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Our Focus Areas

Local Polluter name ‘n’ shame

The Toxic Donut

On the southeast side of Chicago, surrounded on all sides by landfills, industrial facilities and polluted waterways, are communities like Altgeld Gardens. The late Hazel Johnson, the Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement, labelled this area the "toxic donut," a name which gained widespread notoriety and shed light on the connection between industrial pollution and negative health outcomes in frontline communities like Altgeld Gardens.

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Bad smell, smoggy air, brown water? Report the issue and we'll get in touch to connect you with resources.

Toxic tours

​People for Community Recovery offers toxic tours of the Lake Calumet Industrial Area, exploring the surrounding landfills, industrial facilities, waterways, and their proximity of residential communities to this area. We charge a nominal fee to conduct these tours.

Our Milestones

PCR’s Beginning

Altgeld Gardens resident Hazel Johnson started People for Community Recovery in 1979 to address tenants rights and environmental issues in her community. She soon learned that Atlgeld and neighboring Calumet City had the highest cancer rates in the area. Having lost her husband and several neighbors to cancer, this discovery put Hazel on a journey that would lead her to conduct her own community health study and learn about the many toxic industrial and waste sites surrounding her neighborhood. She would develop an understanding not just of the connection between environmental pollution and human health, but also of the ways in which environmental issues connect deeply with race, class and gender.

Direct Action Prevents More Hazardous Waste and Landfills in Chicago
Landfill protest

PCR helped form Citizens United to Reclaim the Environment (CURE), a coalition of five grassroots groups from Chicago’s southeast side. Despite years of talks between city and state officials to stop more landfills from coming to the neighborhood and broad media coverage of the issue, a permit was issued for additional toxic waste storage in the neighborhood. On July 28, 1987, residents took direct action. Demonstrators gathered at the entrance to the new landfill and blocked entry, turning away 57 trucks containing hazardous waste for more than five hours. Seventeen protesters, including Hazel Johnosn, were arrested. The action stopped the landfill from opening and led to a moratorium on additional sites in the city.

Clean Water for Maryland Manor

PCR claimed its first major environmental justice victory in 1985, when it successfully lobbied the city to install water and sewer lines in Maryland Manor, a small development of elderly and low-income Black residents adjacent to Altgeld Gardens. Developed in the 1960s, the community was never connected to the city’s water and sewage system, despite the fact that residents paid taxes for these services. The campaign began after PCR helped secure testing of the well water. That testing showed it was contaminated with cyanide, benzine, touline, lead, sulfur, fecal coliform, and other compounds.

1994, 1996
The First Federal Action on Environmental Justice and Recognition of PCR
Clinton office

The environmental justice movement secured a landmark victory on February 11, 1994, when President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.” Informed by the advocacy of EJ leaders including Hazel Johnson, the legislation established an interagency working group to integrate environmental justice principles throughout 17 government agencies, incorporated environmental justice as a component of decision-making for environmental policy, and created an environmental justice small grants program to fund community work. Hazel was present for the bill signing and PCR would go on to participate in many of the initiatives stemming from the order. In 1996, President Clinton recognized PCR as one of the nation’s top 100 environmental organizations. PCR was the only Black-run grassroots organization among the groups that were recognized.

Community Based Remediation Trainings
IBEW training

In 1995, PCR launched the first community-based environmental training program to create opportunities specifically for youth living in environmental justice communities. PCR trained and certified more than 200 young people in underground storage tank removal and lead and asbestos abatement. PCR later partnered with the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and the International Chemical Workers for Health and Safety Training Center to train 624 local residents over the next decade. Trainees achieved certifications in HAZWOPER (Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response), OSHA Safety and Mold Remediation. Upon completing the program, they worked locally. Several graduates started their own businesses after major cleanup efforts in Altgeld were complete.

