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Celebrating Black Legends in Criminal Justice Reform and Climate Equity

February 27, 2024

Authored by Imani Stephens, Senior Communications Associate

Dream.Org is committed to centering the voices of those who have taken bold steps to pave the way for a more equitable future. While we celebrate, uplift, and invest in Black leaders every day, we also must take time to reflect on the people who make our work possible.  

As the celebration of Black History Month comes to a close, we uplift the Black leaders in criminal justice reform and climate equity – both past and present – who have overcome barriers and achieved major wins for our issues. They are history-makers, agents of change, and champions of equity. Their work inspires us to continue pioneering change for the benefit of communities that need it most.

Here’s a snapshot of just a few of the many Black innovators that we admire today:

Black Legends in Criminal Justice Reform

W. Haywood Burns: Burns is an influential leader in criminal justice reform through his proactive work within the Black community. Burns graduated from Harvard with honors and received a law degree from Yale University. He served as a general counsel to Martin Luther King Jr. 's Poor People’s Campaign and was one of the founders of the National Conference of Black Lawyers. Burns served as dean for several institutions along with establishing his own law firm in Harlem, NY.
Image: Haywood Burns Institute


Susan Burton: Burton is an activist, social entrepreneur, author, transformative leader, and survivor. Burton is the founder of A New Way of Life, a nonprofit organization that provides housing, employment, leadership development and other support services to formerly incarcerated women. Burton experienced the loss of her 5-year-old son in a tragic accident, and without support turned to drugs and alcohol. Burton spent 20 years in and out of prison. Today, Burton’s passion and activism to end mass incarceration has been recognized through receiving several honors and awards including being named CNN’s Top 10 Hero in 2010.
Image: Being Susan Burton


Thurgood Marshall: Former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was a staple for civil rights law in the nation. Justice Marshall set the precedent for how race was perceived in higher education by succeeding in the Supreme Court ruling that segregated schools was unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.
Image: Thurgood Marshall College Fund


Kenneth Thompson: Thompson was the first African American to be elected as the District Attorney of Brooklyn, NY. His work in law is evident through his commitment to freeing those wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit and providing second chances to those with nonviolent and low-level offenses.
Image: NYU Law School


Deanna Van Buren: Van Buren is an advocate for criminal justice reform in the Bay Area of California. Her work as the Design Director and Executive Director of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, focuses on building and creating architectural designs that aim to fulfill the end of mass incarceration.
Image: Designing Justice + Designing Spaces


Bruce Wright: Wright was a judge, lawyer, and poet. A series of racial discrimination incidents did not deter Wright from advocating for others. Wright faced racial discrimination when he was awarded a scholarship to attend Princeton, and was denied when the university became aware that he was Black. Wright then faced racial discrimination when he was also denied admission to Notre Dame. Wright was a staunch advocate for race to no longer play a role in the judicial system through his work as a criminal and civil lawyer.
Image: Princeton & Slavery Project


Black Legends in Climate Equity

Dr. Robert Bullard: Dr. Bullard is known as the father of environmental justice. His work in the community continues today as a professor of sociology and the director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. Dr. Bullard’s work has spanned for decades. In 1987, he completed a study that concluded toxic waste management facilities are more likely to be located in communities of color than White communities which garnered national attention.
Image: Berkeley Law


John Francis: Francis lived in San Francisco during the 1970s, when an oil spill changed the trajectory of his life. The oil spill prompted immediate action, and Francis joined volunteers to assist with the cleanup of the spill, cleaning the beach of petroleum, and scrubbing the birds and sea animals. Today, Francis walks everywhere, committed to no longer using cars, and has been recognized as the planetwalker. Francis is now a visiting professor at the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Image: Photographed by ​​Becky Hale


Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Dr. Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, and the co-founder of Urban Ocean Lab, a nonprofit think-tank organization that explores climate adaptation policy within coastal cities. As climate change brings warmer weather, coastal cities are the most vulnerable. Dr. Johnson’s work aims to create solutions that protect these communities.
Image: Marcus Branch


Rue Mapp: Mapp is the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, an organization that introduces the importance of exploration of the outdoors to Black communities. Outdoor Afro has trained over 100 volunteers in 60 cities across the country. Mapp is the co-creator of a hiking collection with REI Co-op, and her organization has collaborated with Cliff Bar.
Image: Rue Mapp


Dr. Mildred McClain: Dr. McClain, who is also known as Mama Bahati is an environmental pioneer who has contributed over 50 years of advocacy and activism for environmental justice in underserved and underrepresented communities. Dr. McClain has fought tirelessly for environmental justice in underserved and underrepresented communities, with over 3000 youth trained with skills to serve as leaders within their communities.
Image: The Harambee House, Inc./Citizens for Environmental Justice


Beverly Wright: Wright is the Executive Director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, the first center focused on environmental justice in the country. Wright grew up in Cancer Alley, which is about an 80-mile stretch from Baton Rouge to New Orleans in Louisiana comprising over 150 oil refineries and plants.
Image: Aspen Challenge


Are you interested in pioneering change in criminal justice reform or climate equity advocacy? Find ways to get involved through our fellowship programs and scholarship opportunities here

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The future starts with us.
Black woman standing in front of protestors.