Robert Bullard: 26 miles toward justice

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Alabama native Robert Bullard arrived at Iowa State in the mid-1970s knowing two things: One, Iowa State was a great place to follow in the footsteps of his hero, George Washington Carver. (“Even as kids in elementary school during Black History Month,” Bullard says, “everyone knew Carver went to Iowa State University.”) And two, he wanted to carve out a new field of study, starting with an exploration of urban sociology.

Bullard (A)(PhD ’76 sociology) returned to Ames in October 2015 for the first time since graduation when he received the 2015 Alumni Merit Award from the ISU Alumni Association; he says it was great to reconnect with the university and the program he says gave him his analytical and quantitative foundation.

“Dr. Bob Richardson was my major professor – an urban sociologist from Detroit,” Bullard remembers. “My other major professor was Dr. Gerald Klonglan, who was a rural sociologist. With that combination, I was able to do what I wanted to do in terms of building my skills and building a framework that set the stage for what I have been doing over the last 30 years.”

What Bullard has been doing has led him to be widely known as the “Father of Environmental Justice,” a movement he defines as looking at environmental issues not just through a scientific lens, but through a sociological one. Hurricane Katrina was a prime case study; in fact, Bullard took a sabbatical in the storm’s aftermath to assist and learn on the ground.

Bullard has authored 18 books on environmental justice topics and is considered an international expert on such topics as sustainable development, environmental racism, urban land use, transportation, and emergency response. In 2008, Newsweek named him one of the 13 Environmental Leaders of the Century, and in 2014 the Sierra Club created an award in environmental justice and named it after him.

Despite his extensive research and advocacy, Bullard says he is a teacher at heart. He is dean and distinguished professor of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, following in the footsteps of Carver and teaching at a historically black university after graduating from Iowa State.

“The best reward is to have a student come back to me, five or 10 years down the road, and say, ‘Dr. Bullard, I was in your class and now I’m an environmental engineer or a toxicologist or an epidemiologist or CEO of a nonprofit.’ Knowing that something you taught or a book you wrote was a tipping point for someone is very rewarding. I have been doing this a long time, and it’s not as lonely as it used to be. There are a lot of young people now who take the environment and climate and equity as their issue, and rightfully so. The millennials get knocked down a lot, but they have the wherewithal, I think, to change the world.”

While environmental justice is a broad, interdisciplinary field, Bullard says without hesitation that climate change is the number-one environmental justice issue of the century.

“The challenge is to get not only our government and the other governments of the world, but to get our organization leaders, faith leaders, and young people to really understand that they can make a difference,” Bullard says. “They can lend their voice to different issues in terms of clean energy and renewables. They can lend their voices to building healthy, safe, and sustainable communities; walkable communities; and good, clean, efficient transportation. We can change a lot of things just by organizing and mobilizing  ordinary people. I don’t think the government can do as much as people can do on their own as a collective.

“This is not a task for sprinters,” Bullard says. “It’s not a marathon. It’s a marathon relay. We have to run our 26 miles and then pass it off to the next group to run the next 26 miles.”

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