4 Leaders to Learn About During Black Futures Month

Black scientists and leaders have always been at the forefront of leading change in wildlife conservation, advocating for environmental justice, and creating access to nature.  

Back in 1896, the renowned scientist George Washington Carver established an agriculture department at Tuskegee University to research soil degradation and teach alternative farming methods. 

In 1903, Colonel Charles Young became the first Black National Park Superintendent and was a true steward of the land by working to preserve the ancient, namesake trees in Sequoia National Park.  

Later in the 20th century, Hazel Johnson, known as the Mother of Environmental Justice, stood in the oval office as President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 to identify and protect environmental justice communities at a federal level.  

During Black History Month, we are reminded of the lasting impacts Carver, Young, Johnson, and many other historical Black American leaders have had on our environment. To build off of these powerful stories and honor Black Futures Month, here are four people making history today. 

Lisa Jackson

Lisa Perez Jackson is a chemical engineer who began her career at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1987. She worked in the public sector in roles spanning from staff-level positions to Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed her as Administrator of the EPA, making her the first Black person to hold that position. 

During her time as Administrator, Jackson focused on improving air and water quality, eliminating greenhouse gases, and expanding outreach to communities on environmental issues. 

Today, Jackson is Vice President of Environmental, Policy, and Social Initiatives at Apple. She oversees Apple’s efforts to address climate change through renewable energy and energy efficiency, using green materials, and inventing new ways to conserve resources. 

Lisa Jackson

Additionally, Jackson leads Apple’s Racial Equity and Justice Initiative — focused on education, economic opportunity, and criminal justice reform — and is responsible for Apple’s education policy programs, its product accessibility work, and its worldwide government affairs function. 

She was named as one of Fast Company’s “Most Creative People” in 2019 and named a “Game Changer” by Vogue Australia in 2018.

Jerome Foster II

Voices like Jerome Foster II prove that teenagers and young adults have the power to make a change on a national level. When the Biden administration created the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) in 2021, Foster was chosen to represent young people and the Northeast Region of the US. Foster became the youngest-ever White House Advisor in United States history at age 18. According to the White House, council members like Foster provide valuable insight into how the Federal Government should tackle the climate crisis and advance environmental justice especially for disadvantaged communities. 

Jerome wears a blue shirt with a globe on it while talking into a microphone.
Jerome Foster II

He served as intern for the late Honorable John Lewis at 16-years old and served as Board Member for the DC State Board of Education’s High School Graduation Requirements Task Force at 15. He is Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director at Waic Up which is an international communication to community impact charity that is an expansion of OneMillionOfUs, which mobilized a movement of young people to vote in the 2020 Presidential Elections.

Wanjiku (Wawa) Gatheru 

Another influential young climate activist, Wanjiku (Wawa) Gatheru, has almost a decade of experience in environmental and climate activism. Gatheru is the daughter of Agĩkũyũ (an ethnic group in Kenya) Kenyan immigrants and at a young age was taught to give back to the earth and care for the planet. Combining this appreciation for the Earth with a passion sparked by an environmental science class she took when she was 15, Gatheru made it her mission to elevate the importance of the climate movement and make it more accessible and inclusive for all. 

At the University of Connecticut, Gatheru co-founded the UConn Access to Food Effort (UCAFE) to combat campus food insecurity. She spearheaded numerous other environmental efforts throughout her time at UConn, eventually leading her to become the first Black person to receive the Rhodes, Truman, and Udall Scholarships. 

Wawa centered with her hands on her heart as the adults around her clap their hands.
Wawa Gatheru honored at the State House of Representatives in Hartford for becoming University of Connecticut’s first Rhodes Scholar © Peter Morenus

In 2021, Gatheru created Black Girl Environmentalist (BGE) to support Black girls, women, and non-binary people in the environmental field. BGE creates opportunities for Black community members to succeed as environmentalists by offering online and in-person programs, workshops, mentorships, and other educational resources.  

Kai Lightner

At the age of six, Kai Lightner found the perfect outlet to focus his ADHD on a physical and mental task: rock climbing. Climbing quickly ignited a passion within Lightner and he successfully competed nationally and internationally, winning 12 national championships (2 adult; 10 youth), 5 Pan American Championships (1 adult; 4 youth), and 1 Youth World Championship.  

