Dana Alston (1951–1999) was a groundbreaking advocate for environmental and social justice. Alston helped to convened the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. The Equitable and Just National Climate Platform builds on Alston’s legacy and the work of many people in the environmental justice movement.


From the Archives of Dr. Robert Bullard

December 18, 1951 - August 7, 1999

Dana Ann Alston, activist in social and political justice movements, made her transition on Saturday, August 7, 1999 at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, California. She was 47 years old. Dana was a native of New York and lived in Washington, D.C. for 20 years. She was in San Francisco for treatment for kidney disease and the consequences of a stroke that she suffered in November 1997.

Dana is remembered as a bountiful and generous spirit. She had a long and far-reaching career as an advocate for environmental and social justice. Dana was key to the development of the environmental justice movement and became one of its leaders and staunchest supporters. One of the highlights of her career was helping to convene the historic and highly successful First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. Her impassioned speech at the Summit resounded throughout the environmental justice movement and continues to shape and guide it today. [To view her speech in its entirety, click here]. She also led a delegation of environmental justice leaders to participate in the 1992 Earth Summit and Global Forum meetings in Rio de Janeiro.

Dana played an active role in increasing funding for people of color and grassroots organizing for social justice both in the U.S. and abroad. In this context, she served as President of the National Black United Fund (NFBU). At NBUF, she oversaw completion of a lawsuit that resulted in workers, for the first time, being able to contribute to a Black-led and organized charitable fund. Most recently, she was a Program Officer at the Public Welfare Foundation. Dana was able to crystallize some of her most important lifetime learnings and make them work for the poor and oppressed. As Program Officer for the Environment, Dana led the Public Welfare Foundation and other funders to increase resources for environmental justice projects, particularly those with the least access to funding. As both funder and activist, Dana brought a strong commitment to ensuring the affirmation and inclusiveness of different cultures. She became a worthy advocate for people at the grassroots, particularly those in remote, rural areas.

Her activism began when she was a student in the 1960s at Wheelock College in Boston, where she was the President of the Black Student Organization. In this role, she was a leader of the Black students who demanded more African American courses and faculty. She was a founding board member of the Southern Rural Women’s Network, and her civil rights work with Black women in the Deep South served to strengthen her commitment to oppressed and indigenous peoples. She served on the staffs of Rural America, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, TransAfrica Forum, and Panos Institute. Dana was active in the U.S. movement that helped to dismantle apartheid in South Africa and was part of the working group to receive former President Nelson Mandela when he made his historic tour of the U.S. following his release from prison.

Dana received the Charles Bannerman Memorial Fellowship, a sabbatical given to social justice activists and organizers in recognition of their outstanding contributions. Alston authored, co-authored, and edited several books related to her activist work. She was the author of Taking Back Our Lives: Environment, Community Development and Race in the U.S. (Panos Institute, 1990) and editor of We Speak for Ourselves (Panos Institute, 1990). Alston earned a B.S. degree from Wheelock College in Boston and a Master’s Degree from the School of Public Health, Columbia University in New York. Dana expressed to many of her friends and family that the most rewarding experience was giving birth to and mothering Khalil, her beloved 6 year-old son. She took joy in every stage of his development.

Dana is the only daughter of Mrs. Betty Alston Byrd and Dr. Garlan R. Alston, who preceded her in death. She is survived by her son, Khalil Everette Grenier Alston-Cobb of Washington, D.C., her mother, Mrs. Betty Alston Byrd of Sarasota, Florida, cousins, and close friends, whom she considered her extended family.

Alston wrote an article about the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, which convened in 1991. Click below to read the article.