And Environmental Justice For All: The Struggle to Make Environmentalism Universal

Apr 16, 2024 | PDA News

“Those who are most affected by climate change must have a say in plans to respond to the problem.”—Dr. Robert Bullard


The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970. It soon became apparent that white communities were primary beneficiaries of new environmental protection laws, while communities of color remained repositories of lax enforcement, toxic dumping, and accompanying higher rates of asthma, cancer, and other environmentally sourced diseases.

To be sure, activists such as Cesar Chavez and Black students in Houston had led protests in the 1960s against laws (or the lack thereof) that harmed their communities, but the environmental justice movement gained national attention when tons of PCB-laced soil were deposited in a Warren County, NC, landfill. Warren County was overwhelmingly Black, poor, and rural. Civil rights activists led protests and court battles ensued, but the toxic soil was dumped anyway.

Dr. Robert Bullard, widely regarded as the father of environmental justice, has spent over four decades integrating human and civil rights with environmental activism. He is a distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy and founding director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University, and has authored 18 books.

He succinctly encapsulates the problem and solution for environmental justice:

Our environmental justice framework speaks to the issue that those who are most impacted must be in the room when decisions are being made and plans are being drawn up — and not only [be] in the room. They must have a significant say as to what kinds of projects, initiatives, and resources are advanced, and how they get applied.

That’s the justice and equity frame that we have been pushing for the last four decades. And it’s only recently that we’ve made tremendous breakthroughs when it comes to getting that equity lens applied at the federal level. We desperately need federal oversight and the federal government pushing out this framework because we have 50 states, but not all 50 are created equal.

As we face a global climate crisis, resources must be made available to vulnerable communities, and members of those communities must have a serious voice in the implementation of climate policy—at the local, state, federal, and international levels.

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In solidarity,

Debra Schrishuhn for the PDA National Team