There is a prevailing stereotype which says the climate crisis and the environment are not priority issues for communities of color. But consider this: many Black and Brown communities are more likely to suffer the ill effects of polluted air and water and less likely to have access to fresh, nourishing food. Those who live in these communities are also often more likely to suffer from health issues like asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure and less likely to recover from devastating hurricanes and other climate disasters.
So caring about environmental justice is just as important as fighting for civil rights. After all, without clean air, clean water, healthy food and healthy families, we won’t be around long enough to reap the benefits of those social justice struggles. Fortunately, there are sheroes and heroes who are fighting the good fight of environmental & climate justice and all of the issues that intersect.
As we observe Black History Month, we shine a light on one of these sheroes: Marnese Kris Jackson, the Pontiac, Michigan-based Frontline Organizing Manager for Mothers Out Front.
Despite her youth, despite the stereotypes, Marnese is on the short list of trending environmental super-activists who are helping make Planet Earth sustainable. She is likely the only Black activist, working in a majority non-Black climate organization, who guides, coaches, and manages staff organizers who are literally on the frontlines of the environmental movement.
Perhaps it is her destiny.
As a youngster, bullied by other Black girls in her school (because she had a lot of White and multicultural friends) Marnese’s Mother pulled her aside and began teaching her about the protection of Black power. She taught her about Angela Davis, and Queen Mother Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton and the Black Panthers because, as Marnese says, “good, bad or ugly they knew how to get positive results in the community through organizing with and caring for the people.”
And her Mother also taught her about those who had paved the way from her own family; about their strong legacies. She learned that her Grandmother, who passed when Marnese's mother was only 5 years old, was her protector. Knowing all that made her fearless in the face of bullying.
And that sense of protection sustained her on her journey to get a Bachelor’s degree in Public Relations and African American Studies from Eastern Michigan University and a Master’s degree in Social Justice from Marygrove College. It fed her when she, as a student and leader in the Black Student Union and other Black organizations at Eastern Michigan was organizing fundraisers to assist survivors of Hurricane Katrina. It fed her as she found herself speaking truth to power, again and again.
But later, after graduating, marrying, birthing two children, she was living on the east side of Pontiac and her children couldn’t even go outside to play. “That was because we had a water sewage treatment plant that was spewing toxic emissions,” she says. “We had our own water system but it had been sold off because of the Emergency Manager. At the same time, this treatment plant was smelling. This was a nice, affluent area—not the false narrative of people of color not taking care of their neighborhoods.”
It was local NAACP members, along with other area residents, who stepped up to advocate for better water and air quality in Pontiac. “They said ‘report it every time you smell it.’ Well, I could smell it every time I went down Martin Luther King Boulevard. I could smell it on my way to church. I could smell it every single day and it was sickening. So, she and her family did what Black people do, she says, when injust forces leave them no choice except to abandon their own communities. “We moved to the suburbs.”
It was living in that reality that her activism became more personal.
There was a time when, despite her professional salary, the electricity was turned off in her home. But she took that experience, told her story for a report called “Lights Out in the Cold" and helped bring justice to the residents of her community. As a volunteer for Utility Justice with the organization Soulardarity, she canvassed door-to-door with information about how energy could be made more affordable and efficient. She put in work.
It was basically this work that got her noticed by Jacqui Patterson, the environmentalist who was hired in 2012 to lead the new Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the National NAACP. “Jacqui called me on Saturday night at 9 PM to ask whether I could interview for the NAACP position the next day—Sunday—at 9 AM.”
The rest, as they say, is herstory; Black Herstory. At the NAACP, Marnese was Midwest and Great Plain States Regional Organizer, building capacity within NAACP members to engage in energy-related projects across 17 states and she created the popular ECJ Live Podcast talk show which premiered center stage at the NAACP National Convention. Marnese was also the Weatherization Coordinator for Oakland Livingston Human Services Agency and Energy Outreach Specialist for Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office. She stacked up a lot of accolades and quickly became a rising star.
As much as Marnese loved working for the country’s biggest and boldest civil rights organization, she left in 2019 to take her work in a different direction. Now, she heads the frontline efforts of Mothers Out Front in California, Colorado, Virginia and New York. She lifts up utility justice, environmental reforms, revolutionary practices and intersectionality because environmental injustice is not about just one oppression, she says, but about addressing all of the oppressions. She also coordinates the Youth Global Climate Strike parent group and organizers who want to be a part of it. “I support parents and other organizers to support youth as they walk out for climate justice.”
This is critically important work.
“Frontline organizing, there is no coined definition,” Marnese says. “But it talks about lifting up people who are impacted the worst and the most by climate and environmental injustice where they live.” It’s about nuclear plants, coal or dirty fossil fuel plants. It’s also about transportation issues, waste, and organizing people who are the most impacted, transforming their mindset about what a liveable climate looks like. It is about listening to people who are on the frontlines of climate and environmental injustices; the people most directly affected.
And it’s also about transforming the mindsets of those who make decisions for the community; those in power—but to a lesser degree. “The people in power have too often sold out. If you concentrate on the people, educating and organizing them, there is some hope that we can create change.”
As she goes about her work, often with her children London & Dawson in tow, she reminds Black people that there are things they can do NOW to impact the climate reality. Grow your own food, she says. “If all you can do is get a plant, water it and put it on the window sill. That’s power. Go old school and teach your kids to turn off the lights. This is energy conservation and it's efficient.”
In this way, mothers, grandmothers and other caregivers do justice to history and can help ensure a sustainable environment for generations to come.
Rosemary Lytle, Frontline Communications Consultant for Mothers Out Front, is a columnist who worked in newspaper journalism for more than 20 years.
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