Galvanized by her son's illness, she became a trailblazer in environmental justice

Ebony Twilley Martin was confused when the doctor told her that her 3-year-old son had asthma brought on by environmental factors. The pediatrician told her, “Look around your neighborhood.”

At the time, around 2008, she and her family lived in subsidized housing in Prince George’s County, Maryland, near a busy freeway, with severe car pollution, and very few trees or grassy areas.

“That stuck with me and hurt me,” Martin, 40, recalled. “I began to research and I learned that Black and brown children are disproportionately impacted by asthma that’s induced by the environmental conditions they’re in. I was like, ‘What can I do?’”

Her newfound passion for environmental issues didn’t wane, and in 2013, she joined Greenpeace with the hopes of making a “big impact” and making the planet a better place. She worked within the organization for years, bringing Black, Indigenous and other people of color into the fight for environmental justice.

On Wednesday, Martin became the first Black person to be named the group's co-executive director. In its announcement, Greenpeace, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, called her a “champion for justice and equity.”

“It feels amazing,” she said, adding that she’s eager to “roll up my sleeves” and get to work. “In this role, my goal is to reach out to other folks like me that don’t always see themselves reflected in this movement or don’t always know how to join the ranks of the movement.”

Martin will work alongside Annie Leonard, who joined Greenpeace in the 1980s, to manage its operations. Martin has recruited more Black people into leadership positions, strengthened its recruitment and compensation practices, and implemented new sexual harassment policies, according to a statement from Greenpeace. Martin said she plans to make sure Greenpeace is talking to and engaging with Black communities.

Climate change and other environmental issues have an impact on Black communities in profound ways. Decades of redlining and other discriminatory practices have long pushed Black communities into cities with more pavements and high-speed roads than trees and large, grassy areas, causing these areas to be up to 10 degrees hotter than others. According to a 2013 study, Black people are 52 percent more likely than white people to live in urban heat islands, which can exacerbate health issues such as diabetes and asthma.

A 2019 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the racial makeup of communities can dictate their access to safe drinking water. According to the report, drinking water violations increased in low-income communities and communities of color. Not only are water systems that serve communities of color more likely to be contaminated than those of white ones, they’re also more likely to stay in violation for longer periods of time. For example, Flint, Michigan, is still picking up the pieces after living with lead-infested drinking water that public officials insisted was safe to drink.

Organizers have long held that climate change and other environmental issues are Black issues too, as systemic racism makes Black people susceptible to environment-induced illnesses. But they’ve also acknowledged the environmental movement’s uneasy relationship with racial politics over the years. Critics of the movement have said that environmental justice solutions must be viewed through the lenses of racial and economic inequalities, and must prioritize the communities that feel the effects of environmental hazards first and most severely.

Martin said this is why she’s hoping to bring more Black, Indigenous and other people of color into the movement. She said in order to address the “intersecting crises” of environmental health and racial injustice, any environmental movement must be diverse.

She recalled the early days of her son’s illness, noting that she didn’t have anyone to talk to about the environmental issues nor did she have the money or resources to pick up and move to a place with cleaner air.

“I didn’t have anyone. No one was talking to me about it,” she said. “So that is the thing that I want to change about this movement as a whole, who we’re reaching out to. That’s why I’m excited to be in this role so that I can talk to other mothers like me and point them in the direction of what to do. If we’re going to combat the climate crisis, we have to have the broadest, most diverse organization and movement. So I invite folks to join the ranks.”

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