Absalom Jordan has been fighting for Oxon Run Park for more than 20 years.
He grew up near an urban farm by Catholic University and later chose to raise his children in a home in Southeast, in part to be close to Oxon Run.
He speaks about the park in glowing, almost reverent, terms.
“I’m down in Oxon Run Park with my granddaughter this Saturday morning,” he said in a phone voicemail, following up on an earlier conversation. “And we’re under the trees – we can hear the insects and birds and it is so peaceful.”
Under Mayor Marion Barry, Jordan served as chair of the Ward 8 Parks Committee which represents a slice of Ward 8 adjacent to Oxon Run Park as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, and chairs the Friends of Oxon Run group.
Despite decades of advocacy to protect the green space, Jordan said he only recently came to regard himself as an “environmentalist.”
“I used to listen to people talk about tree huggers and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I was first fighting for Oxon Run Park – all I knew was I was trying to preserve some space.”
However, Jordan said he’s starting to see more and more connections between the park and the broader fight for environmental justice, in large part because of the time he’s spent working alongside Brenda Lee Richardson, co-chair of Friends of Oxon Run and a self-described eco-feminist.
“Housing, air quality, water quality, crime and heat islands – the tree canopy – there’s a connection between all that stuff,” said Richardson who, like Jordan, has been involved in local environment work for decades.
The two represent a kind of “old guard,” cultivating and spreading deep-seated institutional knowledge among a growing wave of Black activists working on pressing environmental issues – from local parks to global warming.
These advocates stand in contrast to persistent stereotypes that cast the environmental movement as a “white thing.”
“When I Googled or just looked up ‘What does an environmentalist look like?’ I never saw pictures of myself,” said Heather McTeer Toney, the Environmental Defense Fund’s vice president of community engagement. “It was all very singular – white people hugging trees and Birkenstocks.”
Historically, the mainstream Green Movement, which picked up steam in the 60s and 70s, has been dominated by whites. White environmental leaders ignored connections between the environment and race for most of the movement’s history, according to an October article in Nonprofit Quarterly magazine by Yale environmental justice scholar Dr. Dorceta Taylor.
But in recent years that has started to change, Taylor writes. Her research has found that in 2020, people of color made up 16% of staffers at major environmental organizations. It’s nowhere close to representing the true American population (which was about 38% nonwhite in 2020) but it is a significant improvement: people of color only held about 2% of those roles in 1990.
Richardson said those numbers have played out in her lived experience.
“My journey started maybe 40 years ago and 40 years ago, there weren’t many Black folks in the environmental movement,” Richardson said.
Her introduction to the movement came from a friend who brought her to a meeting at a university. Richardson remembered most of the 200 people in attendance being white men.
“I’m sitting in the meeting – now I’ve got a master’s degree, right? – and after the conversation was over, I told my friend, ‘I didn’t understand a word of what just happened.’ There was a lot of environmental jargon,” Richardson said. “So I said, I want to be an eco-feminist and I want to make sure that communities east of the river are deeply engaged in this conversation. And back then, it was just a handful of us, and the handful of us were mostly women.”
Black women remain at the forefront of environmental advocacy today. In 2019, a year before George Floyd’s murder forced the environmental community, like so many others, to rethink its relationship to racial justice, McTeer Toney published an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Black Women Are Leaders in the Climate Movement.”
“I thought it was important to elevate all of the Black women that I knew were doing this work that you just never saw in terms of headlines,” McTeer Toney said. “People of color, particularly women, have been doing environment and climate work for years and have been experts in this space for years.”