DOWNTOWN — A new audio docuseries about the “mother of environmental justice” whose work influenced generations of organizers on the South Side and beyond debuted Thursday.
“Help this Garden Grow,” a podcast on the life of Hazel Johnson and the ongoing environmental justice movement she’s credited with sparking, aims to bring stories well-known in activist communities into a wider spotlight.
Johnson founded People for Community Recovery in 1979 to advocate for clean air and water on the Southeast and Far South sides — a mission the group continues today under her daughter, Cheryl Johnson.
She also organized her neighbors in the Altgeld Gardens public housing community to force the Chicago Housing Authority to fix contaminated drinking water and remove asbestos from apartments.
“Help this Garden Grow” paints a fuller picture of Hazel Johnson’s story than co-hosts Damon Williams and Daniel Kisslinger were able to find in decades of prior media coverage, they told Block Club.
“The way in which Black women from communities of public housing are erased or marginalized or devalued in the historical record is deeply American,” Williams said. “… At the same time, we are not the first to make efforts. Many folks who collaborated on this project and elsewhere have attempted to honor her legacy.”
“It wasn’t that [Johnson’s] story wasn’t being told,” Kisslinger said. “It was being told between the people who were most connected and affected to it.”
Environmental activists, Far South Siders and supporters packed the Harold Washington Library’s Winter Garden, 400 S. State St., for the “Help this Garden Grow” release party Thursday.
The series’ six episodes explore local leaders’ decision to build the Altgeld Gardens public housing project inside a “toxic doughnut” of polluting industry, Hazel Johnson’s pioneering work around the cumulative impacts of pollution, her work to push former President Bill Clinton to sign an environmental justice executive order and more.
The podcast blends interviews with policymakers, historians and community organizers with research from the Chicago Public Library’s People for Community Recovery Archives and other sources. This week’s release is the culmination of more than two years of production.
The docuseries is a “long-form deep dive, going beyond just the list of accomplishments or highlights on the timeline,” Williams said. “How do we understand the human impacts of this work and the sacrifices or the contradictions?”
The series’ fifth episode deals with the attacks People for Community Recovery has faced as the group battles the political establishment. It’s a timely topic, as a lease dispute boiled over last week with allegations that a city contractor tried to illegally evict the group from its longtime Altgeld Gardens home.
“To be treated like that is inhumane,” Cheryl Johnson said last week.
The dispute with the Chicago Housing Authority began amid a civil rights complaint filed by People for Community Recovery and two other groups, which ultimately forced the city into environmental justice reform. The complaint put hundreds of millions of federal housing dollars at risk before former Mayor Lori Lightfoot agreed to settle in her final days in office.
Mayor Brandon Johnson publicly supported Cheryl Johnson last week and takes the harassment allegations “very seriously,” a spokesperson said.
Even as the podcast deals with the struggles People for Community Recovery and the Johnsons have faced, it takes equal care to uplift the decades of solidarity among members of Chicago’s environmental justice movement, Kisslinger said.
“This story is about the work of repair, love, care and fierce fighting that Hazel Johnson embodied and passed on to so many,” Kisslinger said.
A “creative cabinet” of women of color — Southeast Side activist Olga Bautista, People for Community Recovery organizer Adella Bass, Tonyisha Harris, Juliana Pino and Kyra Woods — guided the series’ production.
“It’s a lot of Black women with a lot of loud voices in the community, and I just feel like they are respected and they are given those positions in those places of power because of what Hazel Johnson did,” Bass said in the podcast’s final episode.
It brought “joy and pain to talk about my mother,” who died in 2011, Cheryl Johnson said Thursday. But the series was a worthy pursuit which can inspire future generations to continue the work her mother started, she said.
“This work is for others,” Cheryl Johnson said. “The only thing I can do is tell you her story and my story, and to have it published like this is an opportunity to inspire other people to get up and do something [to improve] their community.”
“Help This Garden Grow” contributors called for listeners to back People for Community Recovery’s push to open an environmental justice center named after Hazel Johnson in Altgeld Gardens.
The center would host a museum highlighting environmental activists across the nation, a café and job training programs for infrastructure projects like the Red Line Extension.
Supporters also called for local listeners to donate time, money and other resources to environmental causes in Chicago. To donate to People for Community Recovery, click here.
“What we hope is that this is an activating tool — that it’s not just knowledge for knowledge’s sake, or entertainment or a poignant story,” Williams said. “It is really an active learning experience that moves folks into action.”
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: