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Bunyan Bryant

February 1, 1997

"Until you talk about me having food, shelter, and clothes, I'm not listening to any appeals from environmentalists," a Black woman shouted out in one of the Workshops at the 1976 UAW Conference at Black Lake, Michigan.

For twenty-five years the Environmental Advocacy Program has been demonstrating in its teaching, service to community, and research the connection between food, shelter, clothes, and environmental degradation. Although the concept of Environmental Justice has come of age in the 1990s, it roots extend back to 1972, when the Environmental Advocacy Program was first instituted as a legitimate programmatic area of teaching and scientific inquiry in the School of Natural Resources and Environment. In 1976, two students, a husband and wife team, from the Environmental Advocacy Program obtained jobs at the United Automobile Workers (UAW) Conservation Department in Detroit. They played a key role in organizing Working for Economic and Environmental Justice and Jobs, a conference that brought together over 350 union members, environmentalists, farmers, university professors, and members of the Urban League and Black community. These conferees spent four days in dialogue at the UAW camp at Black Lake, Michigan. This was the first time that a large group of people came together to discuss divergent views. Although the dialogue was tense, the participants left the conference with a greater appreciation and understanding of one another's social and/or environmental position.

At the time, the students became employed at UAW. Workers were preoccupied with environmental blackmail as industrial managers threatened them with the loss of jobs if they didn't cooperate to fight environmental regulations. The managers claimed that to adhere to such regulations would cause a loss of profits and force them to close shop and move to parts of the world with fewer environmental restrictions. It was within this context that they helped to organize this historic conference of 1976. Since 1972, the Program has provided opportunities for students to develop competency and self-mastery of a variety of content and process skills to prepare them to work in a variety of social and environmental arenas.

In 1987, while attending a meeting at the Federation of Southern Cooperative in Sumter County, Alabama, Bryant had an opportunity to visit the landfill at Emelle—the country's largest toxic landfill. The facility receives hazardous waste from 48 states and 3 foreign countries. Sumter County is approximately 70 percent Black and one of the poorest counties in the nation. It was on this trip that Wendell Paris, a community activist, gave Bryant a copy of the newly issued 1987 United Church of Christ Report on Race and Toxic Waste in the United States. The report stated that among a variety of indicators race was the best predictor of the location of hazardous waste facilities in the U.S. We were deeply moved by the United States General Accounting Office document and the United Church of Christ reports, and by the scholarly writings of Robert Bullard and Beverly Wright.

For a number of years Mohai has been studying environmental attitudes and facts prompting people to take political action on environmental issues. Although studies exist which have examined the relationship of socioeconomic status with environmental concern and activism, few have examined the environmental orientation and actions of people of color. In spite of the general lack of evidence, the conventional wisdom has been that people of color are not concerned about environmental quality issues. In the course of search for background information which might lead to some hypotheses about the environmental concerns and actions of people of color, Mohai was referred by Bryant to the U.S. General Accounting Office document and the United Church of Christ reports. The evidence in these reports suggested that people of color have a greater stake in their environment than their White counterparts. This evidence raised serious doubts about the conventional wisdom regarding the lack of concern of minorities about environmental quality and also motivated an extensive search for other evidence of the relationship of toxins and race. These studies overwhelmingly corroborated the evidence of the General Accounting Office and the United Church of Christ reports and intensified our concerns about the issues surrounding environmental justice. Our mutual interest and desire for further exploration of this issues eventually led us to organize two important events in 1990.

These two events here in the School of Natural Resources and Environment were used to magnify the plight of the poor and people of color and their environmental condition, and thus enhanced the Environmental Justice Movement. First, the 1990 Retrieval Dissemination Conference on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards, where twelve scholars and approximately 30 participant observers from USEPA, the governor’s office, Departments of Natural Resources and Public Health, the Ann Arbor Ecology Center, and ASTDR spent three days on campus presenting papers and discussing issues of race and the environment. The two historical outcomes of this conference were: 1) a book called, Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards, and 2) a series of meetings with USEPA Administrators William K. Reilly and Carol Browner and legislators on Capitol Hill. We have worked with staff members of the Congressional Black Caucus and a staff member of the Council for Environmental Quality, educating them on environmental justice issues. We have worked with Representative John Conyers and his staff to make environmental justice a component of the EPA. We have participated in the Black Caucus Legislative Weekends, and have worked with the staff of Senator Lautenberg regarding superfund sites. The retrieval/dissemination conference that was held here at the School of Natural Resources and Environment has had historical significance. Second, the Detroit Area Study is of particular note because it is one of the few survey research studies that speak to the issue of environmental justice. From this research endeavor, we have been able to publish several articles in peer-reviewed journals.

