Father of Environmental Justice Gives LCC Talk

Lane Community College’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. event was held online this year via Zoom, with keynote speaker Dr. Robert Bullard, who is known as the “father of environmental justice.” The event, hosted by Dr. Lamont A. Francies, coincided with King’s birthday on Jan. 15.

Francies is an educator and the senior pastor at Delta Bay Church of Christ in Antioch, California. The Zoom event was held to discuss environmental racism, and how it affects minority communities disproportionately. Bullard has been working and researching environmental justice since 1979, and is the nation’s leading researcher on the subject. 

The event opened with Lift Every Voice and Sing, considered the “Black national anthem.” 

Francies started by introducing LCC President Dr. Margaret Hamilton. “I really want to welcome all of you to tonight’s tribute to Dr. King,” she said. “I can’t think of a more fitting time to pay tribute to a man who stood for peace, unity and service during this time where there’s so much social injustice, hate and sadness in our world.”

Hamilton continued, “But tonight is a positive night. It’s a night we’re going to honor Dr. King and all of those who have followed in his footsteps to make a change.”

State Sen. James Manning Jr., opened by quoting MLK from his 1963 book Strength to Love: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in a moment of comfort and convenience.”

Manning pointed out that many Americans thought that with the election of President Barack Obama, things had changed. However, as he points out, “Things did change. They brought out more hatred. It started to reveal itself.”

He continued to point out how, with the protests after the murder of George Floyd, the world saw first hand how racist America truly is. “We saw progress in Black Lives Matter marches,” Manning said, “but we also saw the unequal and unfair treatment in the response of police officers, how they game with riot shields.”

Mark Harris, an instructor at LCC, introduced Bullard. “Achieving climate justice means we address the racism that allows the poisoning of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil that grows our food, and the immediate environments that we live in,” Harris said. 

Harris continued, “Dr. Robert Bullard has been at the forefront of this struggle as an activist and an educator. In 2020 alone, his accolades include the United Nations Environmental Program lifetime Achievement Award and a Web MD Health Heroes Award.”

Bullard said, “So when we talk about justice, I think it’s important for us to understand that the issue of the environment is everything. And my job is to connect the dots. The environment is where we live, work, play, worship and learn. As well as the physical and natural world.”

Bullard has written 18 books with the central theme of justice, fairness and equality. “The environment is more than hinterlands, wildlands, wetlands. Polar bears out there. It also includes what’s in neighborhoods,” Bullard said. 

“Environmental justice embraces the principle that people in all communities are entitled to equal protection by environmental health, housing, employment, transportation and civil rights laws. Environmental justice is about human rights,” he said. 

In Bullard’s 1979 book Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice & Communities of Color, he points out that “if a community happens to be poor, working-class or inhabited by people of color, it generally receives less attention.”

“You don’t need to have a Ph.D. or a law degree or any kind of a degree to understand that, and to know that there is a relationship between the exploitation of land and exploitation of people,” Bullard said. 

The only way we can address the systematic inequalities that exist is by acknowledgment and research, he continued. “We have to gather research and gather the facts and present those facts and findings to those policymakers, or whatever the decision-making body is to make a change.” 

Bullard’s career in environmental justice began when his wife, Linda McKeever Bullard, sued Texas (Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp 1979) for putting a landfill in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Houston. At the time, Bullard was teaching at a historically black college (HBCU) in Texas. Being a statistician, Bullard was tasked with finding where in Houston all the landfills were located and finding out what types of communities lived near these landfills. He recruited 10 of his students to assist in the research. This was the first civil rights case regarding environmental justice. 

“We did the study on Houston waste sites in the Black community in 1979,” Bullard said. “And what we discovered was five out of five of the city’s landfills were located in predominantly Black Houston communities. And when I say predominantly Black, that’s like me saying my family is predominantly black. They were in all-Black communities.” 

Bullard and his team of students also realized six out of eight incinerators were in Black neighborhoods. “In 1978, 82 percent of all garbage in Houston was dumped on black communities, even though Blacks only made up 25 percent of the population,” Bullard said. 

They lost the case. Bullard recalls the judge referring to them as “Nigras” in court, which is the equivalent of calling a person “Nigger in today’s vernacular. Despite this loss, it motivated him to push forward. “I wanted to find out why it is that when you have the facts, facts are not enough when you’re challenging racism,” Bullard said.

Since then, Bullard has been striving to change Black communities and predominantly white communities. Bullard said he is optimistic we can make a difference and create some justice for communities that have been disproportionately affected by environmental change. 

Following Bullard’s talk was a video by Stella-Marie Akindayomi, multicultural counselor and Black/African American student retention specialist at the University of Oregon, on her experience at an HBCU, Morehouse College. 

Eric Richardson, executive director of Eugene/Springfield NAACP, thanked Dr. Lawrance Rasheed for hosting the event and inviting Dr. Bullard. 

Linda Hamilton, board vice-chair of Lane ESD, congratulated Greg Evans, Eugene city councilor  in Ward 6, for winning the 2021 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Services Award. 

The event concluded with a sermon from Rev. Keith Archuleta and a Q&A with the community.