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Black History Month

February is Black History Month, and DEC joins the rest of the nation in paying tribute to African American men and women whose significant contributions are woven into the fabric of America's culture. Below DEC is bringing attention to some of the most prolific environmental game changers of yesterday and today.

Paying Tribute to a Legacy

members of the Civilian Conservation Corps
Members of the Civilian Conservation Corps
Unit 1251 C II in the 1930s.

In 1933, to combat the turmoil from the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and enlisted thousands of men and women to undertake public works projects and battle significant environmental issues. To address the impact of poor farming practices, deforestation, and destructive pests that destroyed thousands of acres of usable land across the nation, the CCC worked to reforest an estimated one million acres of land to help solve these crises.

Although discrimination based on "race, color, or creed," was contrary to Roosevelt's directive, the first CCC companies were segregated. In fact, segregation became an official policy in 1935, when CCC Director Robert Fechner insisted on complete segregation of white and Black enrollees.

CCC enrollees from big cities and small towns throughout New York found themselves at Camp Dix, New Jersey, alongside thousands of other men desperate for work. Originally, upon arrival, men were assigned to a 200-man company, although many companies numbered less than 100. Each company was assigned a number, and companies comprised of men of color were assigned a lowercase "c" to signify "Colored." Officers in charge of the CCC companies were uniformly white, but Congress, the National Urban League, and the NAACP began calling for African American officers and professionals to head up the Black companies. And in June 1939, these officers were quietly brought in to run the unit.

These segregated companies were deployed to fight fast-moving forest fires in Washington State and assist with other projects across the country. By the time the program ended nine years later, more than three million men from every state had played a vital role in making significant improvements to the nation's road system, planting three billion trees and building thousands of facilities on state lands. The CCC also had a major, positive impact on New York's State Parks, lands, and historic sites, and on the Wallkill Flood Control Project in Orange County, where workers from the all-Black 246-c unit created a 10-mile-long canal to alter the direction of the river and stem seasonal flooding. The work done by Black and white men alike in the CCC decades ago continues to enrich the lives of New Yorkers every day. Theirs is a legacy of strength we can all draw from.

Members of the Civilian Conservation Corps
Company 246 c with a flag in the 1930s.

DEC's long association with the CCC continues today, with several AmeriCorps programs managed by the Student Conservation Association (SCA). Through these partnerships, young men and women complete a wide range of conservation service projects, such as watershed protection, trail enhancement, wildlife habitat protection, and public education and outreach, and upon successful completion of the program, the students are eligible for an AmeriCorps educational award that can be used for higher education tuition or to repay student loans.

True to its original intent, the CCC continues to benefit our environment, our citizens, people and communities of color, and our future.

Source: Lavada Nahon, Bureau of Historic Sites

Black History Month Proclamation

Read the proclamation (PDF) from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

DEC Environmental Staff Notables

Bernard J. Rivers

Bernard J. Rivers

Bernard J. Rivers is the director of the Division of Law Enforcement (DLE) at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). managing and overseeing more than 320 ECOs and staff members. He was appointed by Commissioner Basil Seggos in 2018, after serving as acting director for eight months. Rivers has more than 38 years of law enforcement experience, having spent more than 28 years as an Environmental Conservation Officer (ECO). Rivers began his law enforcement career as a New York State corrections officer. He also served as a part-time police officer in the Mount Hope, Wallkill, Chester, and Montgomery police departments. Rivers graduated from DLE's 9th Basic School in 1992 and served in several positions as an ECO in Long Island, New York City, and the Hudson Valley, including as a uniformed officer, Investigator, and as both a regional lieutenant and supervising captain. Rivers is a graduate of SUNY Empire State College and the FBI National Academy. He is also a 1981 graduate of Minisink Valley High School and a father of two adult sons. Rivers is also a proud grandfather. He resides in the Hudson Valley.

The oldest law enforcement organization in New York State, ECOs were first appointed as Fish & Game Protectors in 1880. In addition to enforcing all laws of the state, Rivers' staff focuses on fish and wildlife poaching; illegal sales of endangered species; water pollution; policing the commercial fishing and timber industries; emissions enforcement; illegal mining; and issues that affect our air, land or water quality.

Denine Jackson

Denine Jackson, EIT, DEC employee

Denine Jackson, E.I.T., is an assistant engineer in DEC's Division of Water, Region 9 office. Working at DEC since 2016, she ensures wastewater compliance through wastewater management and water pollution controls through State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (SPDES) permits.

Through her work at DEC, Denine previously investigated the black water discharge disaster in Niagara Falls. Working on bringing the facility into compliance was a career-shaping project. She is most passionate about environmental justice and water quality and hopes to work toward improved conditions in the state's most vulnerable communities.

Denine is looking forward to continuing her career at DEC. She finds it rewarding to protect the state's waterways from bad actors, as well as work with the community on being engaged and understanding the impact of decisions on the environment.

Denine is a graduate of Cornell University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., the first black sorority founded in 1908 on the campus of Howard University; the same sorority as Vice President Kamala Harris.

When not working for DEC, Denine enjoys traveling. Places with warm beaches are her favorite locations. She also enjoys a good nerf gun fight with her son Anderson, or a relaxing night at home with her husband Edwin and dog Oliver.

Nasibah Elmi

Nasibah Elmi is an environmental program specialist in DEC's Division of Materials Management, Central Office. She conducts outreach and education on wasted food reduction and food scraps recycling, solid waste management planning, and state agency sustainability. Although she loves her job, which started off as part-time in 2019 before becoming full-time in January 2020, she never imagined working in this part of the environmental field.

