Women of Color Consciousness and the Global Environmental Movement

No original caption. [African-American woman picking vegetables from a garden.] Circa 1920 and 1954 (Wikimedia Commons)
Grace Lee Boggs and Wangari Maathai were central figures in the development of the global environmental movement. Their work as activist intellectuals represents the centrality of women of color consciousness in the larger project that is environmentalism. Women of color are routinely overlooked as architects within this global phenomenon; yet, much of environmental thought is informed by an intersectional approach to empowerment that first appeared in the writings of Black women. Maathai and Boggs come out of a long tradition of women of color consciousness that showed a concern for the environment long before white women and girls became the face of global environmentalism. The two are selected here for comparison to demonstrate the long history of women of color and their engagement with environmental activism.

Grace Chin Lee was born June 27, 1915, in Providence, Rhode Island, to Chin and Yin Lan Lee. Her name in Chinese is Yu Ping or “Jade Peace.” She entered Barnard college as a freshman at the age of sixteen, where she studied philosophy and earned a B.A. degree in 1935. In 1940, she secured a Ph.D. degree in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College. After graduation, Lee took a job at the University of Chicago Philosophy Library. While in Chicago, she became involved in a movement for tenant’s rights and later joined the Worker’s Party—a splinter group of the Socialist Party. Mathai was born the year Grace Lee graduated from Bryn Mawr.

Wangari Maathai was born April 1, 1940 in Nyeri, Kenya to a Kikuyu family. While a young child, she attended a Catholic Mission School called St. Cecilia’s in Nyeri where she learned English and eventually converted to Catholicism and later attended a Catholic High School for girls in Limuru, a town in central Kenya, called Loreto High School. In 1960s, some 300 Kenyans were selected to study in the United States and this was known as “Airlift Africa.” Maathai was among these students. She eventually earned a B.S. degree in biology from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchinson, Kansas in 1964, an M.S. in biological sciences from the University of Pittsburgh in 1966, and a Ph.D. in veterinary anatomy in 1971 from the University of Nairobi. She was the first woman in eastern African to earn a doctoral degree.

Grace Lee became increasingly involved in liberation politics associated with socialist ideologies, including trade unionism and civil rights. Her intellectual circle included Trinidadian historian and socialist C.L.R. James, Richard Wright, and Katherine Dunham. She eventually became a member of the Johnson-Forest Tendency led by James and Raya Dunayevskaya. This group primarily concentrated on the liberation of people of color, women, and exploited workers more generally and was associated with the Trotskyite left. They were also critical of the Soviet Union, which they described as bureaucratic, collectivist, and State Capitalist. She often wrote under the name Ria Stone while with the Johnson-Forest Tendency. In 1953, she married African American auto worker and labor activist, James Boggs.

Both Boggs and Maathai embraced a belief in grassroots struggle or activism. Boggs, out of her experience with trade unionists and civil rights advocates, came to believe that the transformation of human society required grassroots-level activism. Maathai’s Green Belt Movement (BGM), developed in 1976 when she was Chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi, evolved from her thinking about “how to solve problems on the ground.” She, like Boggs, was also specifically interested in helping women, as she states in her text Replenishing the Earth, “It was a desire to help rural populations, especially women, with the basic needs they described to me during seminars and workshops.” Maathai mentions in this text how the women informed her that “they lacked clean drinking water, adequate and nutritious food, income, and enough energy for cooking and heating.” She ultimately came to the conclusion that the GBM was about more than planting seeds. It was also about “planting seeds of a different sort,” including expanding human rights more broadly and the expansion of “democratic space.”1

Maathai defined the GBM as having four core values, including (1) Love for the environment, (2) Gratitude and respect for the Earth’s resources, (3) Self-empowerment and Self-betterment, (4) and the Spirit of service and volunteerism. Love for the environment involves taking positive action to preserve the earth, such as with the planting of trees, including protecting animals and their habitats, along with other conservation efforts. To have gratitude and respect for the earth’s resources for Maathai was to practice the three r’s reduce, reuse, and recycle while self-empowerment and self-betterment taking actions to improve one’s life through the “spirit of self-reliance” and avoiding “self-destructive activities such as addictions.”2 In the spirit of volunteerism, a core value of the GBM, one should be willing to serve others without the expectation of “compensation, appreciation or even recognition.” For Maathai, “others” also meant non-humans. While Maathai understood that these values might be found in several religious traditions, she defines them as “defining our humanity” and “seem to be a part of human nature.” The ecological crisis is defined by Maathai as both a physical and spiritual matter.

In 1991, Grace and James Boggs started the Detroit Summer project. This endeavor began as a response to deindustrialization, environmental degradation, and depopulation. It was patterned after the Freedom Summer project led by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee in 1964 with a focus on the “tangible benefits of urban agriculture.” Detroit Summer involved the production of fresh, nutritious food, the beautification of neighborhoods, economic development, and community sustainability.3  Described by Grace Boggs as a “multigenerational and multicultural” movement to save Detroit, this movement involved widespread community development and revitalization activities. These activities included the planting of community gardens that engaged people across age, race, and class distinctions. Groups such as the Gardening Angels, an organization of mostly elderly African Americans who sought to produce healthier foods for themselves through gardening, and 4-H program, including youth groups, helped to inspire a city-wide campaign of gardening. In her book The Next American Revolution, Boggs describes the movement as “a significant urban and agricultural movement” across Detroit. By the 2000s, there emerged thousands of family gardens and more than 200 community gardens across the city of Detroit. These gardens included neighborhood gardens, youth gardens, church gardens, and school gardens.

These two women should continue to be studied in the larger history of the global environmental movement. Their work and thought also extend well beyond environmentalism. More comparative work is necessary to further understand how these women and many other women of color played a key role in the development of a movement essential to saving the planet from ecological degradation and catastrophe.

  1. Wangari Maathai, Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World (New York: Doubleday, 2010), 13.
  2. Ibid., 15.
  3. Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 125-126.
Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Hettie Williams

Hettie V. Williams is the president of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). She is an Associate Professor of African American history in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University where she teaches courses in African American history and U.S. history. Her latest publications include 'Bury My Heart in a Free Land: Black Women Intellectuals in Modern U.S. History' (Praeger, 2017) and (with G. Reginald Daniel) 'Race and the Obama Phenomenon: The Vision of a More Perfect Multiracial Union' (University Press of Mississippi 2014). Follow her on Twitter @DrHettie2017.

Comments on “Women of Color Consciousness and the Global Environmental Movement

  • Avatar

    Thank you

Comments are closed.