Resident Education (and Reparations) on Lead

PCR received a grant from the U.S. EPA and HUD to launch the Residents Education About Lead (REAL) project, the first EPA-sponsored lead education and intervention program in the country. Partnering with CHA and the City of Chicago Department of Health, PCR canvassed CHA communities and provided education on the dangers of lead exposure, conducted informal lead inspections and organized lead testing and coordinated ongoing financial assistance and medical resources for children living with lead poisoning. Altgeld residents were hired and trained as paid community educators to implement the program, successfully integrating job training and employment opportunities with environmental activism.

Forcing Accountability and Cleanup within the Chicago Housing Authority

In 1999, after a community led campaign, the Chicago Housing Authority finally took action to remove PCB-contaminated soil from the community. In addition to securing the cleanup, PCR also led efforts to ensure the contractor overseeing the project would train and hire local residents on the project.

A Bright New Day: Solar on The South Side
Solar Training students learn about solar panels Photo Credit Lauren Robinson

As environmental cleanup needs waned in our community, PCR shifted our focus to help train residents to access job opportunities in the state’s growing solar energy economy. In 2018, PCR developed a comprehensive solar training curriculum for the Chicago Housing Authority intended to prepare CHA residents to work on local solar projects. PCR partnered with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to train 25 residents in solar installation.

Putting Chicago on an Equitable Path to 100% Clean Energy
Ready for 100 Chicago

​​PCR served on the leadership team for the Ready for 100 Coalition, which created a robust and successful campaign to move Chicago toward a 100 percent clean energy future. In April 2019, the city council passed a resolution to power all of Chicago’s buildings with clean and renewable energy by 2035. The resolution specifically calls out the historic leadership of environmental justice communities across Chicago and PCR-founder Hazel Johnson’s trailblazing EJ work in Chicago and beyond. In 2020 and 2021, PCR engaged hundreds of residents in events and listening sessions to get community feedback on the best ways to reach this comprehensive goal. In 2021, PCR was invited to join the city’s decarbonization task force, and the city’s Environmental Equity Working Group to advise Mayor Lori Lightfoot on how best to transition municipal buildings to clean energy in a just and equitable way.

Energy Efficiency and Affordability

For more than a decade, PCR helped thousands of residents access financial assistance with light and gas bills as a community site in partnership with CEDA. In 2020, PCR negotiated with ComEd over their four-year energy plan to secure $50 million in additional funding for low-income energy efficiency programs, to help low-income residents access funds to make their homes more efficient, affordable and healthy.

Historic Altgeld
PCR old sign

PCR successfully stopped Chicago Public Schools from demolishing of the historic C Building at Altgeld Gardens. Staff and advocates educated city officials on the importance and historical significance of the building (Altgeld’s first school) as well as the community as a whole, given the legacy of PCR’s founder, Hazel Johnson. More than 500 community residents spoke out in support of the campaign. This work contributed to the decision by the City of Chicago Commission on Landmarks to vote in favor of adding Altgeld Gardens to the national register of historic places.

Community-Driven State Energy Legislation: Climate and Equitable Jobs Act
Gov. JB Pritzker signing the Climate Equitable Jobs Act

For more than three years, PCR and EJ organizations from across the state, and allies met with communities to create, negotiate and pass legislation that was representative of our community-based needs and fights. PCR held more than 25 events, educated more than 1,500 people and mobilized 400 residents and our local elected officials in town hall events, trips to Springfield and in-district meetings in support of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act. Cheryl Johnson was heavily involved in drafting the workforce equity provisions of the bills, based on PCR’s expertise. The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act was signed into law by Governor J.B. Pritzker in September 2021. The legislation creates the groundwork for a Just Transition for Illinois, phases out coal and natural gas in EJ communities and brings the promise of new jobs in solar and wind with emphasis for people of color.

Ways to Support Us


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Learn more

Learn more about Hazel Johnson's legacy and PCR's history through the Help this Garden Grow podcast. Available on all podcast streaming platforms.

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