Saluting Hazel Johnson, Environmental Justice Leader

Written by Paula Georges

Hazel Johnson outside the office of People for Community Recovery, which she started in 1979 so residents of Altgeld Gardens could advocate for repairs in their community. (Courtesy of People for Community Recovery)

From the 1970s until her death in 2011, Hazel Johnson empowered residents to seek redress from the pollutants that threatened their health. From the South Side of Chicago, she fought for clean air and water for the residents of Altgeld Gardens, a housing project built on a toxic waste site. After the death of her husband and several neighbors from cancer, she learned that Altgeld Gardens and neighboring Calumet City had the highest cancer rates in the area. Her personal tragedy put her on a path to discover why these communities suffered from such elevated rates of cancer.

To find out what was happening to residents of Altgeld gardens and Calumet City, she initiated a community health study. Walking door-to-door to determine the health status of her neighbors, she discovered alarming rates of illness and death. In addition, she uncovered and documented the many toxic industrial and waste sites surrounding her neighborhood. Making the connection between environmental pollution and human health, she saw the ways in which environmental issues connect deeply with race, class, and gender.

In 1971, Hazel Johnson founded People for Community Recovery (PCR), now celebrating over 50 years of environmental advocacy. PCR continues to be a grassroots organization which values leadership development, transparent decision making, and community-led campaigns. PCR catalyzes residents of public housing and EJ communities to press for a clean environment. In collaboration with local residents, PCR educates and advocates for policy and programs on issues of the environment, health, housing, education, training, neighborhood safety, and economic equity.

For her efforts to expose the toxic waste hazards in vulnerable, low-income communities of color, Hazel Johnson came to be known as the mother of the environmental justice movement.