Racial justice and climate justice are inseparable. Few would deny this, but that wasn’t always so. For much of its history, the environmental movement has been overwhelmingly white and gave little thought to the impacts pollution and climate change had on people of color and underserved communities. The convergence of the two, which happened no more than a generation ago, came only after the tireless work of activists like Cecil Corbin-Mark.
Corbin-Mark was a towering, didactic man from Harlem who always offered criticism with love. He was equally adept at organizing his neighbors as he was lobbying policymakers. Never afraid to denounce the injustice deeply entrenched in Black and brown communities, much of his life was spent tirelessly battling the colonial mindset so many live under. Growing up in a family actively engaged in the civil rights movement, it’s no surprise that Corbin-Mark became one of the earliest champions of environmental justice, which was a novel, even radical, idea at the time.
For three decades, he demanded justice for underserved and overlooked communities, a campaign he waged until his sudden passing last October at 51. He never stopped getting into what the late civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis would call “good, necessary trouble.”
Even in a year of immeasurable grief for the Black and brown communities grappling with police brutality and a disproportionate share of COVID-19 deaths, Corbin-Mark remained steadfast in the struggle to eliminate toxic pollution, address systemic racism, and implement equitable climate and energy policies. He scored a key victory, too, in helping pass landmark climate legislation that would not only commit his home state of New York to net-zero emissions by 2050, but require at least 35 percent of state energy and climate spending go to pollution-burdened communities.
Corbin-Mark left a legacy that many in the movement, veterans and newcomers alike, will never forget — something three members of the House of Representatives specifically cited when they introduced a resolution honoring the activist for his life’s work. As one of its first employees, Corbin-Mark helped shepherd the growth of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, which was among the earliest organizations to fight environmental racism. Its virtual memorial for Corbin-Mark drew more than 400 people, offering compelling proof of his impact. Many hailed him as a visionary and gifted policy wonk focused on making energy justice the next front in the ongoing campaign for environmental justice.
Among the most lamentable things about his passing is that he didn’t live to see President Biden pass a slew of executive orders centering environmental justice in his climate and economic agendas. Many of Corbin-Mark’s colleagues credit him with helping carve the path that led to such a historic moment. That his life’s work was inextricably tied to the rise of the movement that made it happen is not lost on those who saw him tirelessly defend marginalized communities.
“The time he grew into who he became at WE ACT tracks with how the environmental justice movement has grown,” says 2019 Grist 50 Fixer Kerene Tayloe, director of federal legislative affairs at WE ACT. She tears up recalling Corbin-Mark’s impact on her life. “His ability to understand the importance of policy at the city level, at the state level, and at the federal level was instrumental in changing and preparing us for where we are right now. I just wish he was here to see the day [Biden’s] executive orders came out.”
A movement takes root
Corbin-Mark dedicated most of his life to serving communities of color, particularly fighting against the systemic inequities baked into the daily life of his neighborhood. The disparities are evident in even seemingly minute things: Many people in Harlem — mostly low-income people of color — must endure the pernicious summer heat of New York City, while white and wealthier residents just blocks away sit comfortably in their expensive, air-conditioned apartments.
Bringing these connections to what has historically been a white-dominated movement was never an easy endeavor. About a decade after the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the first battle against environmental racism — though the term didn’t exist until years later — began taking shape. State officials in North Carolina decided to dump soil laced with a carcinogen called polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) at a new hazardous waste landfill in the small, predominantly Black town of Afton.
That incident gave rise to the modern environmental justice movement. Civil rights and environmental activists soon saw a pattern when a similar fight took place in New York City a few years later. City planners unilaterally decided to move a sewage treatment plant slated for an affluent neighborhood to West Harlem. Community leaders rallied opposition to the plant, which led to the creation of WE ACT for Environmental Justice in 1988. Still, the city proceeded with the plan, promising residents that the facility would be odorless and harmless.
It’s a classic act of environmental injustice, the sort of thing activists like Corbin-Mark fought against for decades. When residents of West Harlem started noticing a foul, noxious stench wafting as far as two miles from the plant, WE ACT and the National Resources Defense Council sued the city. The lawsuit was settled in 1993 and provided roughly $1 million in environmental benefit funds, which allowed WE ACT — an all-volunteer organization at the time — to begin paying co-founder and executive director Peggy Shepard and expand her team. Today, the org counts around 20 people in its ranks.
“We decided we’re going to develop our own little NRDC in upper Manhattan,” Shepard said. “When we got the grant from the fund, the first staff person I thought of hiring was Cecil. We basically started the business in our new office, then hired three other people. It was just the five of us for a couple years.”
Vernice Miller-Travis, who cofounded WE ACT with Shepard but later moved to Washington, D.C., was impressed by Corbin-Mark, who was in his 20s at the time. “I could exhale a little, knowing that there was going to be somebody at Peggy’s side, building the organization and doing the work who cared about it as much as I did, and that I didn’t have to be right there on the spot all the time,” she says.
