This February, to celebrate Black History Month, we’re revisiting the stories of three inspirational African American Prize winners: Margie Richard (2004), Hilton Kelley (2011), and Destiny Watford (2016). While each has a unique story and approach, all three environmental heroes won the Goldman Environmental Prize for their activism and sacrifice at the intersection of environment, industry, and social justice in their respective communities. Each winner continues to serve as a testament to the power of one—to spark change, to protect communities from environmental destruction, and to combat injustice and inequality. What powerful role models for all of us they are.
Margie Richard was the first African American woman to win the Prize, in 2004. Hailing from the fenceline community of Norco, Louisiana, Richard’s family lived in the historically African American Old Diamond neighborhood for four generations. Given Old Diamond’s proximity to a Shell plant and oil refinery owned by a Shell subsidiary, residents reported high rates of cancer, birth defects, and serious, sometimes fatal, health ailments. Witnessing the effects the chemical industry had on her community, she became a formidable force in Norco, using political savvy and organizing to persuade Old Diamond residents to take action against Shell. Through her efforts, Richard secured an agreement from Shell Chemical to reduce its toxic emissions by 30%, contribute funding to a community development fund, and finance relocation of her Old Diamond neighbors in Louisiana. Richard relocated to a New Orleans suburb, and those who chose to stay in Old Diamond received grants from Shell to better safeguard their homes.
On a visit to his hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, in 2000, Hilton Kelley realized it was time for him to move back for good and a play role in the city’s redevelopment. Born and raised on the West Side of Port Arthur, Kelley was no stranger to the smell of sulfur coming from nearby petrochemical and hazardous waste facilities along the Gulf Coast. Noted by the EPA for having some of the highest levels of toxic air releases in the country, the community endured decades of industrial pollution, which compounded the city’s significant economic and social struggles. Kelley knew that the most effective way to support his community was by addressing the longstanding environmental issues. He established the Community In-power and Development Association (CIDA), which trained located residents to monitor air quality. His leadership through CIDA also helped secure environmental wins against major petrochemical companies seeking to expand in and further pollute Port Arthur, including Motiva and Veolia Corporation. The Prize recognized Kelley’s achievements in 2011, and today he leads a program to empower youth on environmental rights. In 2017, his home and business were flooded by Hurricane Harvey, and he is now in the process of rebuilding (read more in Democracy Now! and Mother Jones).
At 20 years old, 2016 recipient Destiny Watford is one of the youngest Prize winners and an example of how the next generation is continuing the fight for environmental justice. Hailing from Curtis Bay, a Baltimore neighborhood bounded by oil refineries, chemical plants, and other polluting facilities, Watford turned to community organizing in high school. She co-founded the student group Free Your Voice (FYV) to address social justice and community rights. In 2010, the state of Maryland approved plans for the construction of the nation’s largest trash incinerator near Curtis Bay. Ahead of the plant’s construction, Destiny and FYV seized the opportunity to campaign against the project, which would have burned 4,000 tons of trash each day. These efforts proved successful, with the Maryland Department of the Environment invalidating the incinerator’s permit in 2016. Beyond the Prize, Destiny remains a passionate clean air advocate and active organizer in the Baltimore region, and has worked on fair housing issues, spoke at TEDxMidAtlantic, and was named one of The Root’s 2017 Young Futurists.