For most of the 20th century, the environmentalist movement in general, and the conservationist strand in particular, was devoid of people of color. From Sierra Club founder John Muir, thought to be a racist for disparaging comments he once made about Native Americans, to President Theodore Roosevelt, who made natural conservation a national priority while making civil rights for the “backward race” a fringe initiative.
The 21st century, however, brought an integration of the environmentalist and civil rights movements, with an emphasis on preservation of the rights of all humans to live healthy, regardless of one’s race or where one lives. Jerome Ringo is at the forefront of that new movement.
In 1996, Ringo was serving on the board of directors of the National Wildlife Federation and by 2005, he was chair – making him the first African-American to head a major, mainstream conservation organization. As a former employee of the toxic petrochemical industry in Louisiana – a major portion of the notorious “Cancer Alley” – Ringo personally understood the risks and harms posed to workers in pollution-intense facilities, as well as the deleterious effect those industries have on the air, soil and water.
He’s worked staunchly as an environmental justice advocate fighting for safer work conditions. He’s also been a leading voice for green jobs, most directly through his leadership in the Apollo Alliance, a gumbo of groups representing various interests typically not found all at the same table: environmentalists, business leaders, community organizations and labor unions. Ringo is president of the Alliance and has worked closely with other black leaders of the clean-energy/green-jobs movement such as Van Jones, Majora Carter and Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins.
This movement suffered a setback when conservative extremists pressured the resignation of Jones from the Obama administration, where he worked on green jobs development. Ringo’s challenge will be to overcome the opposition to green investment that culminated with the Jones episode. However, if this challenge is suitably overcome, the result will be millions of new and safe jobs, particularly for minorities and those who’ve suffered unemployment for far too long.
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