reclaim ancestral connection to land. As Co-Executive Director and Farm Director, Penniman is part of a team that facilitates powerful food sovereignty programs—including farmer training for Black and Brown people, a subsidized farm food distribution program, and domestic and international organizing toward equity in the food system. Penniman will be in New Haven on Feb. 16 to accept the International Festival of Arts and Ideas’ Visionary Leadership Award!
Corina Newsome is a wildlife biologist, birder, and science communicator. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Newsome is dedicated to the integration of environmental justice and conservation science and practice. In response to the racism faced by Black birder Christian Cooper in Central Park, Newsome co-organized Black Birders Week to celebrate Black birders.
Yale School of the Environment alumna Rae Wynn Grant ‘10 MESc is a large carnivore ecologist, author, storyteller, and public speaker who serves as Research Faculty at Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at University of California, Santa Barbara. Dr. Wynn-Grant is committed to making environmental science accessible to broad and diverse audiences. Her research is uncovering how human activity influences carnivore behavior and ecology—the ecological and social drivers of human-carnivore conflict. Her current field system encompasses the central coast of California where she is studying the unique ecology of carnivores in coastal zones, as well as the role of protected areas in connectivity of high-quality habitat for large carnivores. She is currently a fellow at the National Geographic Society.
Deja Perkins is a Raleigh, North Carolina-based urban ecologist and science communicator who is passionate about showing people that nature exists in cities, too. In addition to her research on urban birds, she has worked with Triangle Bird Count, Duke Gardens, and other organizations to help people better understand the wildlife around them. She was also a co-organizer of the first Black Birders Week.
Yale School of the Environment alumna Georgia Silvera Seamans ’01 MEM is an urban and community forester who is passionate about people-plant relationships and urban bird-watching stories. She is an adjunct instructor at New York University and founder of the Local Nature Lab, which was established to monitor, educate, support, and advocate for biodiversity and local nature in urban areas.
Genesis Butler is a 15-year-old environmental and animal rights activist and one of the youngest people to ever give a TEDx talk. Inspired by her great uncle, the civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, Genesis’ talk “A 10 year old’s vision for healing the planet” discusses the negative impact of animal agriculture on the environment.
Samuel Ramsey is Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at University of Colorado Boulder. Ramsey is the founder and director of the Ramsey Research Foundation and focuses his research on predatory and parasitic insect behavior. He cultivated an interest and expertise in the close relationships between insects and other creatures (symbioses), and dedicated his doctoral research to understanding a parasite killing honey bees globally.
Urban Creators is a platform for radical and collaborative imagination, building equity, and collective liberation in North Philadelphia. Life Do Grow (LDG) is an Urban Farm and Neighborhood Creative Commons situated in the heart of North Central Philadelphia on the ancestral lands of the indigenous Lenni-Lenape. LDG is a dynamic and ever-evolving ecosystem of creative ideas, currently comprised of an urban farm, public park, outdoor classroom, community marketplace, venue for artistic and cultural expression, and co-working/co-creation space for local businesses, artists, organizers, growers, and creators.