From the children of famed activists who have thrown themselves into the family business to local organizers who simply responded to the needs of their community and neighbors when environmental problems arose, the honorees on Black Millennials for Flint’s annual 40 under 40 list represent the best of young Black, Latinx, and Indigenous organizers around climate and environmental issues in the country.
Recognized for their work on climate justice and other environmental issues, they are elected officials, entrepreneurs, public health workers, green-energy innovators, storytellers, and so much more.
“You are the revolution that we need. Do not wait for anyone to give you permission. Do not let anyone tell you to wait your turn,” New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman said at the ceremony held on September 25 in Washington, D.C.
“You are ready to lead right now. And we need your relentlessness and courage as you continue to fight the fight to make our planet completely green, clean, renewable, and safe.”
Here’s a look at what four of the 40 are doing in their organizing work.
When the water crisis in Flint began in 2014, it changed the lives of nearly everyone in the Michigan city, including Aaron Neeley. He suffered skin rashes that many residents experienced at the time, and had to worry about bathing his daughter in the water too.
But it forever changed his work life as well: he hasn’t had a normal job since, as he told The Flint Registry. “I say ‘regular’ because everything that I’ve been doing has been related in one fashion or another to the Flint water crisis,” he said in a 2020 interview.
Neeley has worked going door to door distributing water filters and teaching people how to use them. He has also worked as a data collector and interviewer at The Flint Registry, a public health organization at Michigan State University that helps connect residents with resources relating to the water crisis.
It helps that Neeley isn’t just some random person, but has experienced the crisis first-hand. “Knowing that I’m a Flint resident and the purpose of this initiative is to connect Flint residents with resources that can help empower them to be a better person in their community, be powerful, be healthy, be happy, live a long successful life,” he said.
As a kid growing up in Detroit, Diamond Spratling saw first-hand how uneven the experience of pollution and other environmental harms are in Black communities. “Growing up on the Westside of Detroit, there wasn’t much education on climate issues, and there definitely wasn’t any climate empowerment,” she said in an interview with Canvas Rebel. “I mean, I always knew the air smelled bad and that there were factories less than a mile from where my family and I lived.” It wasn’t until her family moved to the suburbs a few years later that she learned “the air didn’t smell bad for everyone and that some neighborhoods actually do have access to safe parks.”
She studied environmental policy in school, but found that when she talked to her peers about what she was learning, they were unaware not only of the risks related to climate change, but that Black and brown people were disproportionately affected by them. That’s what led her to start Girl Plus Environment in 2019, a nonprofit geared toward educating Black and brown women and nonbinary people about how climate change is affecting their own communities—and showing them how they can get involved to address those problems, too.
The organization takes groups of women on hikes in natural spaces around Georgia, does advocacy work around health issues related to hair-straightening products, and hosts a monthly show featuring interviews with environmental justice activists on Instagram Live, very smartly named the Green Table Talk Series.
St. James Parish, Louisiana
In the stretch of Louisiana between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where the Mississippi River is lined with oil refineries and other petrochemical plants, cancer has the depressing tendency to be a family affair.
“I have an aunt who passed away from cancer. I have another aunt who passed away from cancer,” Shamyra Lavigne said in an interview this summer with People Over Plastic. “I have an uncle who is battling and a plethora of neighbors, friends, people that are young, twenties and thirties getting diagnosed with cancer here.” There’s a reason, after all, that the region is known as Cancer Alley.
But for Lavigne, fighting the companies that pollute St. James Parish is also a family affair: her mom is Sharon Lavigne, winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, who started the organization Rise St. James, where Shamyra also works. In 2018, the organization successfully blocked plans for a $1.25 billion plastics factory that was planned for St. James Parish, and last year, managed to get a judge to cancel 14 pollution permits issued to Formosa Plastics, which had plans for a huge plant in the parish.
William J. Barber III
Durham, North Carolina
William J. Barber III seems to have a lot in common with his dad, not least of which is his name, which is only a title and one Roman numeral removed from Pastor William J. Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign.
But Barber III has a different focus in his environmental work, aiming to develop clean energy and regenerative agriculture in the eastern part of rural North Carolina, where his family has lived and farmed for centuries.
In 2019, he started the Rural Beacon Initiative to help do just that. One of the company’s signature developments is the Free Union Farm Sustainability Hub in Piney Woods, the historic “freedmen” community where generations of the Barber family have lived.
The 50-acre homestead will become a case study for how similar farms in eastern North Carolina can continue the tradition of Black farming while also adopting new regenerative agriculture methods and green energy that take the changing nature of the climate into account.