Introducing: The Father of Environmental Justice
Born in Elba, Alabama as a black person when segregation in the American South was
explicitly visible wherever he went, few would have guessed that Dr. Robert D. Bullard would later become the Father of Environmental Justice. As the author of 18 books surrounding the complex principles of environmental justice and as the recipient of the United Nations’ highest environmental honor, Champion of the Earth Lifetime Achievement Award, Dr. Bullard is here to bridge the gap between the environmental movement and civil rights.
In 1978, just two years after moving to Houston, Bullard’s wife, Linda McKeever Bullard
(go google her!), filed a lawsuit against a company that was planning to make a landfill in a black, middle-class neighborhood, and asked him to do some research for the case. This was how he first got involved in environmental justice, and it was the first lawsuit that used civil rights law to challenge environmental discrimination. In his research, Dr. Bullard and his team discovered that 82% of the city’s solid waste was dumped in black neighborhoods, while only 25% of the population was black. In court, however, was not considered enough to prove intentional discrimination, and there was a catch: the decision was made by city council members who were all white.
This experience set Dr. Bullard on his path to taking more initiatives to combat environmental racism, and in 1991, Bullard, Dr. Benjamin Chavis (do check him out as well!) and several other activists and scholars created the The National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. This was a four-day conference that gave the opportunity for racialized groups to discuss the issues they faced due to environmental discrimination.
The most notable outcome from the summit was the 17 principles of environmental justice, and as Dr. Bullard stated, “The overarching theme of the principles is that people most impacted by environmental challenges must speak for themselves [...] we must develop the kinds of research, the kinds of empowerment tools, so that we can speak for ourselves.”
I must say, as a member of the BIPOC community researching about Dr. Bullard, I was (and still am) shocked that no one and no organization passionate about the climate crisis that I have come across has even mentioned the name of this man. And get this: I’ve only
touched the tip of the iceberg; Dr. Robert Bullard’s journey is so complex that this article simply will not do it justice. (So, yes, I am telling you to read another article on him right after this.) If we don’t start having more conversations that highlight the accomplishments of Indigenous people and people of color, we will continue to see environmentalism and racism as two different issues, and certain groups will always be left behind.
As Dr. Bullard himself said while speaking on Vox Conversations, “America is segregated and so [is] pollution.” Now that’s something to think about.