‘Father of Environmental Justice’ Robert Bullard on the Work Behind a Movement

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“This isn’t happenstance,” remarked Gloria Walton, former TIME Earth Award honoree, on the environmental justice movement being recognized as a powerful force.

“It is a reality created by the energy and love of frontline communities and grassroots organizations who have worked for decades,” Walton said, as she presented an Earth Award to the man known as the “Father of Environmental Justice,” Robert Bullard.

Bullard, who was appointed to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council in 2021, spoke of the long fight he’s waged for environmental justice in his acceptance speech. He discussed the challenges that he faced in 1979, when he conducted a study in support of the landmark case Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corps.— the first lawsuit to challenge environmental racism in the United States. 

“I am a sociologist and my sociology has taught me that it is not enough to gather the data, do the science and write the books,” he said. “In order for us to solve this kind of crisis, we must do our science, we must gather our data, we must collect our facts, and we must marry those facts with action.”

To Bullard, that means the act of coming up with solutions needs to center the experiences of those facing the brunt of climate change. “The people that have experienced these elevated disparities have PhDs in ‘lived-in’,” he said. “They understand the problem and the solution better than anybody.” 

Though Bullard ultimately lost the lawsuit in 1985, it proved crucial in showing the connection between pollution and racial segregation—finding that 83% of the solid waste facilities in Houston were located in predominantly Black neighborhoods, even though Black Houstonians made up only one-fourth of the city’s population from the 1930s to 1978.

Though much progress has been made since Bean was first heard, the work is far from over, Bullard emphasizes.

“I am optimistic. I do have faith,” he said. “But as my grandmother told me, faith without work is death. We are a live movement.”

TIME Earth Awards was presented by Galvanize Climate Solutions, Amazon, Deloitte, Delta Air Lines.

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Write to Simmone Shah at simmone.shah@time.com