South Side environment activist proud to carry on her mother Hazel Johnson's mission

Hazel Johnson known as "the Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement"
People for Community Recovery Executive Director Cheryl Johnson is working to create the next generation of environmental activists.

"People don't think about what you breathe every day," she said.

Johnson wants to transform a vacant school building in her Altgeld Gardens neighborhood on Chicago's Far South Side into a training center for environmental work.

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"We don't have that workforce to be able to clean up our community that has been poisoned for so many years," she said.

It's just one of several projects aimed at taking care of the environment and improving the health of the community. PCR recently hosted a health fair in the housing complex.

Their other priorities include conducting air quality tests and making sure South Side residents are not left out of the clean energy economy.

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PCR was founded by Johnson's mother, Hazel Johnson. When Hazel Johnson started speaking out about environmental justice in the 1970s, she faced resistance.

"She being a black woman, being a widow, living in public housing, more like strikes that was against her, but she didn't let that bother her," Johnson said.

Her mother's fight against industrial pollutants brought her face to face with local and state elected officials and even presidents. She earned the title "the Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement" for her efforts.

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Hazel was motivated to act after seeing too many people in her community battle cancer, asthma, skin and respiratory illnesses. Hazel Johnson's husband, Cheryl's father, died of lung cancer at 41.

"She did her own personal research. And she was able to find out that we have 50 documented landfills in this area, over 250 leaking underground storage tanks," Johnson said.

Johnson warned the community still faces many environmental challenges, but the difference is now more people are aware of environmental racism thanks to her mother's hard work.

Just like Johnson's mother passed the torch to her to continue this environmental work, she knows the time will come when she will have to do the same.

"In 10 years I hope to see that this building is up and running, that the Environmental Sustainable Institute named after Hazel Johnson would be up and we're working together. I want to be able to fulfill my mother's dream," she said.
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