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South Chicago, East Side

Hazel M. Johnson Fought For Clean Air And Water On The Southeast Side. A Congressman Is Doubling Down On Efforts To Honor Her

April could become Hazel M. Johnson Environmental Justice Month under a proposal from Rep. Bobby Rush, who hopes to honor the Southeast Side environmentalist.

Environmental Activist Hazel M. Johnson may soon be posthumously honored with a Congressional Gold Medal and a commemorative postage stamp.
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ALTGELD GARDENS — The push to posthumously recognize Chicago’s “mother of environmental justice” is growing.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) recently introduced three bills expanding his efforts to honor Hazel M. Johnson, a Southeast Side environmental icon. Now, in addition to getting the matriarch on a postage stamp and awarding her the Congressional Medal of Honor, the congressman hopes to designate April as Hazel M. Johnson Environmental Justice Month.

Johnson spent her life fighting for clean air and water on the Southeast Side, organizing her fellow Altgeld Gardens residents to force the Chicago Housing Authority to fix contaminated drinking water and remove asbestos from apartment units. Her work led to her being nationally recognized by two presidents — and mentoring a third, Barack Obama, while he was a community organizer in Chicago.

Johnson died in 2011. She was 75.

Joining those efforts is Cheryl Johnson, Hazel’s daughter, who heads People for Community Recovery, an organization continuing her mother’s work. Johnson hopes that with recognition of her mother’s work comes a broader conversation about the impact of environmental racism.

“We recognize Earth Day, but it’s more than just Earth Day. This is a chance to educate the public about environmental justice. ‘What’s the intersectionality around environmental justice issues? How can we address these issues in our communities?'” Johnson said.

Last week, Rush and Johnson mounted a social media campaign on Earth Day to drum up support for the measures, calling on people to use the #HazelMJohnson hashtag to amplify the activist.

Uplifting Hazel Johnson would also shine a light on the work of other Black and Brown environmental activists who tend to be erased, like Vanessa Nakate, who was cropped out of a photo highlighting the efforts of young female conservationists around the globe.

The recent battle to stop the owners of General Iron from opening another facility in East Side is a “classic case of environmental racism,” Johnson said, and it means having hard conversations about race are more important than ever.

“We have to be conscious of the role government plays in this. A lot of people from Lincoln Park opposed it coming to the South Side, and the site they selected was really bodacious, because you’re right across the street from the playground and the high school. You’ve got kids with respiratory problems, and this is going to exacerbate them. It’s wrong, and our government played a major role in that,” Johnson said.

Johnson remains optimistic the day will come when her mother gets her due. In the meantime, she and her team at People for Community Recovery continue their work to help others, holding seminars on solar power, keeping residents informed about the environmental impact of the proposed Red Line extension and more.

If Johnson is awarded the Congressional Medal, it will have a permanent home in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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