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These Women Environmental Leaders Are Fighting For Their Communities

Women will continue to help shape the future as we fight to protect the environment that we all share — our planet.

"Women have to be the fiercest," says Maria Lopez-Nuñez. She is fighting for environmental justice in Newark, NJ's Ironbound neighborhood.

"Women have to be the fiercest," says Maria Lopez-Nuñez. She is fighting for environmental justice in Newark, NJ's Ironbound neighborhood.

Brian W. Fraser

Across the globe, women and girls are disproportionately impacted by climate change. As primary caregivers and providers of food and other necessities, they’re more likely to need to relocate when flooding, drought, and other symptoms of a warming planet cut off their access to natural resources. Women make up 80% of people displaced by climate change, according to United Nations estimates.

Women are also leading the response to the climate crisis. As Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland, said: “Climate change is a man-made problem and must have a feminist solution.”

The truth is that women have been the heart of the environmental movement for generations. Long before Rachel Carson raised the alarm about pesticides in the 1960s, there were women like Dr. Rebecca Cole, a Black physician who saw that environmental conditions in cities were worse for Black people because White landlords kept them living in unhealthy conditions. She advocated for “cubic air space laws” to prevent overcrowding in apartments.

As the historian Rebecca Ortenberg explains on a podcast episode titled “How Women Build the Environmental Movement,” Dr. Cole was one of the women who helped to shift the focus of environmental advocates from exclusively protecting wild places and wildlife to ensuring that the places where people lived were safe and healthy. Women of color have played a particularly important role in broadening the movement, often in spite of resistance from White people.

Today, women are still working to ensure that the environments we live in, wild creatures and humans alike, are healthy and safe. Following is a discussion with two women environmental leaders who are fighting for change in their communities. Their words tell how women will continue to help shape the future as we fight to protect the environment that we all share — our planet.

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak.
Photo Courtesy of Alaska Community Action on Toxics

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak

In her work as a community health aide in the village of Nuiqsut, Alaska, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak has seen how the encroachment of fossil fuel development has harmed the Arctic’s people. When she first started her work in the village’s clinic in 1986, she had one asthmatic patient. A decade later that number had risen to 75 — a 600% increase. Many of these patients were children. Represented by Earthjustice, she is legally challenging a proposal to drill for oil and gas in the Western Arctic.

How has your experience as a woman in your community inspired your environmental activism and leadership?

I followed my mother into health care. The needs were great, the politics horrendous, and I always ask questions. My questions led to our environment and the changes we were facing daily because of oil and gas development. I found that the answers to bad days were related to the emissions. For me, it was the little eyes who had trouble breathing. As the numbers increased it was very hard to help people breathe far from the hospital.

My elders asked me to stand up for tradition and culture. When they come and talk to you as a group waiting all day because you’re busy, you listen. I knew my village needed to grow and I worked to make it better — coaching and growing the goodness.

What are some of the unique strengths you believe women bring to environmental movements?

Women are the first environment for all people. The growing of the generations holds a special place in the growing of the communities. When the goodness of the growth has strong eyes, the good is growing. When the little eyes are struggling it is very hard and is not a good environment. Our mothers carry the good — most strive for goodness.

What are some of the unique challenges women face in environmental struggles, and what has helped you navigate and overcome those challenges?

Women must walk amongst the challenges and carry the generations with us. We can bring the we into the future and we grow us all. We also carry our dreams for our families, and our unwillingness to have them suffer the losses that were felt before. With precaution, prevention, protection, and proactively engaging, we grow.

My mother was a big part of it all. I would not be here without her. I always had a mentor to help me with all I do. Someone to talk through the bad days. I always value good exercise, getting out on our lands and waters. Sharing the knowledge with the generations keeps us going.

How do you see the fights for gender equality, racial equality, economic equality — and the fight to protect our planet — intertwine?

Grow good for all helps everyone. Without it the goodness does not grow. We grow the generations or the generations change. Our future is elders and the good we grow will care for us.

Maria Lopez-Nunez.
Brian W. Fraser

Maria Lopez-Nuñez

Maria Lopez-Nuñez is the deputy director of organizing and advocacy at the Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark. In partnership with Earthjustice, ICC has pushed a local trash incinerator to take responsibility for the waste it emits into the surrounding community.

How has your experience as a woman in your community inspired your environmental activism and leadership?

I grew up with woman leaders. My family has definitely always been a matriarchy that’s fighting for everyone around them. That’s always been the norm. I feel like women are more often the community leaders, the ones putting in the work. They’re on the ground, doing the outreach, showing up to the community meetings — holding it down, holding the line and pushing for all of us to have a safe life. For me, there was an inevitability that I would be involved in this fight.

What are some of the unique strengths you believe women bring to environmental movements?

Women have to be the fiercest. We’re often the caretakers of our communities and with that comes a strong sense of having to defend our communities from harm, to keep them safe. That’s part of what it means to nurture. There’s also a sisterhood. We really support each other, we share an understanding that it takes all of us together. As women, we know the layered levels of violence we have to face so we watch out for each other. That’s what feminist leadership looks like. Not just being about just the one, being about the all.

What are some of the unique challenges women face in environmental struggles, and what has helped you navigate and overcome those challenges?

We’re the ones who have to manage emotions, do the emotional labor for the movement. It’s exhausting — being put in the position of having to hold everyone’s feelings, to be the caretaker of folks in the struggle.

But you can’t separate out gender and race. You don’t know if you’re being discriminated against because of your race or your gender. And you’re not just facing off with the people who want to hurt you, you’re also being underestimated by the people you’re working in coalition with. There are so many landmines waiting to control our behavior when we’re fighting to protect our communities.

How do you see the fights for gender equality, racial equality, economic equality — and the fight to protect our planet — intertwine?

You can’t separate them. That’s at the heart of environmental justice. The only way we’ll win is if it’s a fight for social justice, to reform our society. The racist, sexist systems are dependent on each other to exist. Separating our gender and our race and our economic status, it separates us from ourselves. It does that dissecting of life that’s getting us into this problem to begin with.