Who Is Hazel?

Hazel Carry Bag

Being green, an environmentally-themed name was the obvious choice for our newest carry bag! ‘Hazel’ is in reference to Hazel M. Johnson (1935-2011), who is considered to be the mother of environmental justice.

Hazel and her family lived in a housing project called Altgeld Gardens Homes in Chicago’s South Side, managed by the Chicago Housing Authority. Her husband developed lung cancer, which took his life in 1969, and some of her children suffered from skin and respiratory issues. Hazel was motivated to investigate how the neighborhood’s environmental conditions (the surrounding area had landfills, industrial buildings, and sewage treatment plants) were impacting those who lived there. What did she find out? That the South Side had the highest cancer rate in Chicago. Contaminated drinking water, asbestos, and hazardous factory fumes were taking their toll on the community.

Hazel wanted accountability from the Chicago Housing Authority (ignoring environmental hazards? Check. Shoddy building maintenance? Check.), so she took action. She was on the Altgeld Gardens Local Advisory Council from 1970 to 79, and then founded the People for Community Recovery. This grassroots organization was focused on fighting environmental racism on behalf of the residents of her community (and as you can see, it continues operating to this day!). Hazel’s work had a huge impact on her own community, and she was also recognized on the national scale – for example, receiving the President’s Environment and Conservation Challenge award in 1992.

In the words of her daughter, Cheryl Johnson (who became the executive director of PCR), Hazel “inspired hundreds of people around the country, if not thousands to seek environmental justice. Her actions inspired people to pursue environmental career opportunities with the purpose of preserving our rights and basic need for survival on this great Earth.” Cheryl’s EPA blog post about her mother’s work and legacy is a wonderful and informative place to read more about Hazel, which we highly recommend!