Na'Taki Osborne Biography
Raised Army of Volunteers, Trained Children to Monitor Water Quality, Attended Leadership Seminars
Environmental scientist, activist
Atlanta-based activist Na'Taki Osborne is a one-woman phenomenon, a dynamo who devotes both career and spare time to improving the environment in the neighborhoods where she lives and works. Osborne has been active in organizing children's environmental groups, created green space out of industrial wastelands, studied environmental science and applied her knowledge to National Wildlife Federation projects, and worked tirelessly with community groups to demand environmental justice, among many other activities. Osborne has been honored for her work with several awards, including a Presidential Service Award. "It did make me feel proud," Osborne told Kenneth Rollins of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "But I don't do this to win awards or accolades. I see this as my purpose, my niche."
Osborne found that purpose in childhood. Born in Mississippi in 1974, she grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, near an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River known as Cancer Alley—the large concentration of pollution-generating industrial plants in the area is thought to have contributed to elevated rates of cancer and birth defects among residents. "You could smell the industries," Osborne recalled to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Maria Saporta. "And the water smelled bad and tasted bad."
After Osborne's own mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991, she told Saporta, "that's when the light bulb went off in my head…that was the impetus for me to become involved." Osborne came to Atlanta to attend Spelman College. She majored in chemistry and engineering, and became a member of Mu Pi sorority. Osborne's college experience went beyond the social whirl; she committed herself to helping the environment. But Osborne was frustrated by the apathy of her classmates. "In college most of my fellow engineering majors felt that as long as the pollutants weren't affecting their community, they wouldn't worry about it," she later recalled to Redbook. "We've got to change that attitude." She began her mission of change in 1994 by seeking out an internship with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, volunteering to work with a community organization in Atlanta's Carver Hills neighborhood.
Raised Army of Volunteers
A Chattahoochee River tributary called Proctor Creek ran through the Carver Hills neighborhood, and residents were depressed by its unsanitary condition. "I was hooked, instantly," Osborne told Saporta. "There was an instant connection with the people in Carver Hills. And it became clear to me that I wanted to work to empower neighborhoods and help them identify environmental issues in their communities." Osborne mobilized an army of 300 volunteers for neighborhood cleanup efforts and organized creek cleanups. It was slow going at first; one time, someone dumped 500 tires into the creek while community members were working. But she also tried to instill the values of environmental stewardship into the next generation by organizing kids' environmental clubs and an environmental education program at Dean Rusk Elementary School in Atlanta's West End. A group of first-graders under her tutelage learned to make water filters out of plastic bottles, cotton, and rocks, winning a first-place ribbon in their school's science fair.
After graduating from Spelman in 1995, Osborne found herself on the cutting edge of a new trend in environmental activism. The degradation of the environment was a problem that was both national and international in scope. Environmental problems theoretically threatened to affect everyone, regardless of neighborhood. In practice, however, it was poor and often minority neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the health issues brought on by questionable environmental practices; pollution-generating industries like those around which Osborne grew up were often located among people with the fewest resources on which they could call to demand legal accountability.
By the late 1990s Osborne had fully committed herself as an activist and found her skills in great demand. At first she built on the efforts she had begun while she was an undergraduate at Spelman. She and some friends created a Center for Environmental Public Awareness in 1996 that within two years had trained over 400 college students to coordinate community-based environmental initiatives such as recycling programs. She also enrolled in civil and environmental engineering courses at Georgia Institute of Technology. In 1997, Carver Hills Neighborhood Association president Arnold Weathersby nominated Osborne for a Presidential Service Award, and Osborne became one of 15 honorees chosen from a field of over 30,000 nominees. President Bill Clinton personally handed Osborne her award. "She understands grass-roots efforts," Weathersby told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Rollins. "She didn't attempt to (come in) and run (our activities). She even gets offended when this happens."
Trained Children to Monitor Water
One success in West Atlanta came when the city agreed to close a 200-acre garbage landfill that towered over the surrounding neighborhood at a height equivalent to a 23-story building. Osborne's volunteers transformed the landfill into a nature park and garden. Another example of Osborne's work with West Atlanta youth was the Adopt-a-Stream program, which trained schoolchildren to monitor water quality in Proctor Creek. That effort helped spread Osborne's name around Atlanta and beyond; the sight of kids wielding test kits stimulated greater awareness of water quality in the Chattahoochee watershed. It also got the attention of administrators at the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who came to Atlanta to watch Osborne's organization in action.
