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For Norris McDonald, saving the environment couldn’t be more personal. Suffering from chronic acute asthma, he’s come close to death on two occasions: in the ’90s he spent several days in the intensive care unit of a Maryland hospital suffering from respiratory failure. And McDonald says pollution is a key reason his asthma worsened to a now chronic and life threatening state. “Smog has greatly contributed to my condition and has made me much more committed to the cause,” says McDonald.
The founder of the African American Environmentalist Association, a Maryland based nonprofit organization, McDonald is passionate about increasing the participation of African Americans in the environmental movement. An essential component of that is focusing on environmental policy matters from an African American perspective, which often means putting a spotlight on environmental racism.
It was while working as a researcher for Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group on Capitol Hill, that McDonald was struck by the lack of blacks in the field. “I saw how the environment touches every aspect of our lives,” says McDonald, “and that African Americans are often the ones affected the most when it goes bad.” In response to the lack of diversity in the environmental movement, McDonald started the AAEA in 1985 in hopes of addressing environmental issues as well as educating African Americans.
McDonald believes that it’s important to reach the African American community in relatable ways. “I’m trying to break the stigma and stereotypes of what an environmentalist is, and repackage it to reach our community,” he says. And the Internet is an essential tool. “Young African Americans are Internet savvy and it serves as a vehicle to educate,” he explains. The group’s Website, www.aaenvironment.com, which has 10,000 registered users, includes a blog in which McDonald discusses environmental news and showcases the group’s stance on various issues.
The organization also reaches its target audience through various programs including an internship that pairs black youth with environmental groups in Washington, D.C., and volunteer efforts to clean up area creeks and replace furnaces in public housing buildings.
McDonald hopes that the group will hit home with African Americans when it comes to issues that they can relate to, one being asthma. In 2004, 3.5 million African Americans suffered from asthma, the highest prevalence for any other ethnic group according to the American Lung Association.
“Asthma is an environmental issue that affects everyone, especially inner-city children who don’t have air conditioning and are forced to ride a smog-polluted bus with their mother,” says McDonald. “Black people have the power to influence policy issues just as long as they are educated and aware of the issues.” He says exercising their rights is especially important given that environmental racism is still prevalent in many inner-city neighborhoods. According to the American Lung Association, 71% of African Americans live in counties that have violated federal air pollution standards. “Our communities are often the path of least resistance for waste,” he explains. McDonald