“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something.” —John Lewis (2019)
Throughout my life and career, I’ve been inspired by John Lewis. His forceful, fearless words and actions empower all of us who are committed to improving the world, whether by fighting for racial equality or for everyone’s right to clean water and air.
John Lewis led with kindness and love backed by a steely resolve and undaunted courage. For the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement to result in meaningful change, we must follow his example — treating our adversaries with respect, and with a willingness to put ourselves on the line.
In 2013, the year of Scenic Hudson’s 50th anniversary, we realized that the organization was founded three months after the March on Washington, at which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his legendary “I have a dream” address. Preceding him at the podium was 23-year-old John Lewis. He also electrified the crowd, saying, “We do not want our freedom gradually. We want our freedom now! We must say, ‘Wake up America! Wake up!’ For we cannot stop, and we cannot and will not be patient!”
Recalling these powerful words while celebrating Scenic Hudson’s half-century of achievements — which include democratizing environmental protection—it became clear we had not done enough to ensure our work benefits all people of the Hudson Valley. This marked a turning point in my leadership. Since then, I have intensified my efforts to ensure diversity and representation among Scenic Hudson’s staff while increasing our investment in the region’s cities.
You may not know that John Lewis was also a champion of the environment. In Congress, he fought tirelessly to increase funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, secure additional safeguards under the Clean Air and Clean Water acts and stem climate change. We can celebrate his memory by living up to the advice he gave young climate activists last year: “It is our responsibility to leave this planet cleaner and greener. That must be our legacy.”
To ensure a healthy future for everyone’s children and grandchildren, we have to step up our game. We need to reverse the catastrophic environmental rollbacks of the Trump administration and halt projects like the Danskammer fracked-gas power plant, which could disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous and People of Color. We also need to push for renewable energy projects and fight to ensure they are implemented without damaging the natural resources and beauty we treasure.
There is much more we can do to lessen the divide underscored by a new studyshowing that parks serving primarily nonwhite populations are half the size of those enjoyed by white populations. In addition to providing much-needed places for recreation, healing and community gatherings, public parks help cool surrounding neighborhoods by up to 6 degrees. Now, when the health dangers posed by extreme heat have been exacerbated in minority communities by increased risk of contracting COVID-19, sustaining the status quo is simply not acceptable. Scenic Hudson is listening and looking for ways we can rise to the occasion, while strengthening local partnerships to create new city parks and greenways.
In the New York Times op-ed printed the day of his funeral, John Lewis wrote, “I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.” Let these words guide all who share my belief that all Hudson Valley residents can live in healthy, safe and prosperous communities.
For inspiration, watch the moving ceremony that took place on August 1 at our Shaupeneak Ridge preserve in Ulster County to celebrate creation of a new trail honoring the life of Sojourner Truth. This pioneer in the abolition and civil rights movements secured her freedom by walking over the ridge. Conducted by our partners at Harambee in Kingston, the event included gripping music and dance and a dramatic retelling of Truth’s life.
John Lewis carried on Sojourner Truth’s mission. We must walk in both of their footsteps, spurred by his call to “Wake up America. Wake Up!”
Stay safe and stay strong.