Even after Osborne got a job with the Atlanta office of the National Wildlife Federation and became the southeastern area organizer of its Campus Ecology program, her efforts remained centered on making a difference in Atlanta. The Proctor Creek enterprise grew into a wider West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA), which took a lead role in opposing the Utoy Creek sewage tunnel that would have burdened the sewage systems of Atlanta's predominantly African-American Southside. Osborne, according to Saporta, called herself WAWA's "lead volunteer," but others in the organization called her the director.
And all were in awe of her organizational abilities. "She can get 50 to 60 people out to a meeting in no time," community leader Bruce Morton told Saporta. "Na'Taki steps up to the plate to address so many concerns in the community." Osborne stressed the importance of local organizations to wider environmental goals as well, telling Saporta that "If we are going to save the planet, it's got to include people from all different backgrounds. It has to cross geographical and cultural lines.… Everybody cares about the quality of life." For her efforts Ebony magazine recognized her as one of "30 Leaders of the Future" in 2001.
As she furthered her education—she obtained a master's degree in environmental and occupational health in 2002 from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and made plans to go on for a PhD—Osborne broadened her focus beyond the environment. During the administration of President Bill Clinton, she worked as Atlanta coordinator for the national "America Goes Back to School" initiative. From 2000 to 2004 she served as president of the Greater Atlanta Millennium Section of the National Council of Negro Women, a venerable group that aimed to involve young women in community initiatives. Under Osborne's watch, these initiatives included HIV/AIDS prevention education, literacy training, advocacy for education, programs to combat child prostitution and the sexual exploitation of children, and several leadership-training programs for girls and young women. At Atlanta's Morehouse School of Medicine, Osborne served as a Community Health Team Teacher and Guest Environmental Health Professional.
Attended Leadership Seminars
Within the NWF, too, Osborne's responsibilities broadened. She organized the group's Leadership Development Workshops, which trained ordinary individuals interested in the environment to deal with the ins and outs of state government and regulatory agencies. By 2001 the 27-year-old Osborne had been given the title of National Leadership Development and Strategic Planning Coordinator. That year, she began a three-year senior fellowship with the Environmental Leadership Program in New Haven, Connecticut, an organization that sought to train the next generation of environmental leaders. Over the course of four leadership retreats held in different locations, Osborne networked with young environmental professionals from around the country, met experienced leaders, and prepared for future challenges.
Osborne became a familiar figure among Atlanta's community organizations, serving on the boards of such nonprofit groups as the Metropolitan Atlanta Transportation Equity Coalition and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. She was secretary of the board of directors of Helping Our Teen Girls in Real Life Situations, Inc. Osborne obtained Red Cross certification as an HIV/AIDS instructor, and she gave motivational talks to Atlanta public school students.
By 2005, Osborne was a key liaison between community groups and Georgia lawmakers in formulating state environmental policy. She was in demand nationally as a speaker, and her work had been recognized with a number of new awards, including a Redbook magazine Movers & Shakers award in 2002, inclusion in 2004 as one of ten honorees at an Atlanta gala sponsored by the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, and a special commendation from the Georgia General Assembly in 2005. She seemed well on her way to a position of national prominence in the environmental movement. Yet in the fall of 2004, Osborne's early work at the grass roots level remained relevant to her, and she continued organizing dozens of volunteers to remove tires and other debris from a tributary of Proctor Creek. Said Osborne to the Journal-Constitution's Andrea Jones: "We are trying to get the community to join in."
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 12, 1997, p. D8; June 27, 2002, p. D2; August 18, 2004, p. E10; October 10, 2004, p. E11.
Ebony, January 2001.
National Wildlife, August-September 2001.
Redbook, October 2002, p. 118.
"Creating Lasting Value: A Survey of EPA Minority Academic Institutions, Fellows from 1990-2001." http://es.epa.gov/ncer/fellow/gro/epa_mai_survey_report_final.pdf (August 29, 2005).
"Engineering a Healthy Environment," Connect-ForKids, www.connectforkids.org (June 19, 2005).
"Environment: And Clean Water for All," National Wildlife Federation, www.nwf.org/nationalwildlife/article.cfm?issueid=68&articleid=939 (August 29, 2005).
"Meet ELP Fellows," Environmental Leadership Program, www.elpnet.org/meet_class2001.html (June 19, 2005).
"NWF Members at Work," National Wildlife Federation, www.nwf.org/internationalwildlilfe/mawja97.html (June 19, 2005).
"A Resolution Honoring and Commending Ms. Na'Taki Osborne," Georgia General Assembly, www.legis.state.ga.us/legis/2005_06/fulltext/hr540.htm (June 19, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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