Dr. Robert Bullard: The Environment 'Must Not Be Compromised'
Bullard says green jobs can help the unemployed
If you're an environmental wonk, a social justice advocate, or someone who lives way too close to a chemical plant or polluting facility for comfort, you know the name of Dr. Robert Bullard, the "father of environmental justice." For years he ran the Environmental Justice Resource Center out of Clark Atlanta University as a hub for research and policy analysis around issues that deal with the disproportionate impact of pollution and environmental policies on poor communities and communities of color. Last month, Bullard joined Texas Southern University, the school where he first taught in 1976, as their new Dean of the Barbara Jordan Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs.
In his first interview since taking the position, Bullard shares with Loop 21 some of his wisdom and expertise around the much attacked environmental attempts of the Obama Administration, funding for environmental research, green jobs, the BP oil disaster, and his future at Texas Southern.
Loop 21: As you join this new college administration, the backdrop is the first White House administration to take environmental justice seriously in a long time -- but only to have Republicans now calling to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency. How do you feel about that?
Robert Bullard: For those of us who are researching and who are in academia and our partners in the community, non-government organizations and community based organizations, we have to keep pressing to make sure that no matter what politics are involved, the bottom line is that the environment and our public health must not be compromised, thrown overboard or kicked to the curb just because it is unpopular. The issues that were priorities at the beginning of the current administration are still priorities for the communities most impacted by pollution. There is some disappointment right now, but the people who are still hurting and are on the frontline of environmental assaults are not going to turn their backs no matter what political climate is.
Loop 21: But does the political climate impact how much funding research organizations like yours are able to get?
Bullard: We just did a study on environmental health and racial equity and one of the areas we looked at was funding over the past 25 years from foundations and government entities. And what we found is that government funding of work related to environmental justice or health disparities has been spotty over those years, whether there was a Democrat or Republican in the White House. We looked at funding from foundations and we found that there was pushback for funds dedicated to environmental justice, but they funded other areas that are packaged inside of environmental justice. So when you talk about environmental health, racial equity, climate justice, transportation justice and sustainability, a lot of that is environmental justice, but not packaged as that. Looking at programs through that lens, those are areas where funding actually increased. So what it meant is that if community based organizations and academic centers want to continue to be funded they have to repackage their message.
Loop 21: Green jobs have taken a huge hit in the media and in Congress. How can that be repackaged?
Bullard: The green jobs issue is not new and I think for those of us who have been doing job training programs for the last 15 to 16 years, through the Minority Worker Training Program or the EPA Brownfield program, many of those programs have been in place for decades and have a good track record of not just training, but also putting people in jobs for restoration, infrastructure, et cetera. These are programs that are readily available to people who have a history of long-term unemployment, young people who never had a job, and who've dropped out of school. The problem is we have not had enough of those programs being put in place in the communities where we can get the biggest bang for the bucks. All of the data points to the fact that we could have a huge impact on the unemployment rate if we target a lot of those programs to where the biggest needs are.
Loop 21: There are so many jobs that can be created in the Gulf Coast, especially in the wake of the BP oil disaster. Why isn't more attention paid there?
Bullard: It's unfortunate that there have been very few lessons learned from the BP oil disaster in terms of restoration and how resources are allocated for recovery and to make individuals and communities whole again. If you look at the pattern, it's still those communities and individuals with the least amount of resources who are still left out and left behind. Those communities that were vulnerable before the BP spill are still vulnerable. And there will be more spills. The impact on those communities are not given enough attention given and there still is no comprehensive waste management system across the Gulf Coast. Oh yeah. At Texas Southern we have a collaborative working with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and our project has been not just the waste issue but also looking at the communities that are basically still trying to recover from the spill: black fishermen, Vietnamese fishermen, and communities that still have not been able to recover from Katrina.
Loop 21: Will the Environmental Justice Resource Center that you ran at Clark Atlanta University remain open?
Bullard: I don’t know. The funds that were generated when I was there we generated externally. The university generated no funds for the center. They gave us an office and space, but that’s about it and in order to run a program you have to have some financial support. So I’m not sure to what extent it will continue. I hope it continues but without resources you can't get staff, and right now there is no staff.
Loop 21: So you brought it to Texas Southern?
Bullard: I'm not taking it with me to TSU, but I'm looking at programs here to see how those can complement work on environmental justice, transportation equity, sustainable communities, healthy communities, smart growth and land use. All those programs exist at TSU and there are two research centers that exist -- the Barbara Jordan Institute and the Mickey Leland Center, a policy center -- that can do a lot of policy work as it relates to the administration of justice or health, housing, and transportation. We can transfer programming we were involved in at CAU and then create opportunities. For example, I’d like to see the Mickey Leland Center concentrate on issues of sustainability and environmental health. Those are great opportunities to do some great policy work and research, and create wonderful opportunities for students, visitors, and visiting scholars to come. These are issues that I think are cutting edge and what I’d like to see is those two centers deeply involved, taking a leadership role. But to do that we have to generate the funds and resources to get the kind of people that we want.