Nasibah received a master's degree in Urban and Regional Planning with a concentration in Environmental and Land-use Planning. She intended to pursue a career in a different part of this field after graduating. However, after an initial 2018 internship in the Division of Materials Management where she had a positive experience, she decided to stay with DEC.

Her motivation to pursue graduate studies in planning came from her Globalization Studies undergraduate research on informal urban settlements and waste pickers that played a role in the informal economies of countries in the Global South. She was immediately intrigued by the complex world of garbage and found the extensive social, economic, and environmental impacts waste has on the world very disheartening.

Nasibah is grateful things have come full circle, and she looks forward to the exciting projects she gets to work on with her wonderful colleagues every day.

Other Notable New York Environmentalists

Peggy Shepard

Peggy Shepard

Peggy Shepard is co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and has a long history of organizing and engaging Northern Manhattan residents in community-based planning and campaigns to address environmental protection and environmental health policy locally and nationally. She has successfully combined grassroots organizing, environmental advocacy, and environmental health community-based participatory research to become a national leader in advancing environmental policy and the perspective of environmental justice in urban communities - to ensure that the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment extends to all. Her work has received broad recognition: the Jane Jacobs Medal from the Rockefeller Foundation for Lifetime Achievement, the 10th Annual Heinz Award For the Environment, the Dean's Distinguished Service Award from the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, and Honorary Doctorates from Smith College and Lawrence University.

Aaron Mair

Aaron Mair

Aaron Mair was the first African American president of the Sierra Club, a national environmental organization founded by preservationist John Muir in 1892. He was elected president of the organization on May 16, 2015, and served through May 20, 2017. Prior to becoming president, Mair spent more than three decades advocating for environmental and public health protections. He held many leadership positions in the Sierra Club since becoming a member in 1999; founded the Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Corporation, which was a member of the White House Council on Environmental Quality from 1998 to 2000; and founded, served as board member, and lectured at the W. Haywood Burns Environmental Education Center New York's Capital Region. In 2000, Mair received an EPA Environmental Quality Award for his advocacy on polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) cleanup in the Hudson River. He is also credited for being the catalyst for the environmental justice movement in Albany in the 1980s when he first mobilized residents in Arbor Hill, a predominately black community, to successfully shut down a garbage incinerator after a decade-long battle.

Currently, Mair works for the New York State Department of Health as an epidemiological-spatial analyst. He is a graduate of Binghamton University, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in History and Sociology and a certificate in Southwest Asia and North Africa Studies. Mair also trained at Rhode Island's Naval Education and Training Center and attended the American University in Cairo.

Omar Freilla

Omar Freilla

Omar Freilla is the founder of Green Worker Cooperatives and creator of the academy model of cooperative development. He has a knack for blazing trails and a passion for community self-determination, personal transformation, and creating solutions to social injustice. Freilla has over 13 years of experience in cooperative and green business development, with an equal number of years as an organizer challenging environmental racism, classism, and sexism. He was a founding board member of both Sustainable South Bronx and the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, and a founding advisory board member of the Democracy at Work Institute and the Story of Stuff Project. He co-curated the NYC portion of the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a project of the Guggenheim Museum. His writings have appeared in numerous books, blogs, and articles, and he has been featured in several documentaries, including Leonardo DiCaprio's environmental documentary, "The 11th Hour."

Freilla has received numerous awards for his work, including the Rockefeller Foundation's Jane Jacobs Medal for New Ideas and Activism, and has been included in various "Power 100" lists published by magazines such as Ebony, Essence, and The Root. Freilla holds a master's degree in Environmental Science from Miami University of Ohio and a bachelor's degree from Morehouse College, where he also founded the organization Black Men for the Eradication of Sexism.

Yusuf Burgess

Yusuf Burgess

Yusuf Burgess was an environmental champion whose mission was to expose as many urban children as possible to the outdoors. As a trailblazer in the work to make the Adirondacks more open to young people of color, Brother Yusuf - as he was called- lent his expertise and advice to the work of creating a symposium, "Towards a More Diverse Adirondacks." Burgess discovered his love of nature as a child growing up in Brooklyn and playing in Prospect Park. He understood that the evolution to a more inclusive Adirondacks begins with children. He wanted to give urban children the same opportunities he had, so he took them hiking, fishing, kayaking, etc.

Burgess was the coordinator of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation's Capital District Campership Diversity Program at the time of his death in December 2014. He previously worked at Green Tech High Charter School and the Albany Boys and Girls Club, and founded a nonprofit group that helped former prison inmates re-enter society. He also started Youth Ed-Venture and Nature Network to help take inner-city children on trips into the wild. Before his death, Burgess was married to his wife Cherrie for 45 years.

Lisa P. Jackson

Lisa P. Jackson

Lisa P. Jackson is currently the vice president of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives at Apple. She was the first African American administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), serving from January 2009 to February 2013. President-elect Barack Obama nominated Jackson to serve as Administrator on December 15, 2008. She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on January 23, 2009 and took office that same day. During her tenure, Jackson oversaw the development of stricter fuel efficiency standards and the EPA's response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; authorized the recognition of carbon dioxide as a public health threat, granting the EPA authority to set new regulations regarding carbon dioxide emissions; and proposed amending the National Ambient Air Quality Standards to set stricter smog pollution limits.

Jackson started at EPA as a staff-level engineer in 1987. She spent the majority of her 16-year career there in EPA's regional office in New York City. In 2002, she joined the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection as assistant commissioner of Compliance and Enforcement and assistant commissioner for Land Use Management. New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine appointed Jackson as the state's Commissioner of Environmental Protection in 2006. Jackson also briefly served as Corzine's chief of staff in late 2008. She was born in Philadelphia and is a graduate of Tulane and Princeton universities.