Black History Month Energy Champions: Rev. Leo Woodberry Fights for Climate Justice and Energy Equity

Chris Carnevale | February 19, 2015 | Climate Change, Energy Justice, Energy Policy, Events

In honor of Black History Month, SACE is publishing a blog series highlighting the efforts of African American leaders working to ensure that clean energy opportunities are available for all people and communities in the Southeast. This post is the third in the series; find additional posts here.

Reverend Leo Woodberry has a long history as an activist and community organizer and attended his first demonstration at the age of 14.  Born in New York City but with family in the South, Rev. Woodberry moved to South Carolina in the 1980s where he remains today as the Executive Director at Woodberry & Associates and serves as the pastor of Kingdom Living Temple in Florence, South Carolina.

Throughout his work, Rev. Woodberry has exhibited remarkable leadership in combating racism and promoting justice. Notably, there was a rash of African American church burnings in the mid-1990s throughout the South. Rev. Woodberry’s work with the South Carolina Burned Church Restoration Coalition helped to bring the arsonists to justice, effectively shutting down the public operations of the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina. In addition to his leadership in combating racism and promoting social justice, Rev. Woodberry has worked to advance the understanding of environmental racism and climate justice.

In his early days as a community activist, “environmental justice” was not a common term, and some frowned upon it as being too militant. Rev. Woodberry joined the nascent African American Environmental Justice Action Network and leveraged his position as Executive Director of the Eastern Carolina Community Development Corporation to organize community members around the issue of mercury contamination in fish and waterways due to pollution from coal-burning power plants. This issue was especially important in Florence County, South Carolina where fish are subsistence food for low-income citizens.

In 2007 and 2008, Rev. Woodberry continued to fight against the impacts of coal pollution as part of a coalition that successfully prevented the Pee Dee coal plant from being built. He argued that not only would the plant bring pollution and negative health impacts to the local community, but it also would fail to serve the economic interests of the community since the plant would not deliver the economic benefits and jobs as promised.

Rev. Woodberry credits his Christian faith and role as pastor as informing his work to combat social, economic and environmental injustice:

“In the Christian faith tradition–as in Islam and Judaism–the creation story states that when mankind was created, we were endowed by our creator as stewards of the earth. God told mankind not only to be fruitful and multiply, but also replenish the earth—meaning to put something back into it. We are stewards of whatever is on the earth and just as God said that everything in creation was good, it is our responsibility to see that it remains good.”

Rev. Woodberry believes that the use of renewable, clean energy is one of the ways we can promote stewardship of the earth.  Rev. Woodberry feels a duty as a pastor to share the good news with the world that we have the opportunities at hand to steward and replenish the earth with clean energy resources and climate action.

Signs like this health advisory on the Edisto River, South Carolina, warning against eating the fish from the mercury-contaminated water, are all too common in the Southeast, where coal-fired power plants pollute waterways with mercury. Some low-income subsistence fishing families bear the brunt of the impacts.

Rev. Woodberry strives to elevate this ethic of creation care and environmental justice in the larger communities of faith and people of color. Thus far, Rev. Woodberry has been disappointed by the lack of sincere engagement on the part of environmental policymakers, which all too often results in communities having decisions made for them rather than by them.

With the impacts of fossil fuel pollution falling disproportionately upon people of color and low-income communities, Rev. Woodberry believes it is critical that environmental policymaking become more accessible to impacted communities.  These communities can help bring about real change in energy and environmental policy by communicating with their legislators about the importance of environmental protection; bringing messages founded on issues of faith, economic impacts, and public health concerns.

Along these lines, Rev. Woodberry has recently been focusing on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) newly proposed limits on carbon pollution from fossil fuel power plants, known as the Clean Power Plan. Rev. Woodberry has been working in coalition with utility, state agency, and conservation groups in South Carolina to help the state develop a cohesive policy on the Plan and remains optimistic it will serve as an effective tool for addressing climate change. Rev. Woodberry acknowledges that, although not perfect, the Clean Power Plan was decades in the making after an immense amount of work from advocates working to place climate change on the national and international policy stage.

Rev. Woodberry hopes that the Clean Power Plan, and climate action more broadly, will benefit all segments of society rather than just the wealthy and powerful who have the investment capital and backing of current economic policy. For him, the Clean Power Plan represents a great opportunity for low income communities and communities of color to benefit from climate action.  Rev. Woodberry knows all too well that there are many families struggling to pay the rent who would benefit greatly from new clean energy job opportunities, such as installing solar panels and energy efficiency upgrades. He is hopeful that children and elderly who currently suffer from cardiovascular and respiratory health problems will find their health improved as more polluting fossil fuel plants are retired and that fewer mercury advisories are issued for water bodies and in turn make fish less toxic to eat.

Reverend Woodberry is optimistic about the future. He has seen great progress in the rural South since the 1960s when he would visit as a child. Half a century ago, there were few job opportunities, often only one paved road per town, most people used outhouses, and few homes had electricity so kerosene lamps and stoves were commonplace. Today we all have access to electricity and indoor plumbing, rural roads are paved, and there are more opportunities for employment. Looking ahead, there will be even more opportunities as we transition to a clean energy future where farmers grow biomass crops; where workers are needed to install solar, wind, geothermal, and energy efficiency upgrades; and where advances in transit and renewable fuels will further change the ways we travel. Leaders like Rev. Woodberry will keep working to ensure everyone can benefit from such an equitable, clean energy economy.

Chris Carnevale
Chris is SACE’s Climate Advocacy Director. Chris joined the SACE staff in 2011 to help with building public understanding and engagement around clean energy solutions to the climate crisis. Chris…
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