Shepard, who lived three blocks from Corbin-Mark in West Harlem, had met him not long before. She was out and about one Saturday and stumbled upon a block party where Corbin-Mark, who worked in the Bronx district attorney’s office, was telling an audience about environmental stewardship and explaining how the community could address the systemic issues entrenched in their neighborhood.
“I was struck by the passion and the specificity and the articulate message he was giving, so I met him and we stayed in touch,” Shepard said. “His friends and family probably thought he was crazy for leaving his good city job for a startup with ‘environmental justice’ in the name.”
The issue of environmental racism was making its first appearance in national politics when Corbin-Mark joined WE ACT. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order directing federal agencies to consider the environmental and health impacts of their actions on low-income communities of color. While Black environmental activists considered that groundbreaking, systemic inequities like legacy pollution persisted.
Innovation with impact
Corbin-Mark always had a vision coming into focus as people tossed around ideas about implementation and approach. “Our action should not be without strategy,” he often told colleagues (and tweeted at least once). His innovative thinking and ideas are what made him accomplish so much. An exhaustive accounting of his achievements would most likely fill a book, but those who knew him best credit him with advancing more than a dozen state legislative bills addressing toxins. He was also instrumental in getting the first line items in the New York environmental protection fund, now slated for $8 million a year. And, in the months before he died, Corbin-Mark championed several clean-energy programs and initiatives that WE ACT plans to continue pursuing.
Beyond his strong relationships with several state officials, Corbin-Mark regularly forged international relationships while attending climate and environmental events from Brazil to South Africa to Indonesia. Even those who felt challenged by Corbin-Mark’s positions and disagreed with his views admired his passion and mourned his passing.
George Floyd’s killing last summer prompted Corbin-Mark to once again focus most of his energy on highlighting the connections between racial justice and environmental justice. “We have to remember that Cecil was a Black man,” Shepard said. “At the large white organizations, the higher spots don’t generally go to people of color.” The National Black Environmental Justice Network, for which Corbin-Mark served on the steering committee, was resurrected after a 15-month hiatus. Floyd’s final words — “I can’t breathe” — became a rallying cry for racial justice, a sentiment shared by anyone who’s been subjected to environmental racism. After all, African Americans are 79 percent more likely to live in neighborhoods with severe industrial pollution.
Corbin-Mark, Shepard, and other Black environmental justice pioneers long challenged the “white savior” narrative of the historically, and overwhelmingly, white environmental movement. Raya Salter, policy organizer for the New York Renews coalition that helped pass New York’s groundbreaking climate legislation, said Corbin-Mark’s upbringing in Harlem — a community dubbed the heartbeat of the Black story in America — and his role in the environmental justice space are in many ways similar to the Harlem Renaissance.
“He was kind of the James Baldwin of the environmental justice movement, because no matter what or who he encountered, he just always showed dignity and intelligence,” says Salter.
Even Beverly Wright, founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice who has, with Shepard, been called the “mother of environmental justice,” echoed the idea when she repeatedly called Corbin-Mark a “renaissance man” during his memorial.
Yet even as the movement he led moved into the mainstream, Corbin-Mark was, as always, looking ahead to the next challenge. He had begun building an “energy justice” movement just before his passing. A growing body of evidence shows that racial covenants and racist city planning policies during the Jim Crow era determined which communities lived near landfills, sewage treatment plants, refineries, and other sources of industrial pollution. If clean energy is to take over the grid, Corbin-Mark questioned whether historically underserved communities would benefit.
His foresight was critical when it came to energy initiatives. A 2017 report by the NAACP outlined how governments should start considering access to energy services a basic human right. Among families living below the poverty level, Black households are more than twice as likely to experience power shut-offs than white ones. This is especially true in New York, where Corbin-Mark started a solar-installation program that would benefit underserved communities, working alongside agencies like city utility Con Edison and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
“Cecil knew how politics got done and how policies could change,” said Stephan Roundtree, the northeast director at the nonprofit Vote Solar and one of many people Corbin-Mark mentored over the years. “But he was really serious about starting with what people were telling us about their lives, because he knows that’s where a just policy comes from — by really addressing the lived conditions of people on the ground.”
While punctuality was never Corbin-Mark’s strongest suit, he made a lasting impact wherever he went. To people who knew him, it seemed he was always clutching a book in one hand and his phone and keys in the other while walking to the subway station or striding toward a rental car when traveling. Details like that may seem small, even inconsequential, when looking back on the life of a pioneer like Corbin-Mark, but they further humanize a man whose life, actions, and words will serve as a reminder of the political will needed to address institutional racism and inequities woven into the fabric of this nation.
“In a social movement, we build things, we organize, we do policy and advocacy, but not everyone was a visionary,” Miller-Travis said. “Cecil was that kind of person, and we are going to miss him terribly.”