Johnson, who is affectionately known as the “mother of the environmental justice movement,” worked tirelessly to improve the living conditions in public housing. Her commitment began in her own community of Altgeld Gardens, a public housing project located in the South Side of Chicago. 

Here is where she found out had the highest rate of cancer of any area in the city. Johnson did further investigation of the respiratory illnesses and foul odor that her neighborhood was plagued with. There she discovered that the problem was environmental and needed immediate attention. 

Much to her surprise, she discovered that Altgeld Gardens was built on a toxic landfill and their air, water and land were being polluted. In their home environments, asbestos and elevated lead levels were also health concerns. This was indeed an environmental issue.

“The city of Chicago knew the land was contaminated when Altgeld Gardens was built,” she says. “But there was a great need for housing, particularly for black veterans.”

“I looked around and had seen where my people were dying of cancer; [I started to notice] because of my husband,” she said in an archive interview.

So just what is Environmental Justice? According to Engergy.Gov, Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. 

Fair treatment means that no population bears a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or from the execution of federal, state, and local laws; regulations; and policies. Meaningful involvement requires effective access to decision makers for all, and the ability in all communities to make informed decisions and take positive actions to produce environmental justice for themselves.

Meaningful involvement means:

  • People have an opportunity to participate in decisions about activities that may affect their environment and/or health;
  • The public’s contribution can influence the regulatory agency’s decision;
  • Community concerns will be considered in the decision making process
  • Decision makers will seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentially affected.

Gathering and educating herself as much as she could, Johnson set out to start making the appropriate changes necessary for her community and future residents to survive. Through her educating herself she discovered the Altgeld Gardens was built to house Black veterans returning from World War ll in the 1940s. The area had been a dumping ground for toxic sludge waste from the Pullman Palace Car Company for decades. With all the waste facilities and heavy industry, the ground where the architects turned the first sod was heavily polluted.

Hazel decided to start making phone calls to Chicago authorities and D.C. activists with her concerns. With word beginning to spread to others nearby who were also tired of living in the conditions, protests were formed with hundreds of people attending and eventually the group would name themselves People for Community Recovery.

People for Community Recovery still operates today under the guidance of Johnson’s daughter Cheryl who still conducts surveys documenting the high rates of respiratory diseases in the South Side of Chicago.

Johnson passed away from heart failure on January 12, 2011. Her legacy will forever live on. 

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