In 1991 we served on the advisory committee to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, held in Washington D.C. with over 500 people, mostly of color. The outcome of this conference were the seventeen principles of Environmental Justice that have been used as guidelines for organizing local communities. In 1994, three important events happened that we helped to shape. First, we played a major role in the design and the facilitation of a major government-sponsored conference called Health Research Needs to Ensure Environmental Justice, where over a thousand government policymakers, academic researchers, and community activists came together in dialogue. The outcome of this conference was more federal money to community groups for participatory research in order to solve local environmental health problems. Second, on February 11th we played a major role in getting President Clinton to sign the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898. This Executive Order has had a major policy impact, because every major federal agency has to design and implement a plan for environmental justice. This Order has the potential to affect millions of people across the nation. While campaigning in Michigan in October of 1996, President Clinton articulated his wish to see “an America in the year 2000 in which no child lives near a hazardous waste facility.” Third, we have served on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), where we advised USEPA Administrator Carol Browner, and have given voice to unsung heroes who champion the cause of high-risk populations.

Within the last seven years, the School of Natural Resources and Environment has gained a national reputation for scholarly work in environmental justice. Faculty and students have spoken at more than two dozen campuses nationally, including such universities as Harvard, Cornell, University of Minnesota, and the University of California, San Diego. We have consulted with numerous community groups and government agencies. Since then, our work continues to be influential and recognized nationally. Faculty members have participated in over a dozen television talk shows and radio programs. Our scholarly work is frequently quoted in more than 15 prestigious journals, and our books serve as course materials for a number of classes throughout the nation. In a recent visit to our School the Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, stated that he was "pleased to see the emphasis on environmental justice issues here in this School, because they relate very importantly to all of us."

Within the last seven years we have lectured in courses in SNRE, the School of Education, the Law School, the Communications Department, the School of Public Health, and the School of Social Work on Environmental Justice. We, as co-coordinators of the campus-wide Martin Luther King Day activities, have organized workshops on environmental justice and have participated in them. We have also received several awards for our outstanding work, including the Distinguished Leadership to the Environmental Justice Movement Award and the Dreamkeeper Award.

In 1993, Research for Environmental Justice (SNRE 594) made a legitimate part of the course offerings. Within the last year we have launched three Environmental Justice courses in the School. Environmental Justice: Domestic and International (SNRE 492) was approved by the SNRE faculty and the LS&A Curriculum Committee to satisfy the distribution requirement of race and ethnicity for LS&A students. SNRE 392 is a student taught undergraduate course that focuses on field experiences and the writing of case studies. Another course, SNRE 501, was initiated by graduate students to focus on analytical issues. For information regarding these courses, please see the Course Offerings Web Page

We are also presently putting together several environmental justice web pages. One will focus on case studies of environmental justice struggles taking place around the country; another will focus on environmental courses being taught in the school; another will focus faculty members working on environmental justice issues.

The Environmental Justice Student Group meets weekly. They have been involved in organizing a variety of activities. Last semester they went on a field trip to Walpole Island to help them understand the impact of chemical discharges from a commercial company on First Nation People. They organized a workshop on Environmental Justice as a part of the Martin Luther King Day activities, and were able to bring to campus Dr. Owens Wiwa, brother of the slain Nigeria activists Ken Saro Wiwa, to educate the University Community about Shell Oil environmental activities in Nigeria. They have traveled to Lansing to educate and to lobby state legislators for environmental justice legislation. Also, in 1996, we started organizing a center of Environmental Justice to focus on a variety of research endeavors. We have interviewed over twenty faculty members from different schools here on campus regarding research issues and ways they can contribute to the building of an Environmental Justice Center.

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Last Update: June 17, 2004 by Thana Chirapiwat