The Visionary


Founder :: Blacks in Green

Naomi Davis sweeps into the room, her bustle of energy matched by her big, bright hat. "I'm sorry I'm late," she says. "I hit a pothole!"—an unfortunate setback in an afternoon full of activism. At 52, this Chicago attorney is in serious demand. She consults with the Chicago Department of the Environment on climate change and recycling. She works on the new peer-reviewed journal Environmental Justice. She hosts (and produces) Chicago's first and only green-themed talk show on public access TV. The laundry list of activities is remarkable, but so is this fact: When it comes to the environment, Davis is often one of the only African Americans in on the discussion.

Which is why Davis founded Blacks in Green, a Chicago-based group designed to rally people across the country around the cause. "The green movement is the closest thing to a silver bullet that the African American community is going to see in many lifetimes," says the Queens native. When recruiting other "BIGs"—black leaders in real estate, science, technology, business, and other fields—Davis doesn't preach the power of the Prius. Instead, she tells African Americans that they must look beyond immediate issues of poverty and housing and think of the future: "There is going to be all kinds of horticulture activity," she says. "Solar panel installation. Wind technology. All of this environmental technology is going to bring jobs. The first issue in the African American community should be jobs."

Speaking of jobs, Davis no longer practices law; she runs a green economics consultancy called Daughter's Trust, and her long-term goal is to convert 1,000 blighted acres on the Far South Side into a mixed-income eco-development. Encouraged by the success of the Prairie Crossing neighborhood in Grayslake, she envisions a village that encompasses the Ton Family Farm on the Little Calumet River, a stop on the Underground Railroad that Davis and others have been working to preserve. "I'm the granddaughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, and I was raised with love and respect for the land," she says. The development project is a big idea, she acknowledges, but then she laughs: "Big" is one of her favorite words.

Photograph: Anna Knott