Hazel M. Johnson

Hazel M. Johnson

(1935-2011)

DJ Name: Hazed & Confused

Years before Greta Thunberg said “how dare you” to a bunch of big boi politicians who are daring to not do anything about climate change, Hazel M. Johnson fought for environmental justice in Chicago’s low-income neighborhoods and worked to improve living conditions for those in public housing. Nicknamed the “mother of the environmental justice movement,” Hazel was devastated by the number of cancer deaths in her community and was determined to cut down on the environmental hazards that surrounded Chicago’s southeast side. Hazel’s situation wasn’t totally unique, either: low-income neighborhoods that are home to primarily Black and brown populations are more likely to feel the consequences of toxic waste since pollutant-producing companies, such as those that make Styrofoam, tend to set up shop in poor neighborhoods where cost of production is low and they’re less likely to be scrutinized by the government. 

While she cut down on toxic waste and rid the area of landfills, she donned her Beats™ headphones and queued up “Toxic” by Britney Spears and “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. Just kidding! We’re not that on the nose! OK, maybe we are, but you’ll have to keep reading to find out. Here are the VERY real tunes Hazel actually put on her playlist:

Hazel Johnson was born on January 25, 1935, in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Mary and Clarence Washington. The stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where Hazel grew up, has been dubbed “Cancer Alley” because of its concentration of petrochemical facilities. Industrial buildings that line the area produce toxic chemicals, which have been linked to causing cancer, and Hazel’s family and neighbors were caught in this community’s hazardous crosshairs. Hazel was the only one of her parents’ four children to reach her first birthday.

In the 1950s, Hazel married John Johnson and the couple moved to Chicago to start a family. Little did they know, but they had moved from one over-polluted community to another. She and John, who worked as a bricklayer, settled in Altgeld Gardens, a public housing project on the south side of Chicago. In 1969, John succumbed to lung cancer at age 41 — one more cancer death in the community’s long, long list. Hazel didn’t get it. Sure, John smoked a little here and there, but not enough for it to kill him, Hazel thought. Not long after, Hazel heard that four young girls had died of cancer, too. She switched on the TV, and what did she see? Skater Boi rocking on MTV. No, alas, she did not see Skater Boi but something much, much grimmer: Altgeld Gardens had the highest incidence of cancer in Chicago. So Hazel donned her trench coat and became Haziet the Spy. It was time to investigate. 

Altgeld Gardens, which was managed by the Chicago Housing Authority, was originally constructed in the 1940s to house Black World War II veterans. The area was built on and surrounded by landfills, industrial buildings and sewage treatment plants, making the neighborhood a stinky, toxin-laden eyesore and the residents were feeling those effects. The air, water and land was polluted, and as a result children suffered from respiratory illnesses — including her own seven children who often experienced skin and respiratory issues — and their parents were at high risk of cancer. Conducting a survey in the 1980s, Hazel learned that most adults in her Chicago neighborhood, AKA the “Toxic Doughnut,” knew someone who had died of cancer between the ages of 35 and 55. People “had become immune to the news of cancer,” said an article in the Chicago Tribune that discussed her research. 

Astounded by the city’s lack of care for her and her neighbors, Hazel took matters into her own hands and founded the People for Community Recovery organization to educate people on their toxic environment. Altgeld Gardens residents learned about the toxic waste that surrounded them and were trained to recognize environmental lead and test for lead poisoning. The organization also taught kids to recognize their own connection to the environment and the importance of keeping it clean. Hazel and her neighbors also conducted health surveys to get them receipts and prove that these low-income minority residents were disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution. Along her journey to environmental justice, she joined forces with many community organizers, including one little-known fella named Barack Obama.

Through the organization of protests and by holding elected officials accountable, Johnson prevented waste management companies from dumping their garbage into mountainous landfills. Hazel’s advocacy eventually expanded beyond her neighborhood and into other low income communities across the nation that experienced the same toxic waste pileup and environmental hazards that Hazel had experienced since she was a wee gal. After years of work, Hazel was given the nickname, “mother of the environmental justice movement” at the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC in 1992. A year later, Johnson testified before Congress and was appointed to a group of activists who worked to have President Clinton put pen to paper on an executive order that would address the sh*tty pollution problems in minority communities. Environmental justice was served when he signed it in 1994. 

On January 12, 2011, just days away from her 76th birthday, Hazel passed away due to congestive heart failure. Her daughter, Cheryl, has taken up her cause and continues to fight for environmental action in Chicago, which earned an “F” grade in 2018 for declining air quality. It currently ranks high for most polluted cities, but Cheryl is determined to further her mother’s legacy. Hazel’s impact is felt posthumuously, with one street near Altgeld Gardens named after her and a Congressional push to honor her work. Late in 2019, Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush introduced two bills that would award her a Congressional Gold Medal and put her image on a commemorative postage stamp. As the Earth continues to look more and more like a dumpster fire, it’s more important than ever to remember Hazel Johnson’s work and evaluate and take responsibility for our environment just like she did.

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