Kai stands in the forefront on a rock with his hands in his pockets and a blue jacket. In the background, we can see people at the base of a massive boulder.
Kai Lightner © Ted Distel

Throughout his time competing, Lightner grew his appreciation for new places and different cultures and wanted other young adults and youth to have the same opportunities. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Lightner recognized inequitable access to outdoor industries like climbing for underserved communities. In response, he created Climbing for Change (C4C), a nonprofit that supports kids with backgrounds like his to excel in rock climbing and bridge the gap between underserved minorities and outdoor activities. To learn more about Kai or C4C, visit kai-lightner.com or climbing4change.org. 

Making a Local Impact 

As we reflect on the strides that many of these scientists and activists have taken to advance equitable access to nature, community health and safety, and environmental advocacy, we also recognize that the work is far from done. You can learn about and support local Black-led environmental justice groups like:

Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE)

The Rusty Anvil

Community Action Works

Neighbor 2 Neighbor

Family holding hands on a path in the woods.

To learn more about other Mass Audubon Diversity and Equity initiatives and programs, visit our Diversity & Inclusion page.   

Big Wins for Land Conservation

Fall scene

The end of 2022 was busy for our land conservation team, who put the finishing touches on protecting over 400 acres.

This volume of projects reflects the strong commitment to land conservation that is articulated in Mass Audubon’s Action Agenda, which calls for accelerated land protection activity both for land acquired as part of Mass Audubon’s sanctuary system, as well as projects assisted by our staff that yield land that may be owned by other land trusts, state agencies, or local cities and towns. 

Here are just a few of those projects.

Cold Brook, Otis 

At Cold Brook, Land Protection Specialist Kate Buttolph completed the purchase of 180 acres of land in Otis and Sandisfield from the estate of Robert Minery. During his lifetime, Mr. Minery had worked with Mass Audubon on an initial acquisition of 58 acres of his land at Cold Brook; with the recent transaction we have now been able to significantly expand Mass Audubon’s ownership to include high priority land on both sides of the Cold Spring Road corridor.  

This was a complex, multi-year transaction that required persistence, patience, and commitment; congratulations to Kate and the other members of the project team at Mass Audubon, and to our project partners at the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) on its completion after many years of work, and thanks to the generous private funders that made the project possible. 

The Cold Brook property is not yet open to the public; site restoration activities are underway and the infrastructure necessary for public visitation will be constructed. 

Ipswich River, Topsfield 

© Paul Sullivan

At Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, by contrast, the land conservation team was able to mobilize in a very short period of time to accept a donation of land from a donor who wanted to complete his gift by the end of the calendar year. Land Protection Specialist Andrew Ognibene coordinated the internal review process and the legal and title work required to accommodate the donor’s desired timeframe and we accepted the gift on December 14, with two weeks to spare!    

The land added to the sanctuary expands the base of protected land at Ipswich River, and protects high value wildlife habitat designated as Core Habitat in the newly-updated BioMap analysis by the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. 

Whetstone Wood, Wendell 

Whetstone Wood, Mass Audubon’s largest sanctuary, gained an additional 106 acres through two transactions coordinated by Land Protection Specialists Nick Rossi and Kate Buttolph.  

In addition to adding five acres to our ownership at Whetstone Wood, the Leppzer purchase also included a restoration component. We already removed existing structures and will taker further measures to restore the site, allowing the creation of young forest habitat through natural succession, supporting the recovery of the New England Cottontail, New England’s only native rabbit. 

The purchase of the Killay property, in partnership with DCR, expands Mass Audubon’s base of protected land in Wendell to the south and links state water supply land with Wendell State Forest, enhancing the resiliency of this critical forested landscape.   

Whetstone Wood is unusual for Mass Audubon because public access is quite limited. It was the vision of the original donors and founders of the sanctuary, Ina and Mason Phelps, to create a wildlife refuge where human impacts are deliberately kept to a minimum.

Eagle Lake, Holden 

A bequest by the estate of Edna Tilander added 31 acres of land to the Eagle Lake Wildlife Sanctuary in Holden. Ms. Tilander worked with Mass Audubon staff during her lifetime to structure her gift, which was then incorporated into her estate plan. The Tilander property supports two valuable cold-water streams and creates a robust protected link between the Eagle Lake property to the north and thousands of acres of protected land to the south.  

In addition to providing for the gift to Mass Audubon, Ms. Tilander’s will also specified that her house be left to her niece. Nick Rossi worked closely with the estate to complete the subdivision process and allow the separate conveyance of the house. The Tilander project is a compelling example of the power of planned giving to accomplish multiple goals as specified by the donor.   

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