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Achieving Environmental Justice, A Conversation with Dr. Robert Bullard
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Achieving Environmental Justice, A Conversation with Dr. Robert Bullard

Dr. Bullard joined me to discuss his incredible career deepening public awareness of environmental racism and creating and implementing solutions that bend the arc toward justice
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Transcript

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One of the areas where we see the biggest injustices and the clearest manifestations of modern day racism is with pollution. Ports, refineries, fossil-fuel power plants, chemical manufacturing, landfills and more are, to this day, disproportionately cited in communities comprised mostly of Black, Latino, and/or Indigenous people. 

One of the very first researchers in the world on this topic is right here in Texas, Dr. Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University and the eponymous Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice. His groundbreaking research in the 1970s showed that over 80% of landfills in Houston were sited in Black communities, even though the population of Houston at the time was only 25% of the total population. He extended his analysis to Dallas, to Cancer Alley in Louisiana, and beyond, and found the same pattern. 

Dr. Bullard and I talked about his efforts to address historical injustices and environmental racism. We discussed the importance of multigenerational movements, and his hope to not only pass the baton to the next generations, but also be their cheerleader. He shared his thoughts on ways to approach the subject of environmental justice that broadens the tent, and brings people in instead of putting them on the defensive, including focusing on the benefits to everyone that occur when environmental injustice is addressed.

We also discussed the incredible work Dr. Bullard and his team are doing at the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas State University. Dr. Bullard detailed the exciting opportunities that a recently awarded Thriving Communities Grant has opened up for the Bullard Center, and how they plan to build capacity and support on-the ground organizations fighting for environmental justice in Houston and throughout the Gulf Coast. He also gave a thoughtful overview of how and why justice must be centered in all aspects of the energy transition.

I learned a lot from this conversation and hope you do, too.  This podcast is free but about half of our podcasts and some of the posts are for paid subscribers only. Please become a paid subscriber today, if you’re not already.

If you like the episode, and I think you will, please don’t forget to like, share, and leave a review. Time stamps and a transcript are below. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the episode in the comments section!

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Timestamps

3:36 - About Dr. Bullard

5:37 - Growing up in Alabama during segregation

8:36 - How growing up in Jim Crow shaped his path and career 

16:30 - Dr. Bullard’s initial research on landfills and toxic waste facilities in Black neighborhoods

22:24 - Writing and getting published the first book on environmental racism

27:05 - How has the field and conversation on environmental racism changed

25:55 - Recent landfill win in Carverdale, Houston, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ)

32:16 - Concept of the “communiversity” and how HBCU’s have been on the frontlines in understanding and combating environmental racism

36:29 - Recent Thriving Communities Grant program award received by the Bullard Center. How this program is enabling the Bullard Center to help smaller organizations build capacity, deepen their work, and access more funding. 

43:50 - Scope of community needs that need to be addressed

48:32 - Importance of centering environmental justice in the energy transition and opportunities for Microgrids and community-based solutions

55:22 - How lifting up the most marginalized benefits everyone 

59:21 - Growing and expanding the movement for racial and environmental justice; importance of “passing the baton”

1:03:27 - The need to keep fighting and to save our democracy and right to vote

Show Notes

Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University

Dumping In Dixie: Race, Class, And Environmental Quality by Robert D. Bullard

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Achieving Community Tasks Successfully (ACTS)

Texas’ environmental agency says Sunset Review recommendations would create a burden for the agency, Lucio Vasquez, Houston Public Media

South Central Environmental and Energy Justice Resource Center, New Mexico State University

Deep South Center for Environmental Justice

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Transcript

Doug Lewin

Dr. Bullard, welcome to the Energy Capital Podcast. It's a privilege and honor to have you here. Thank you so much.

Robert D. Bullard

Thanks for having me.

Doug Lewin

Let's start just by, if you could just explain to the audience your work, your purpose, your mission, what do you do and what have you done throughout your career?

Robert D. Bullard

Well, I am a sociologist by training, and I'm an environmental sociologist. And my appointment at Texas Southern University is in the Department of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy. And for more than four decades, I've worked on, researched, written about, worked with communities around the issues of environment, health, issues around land use, planning, etcetera. And my first job out of graduate school, as a matter of fact, in 1976, way back then, was at Texas Southern University. And my concentration back then was housing and residential segregation, and looking at the access to opportunity. And so what I've tried to do is to marry research, facts, data and science with action. And that's what I've tried to do. And over the last four and a half decades I've written 18 books and I tell everybody it's just one book but don't tell anybody.

Doug Lewin

One book, 18 chapters, but really long chapters.

Robert D. Bullard

Yes, long chapters and it covers the idea that fairness, justice, and equity, whether I'm dealing with housing, transportation, climate, the issues around health, you name it, it's connecting those dots.

Doug Lewin

Will you tell us a little bit about, you were born in Elba, Alabama, about 80 miles south of Montgomery in the late 1940s. So your formative years, your childhood were during the 1950s, obviously with the bus boycotts and the civil rights movement. I mean, you were growing up right there. Can you talk a little bit about that experience?

Robert D. Bullard

Well, yes. I grew up in Alabama in a time when segregation was the law of the land. I was born in 1946 and in the second grade, 1954, Brown v. Board of Education declared Jim Crow segregation unconstitutional. And so in my elementary school, my middle school, and my high school, it was segregated. It was all Black. I had all Black teachers, very good teachers. Some of my teachers had Master's degrees and a couple of them had PhDs. But it was a period of time when the Civil Rights movement was in its heyday. You know, the Montgomery bus boycott in the 50s and I graduated from high school in 1964 and went to Alabama A&M University.

Elba is at, on the bottom of the state of Alabama, close to Florida, right, you know, about 40, 50 miles from the line, Florida line. And I went to Alabama A&M University, which is a predominantly Black university, HBCU, located in Huntsville, 300 miles north of Elba. So I had to pass Troy State University, which was 29 miles from my house, Auburn University is about 65 miles, University of Alabama Tuscaloosa is about 95, 100 miles and going all the way up north. So it was segregated. And so the idea of growing up with the idea that we were taught to excel. We were taught to read books and to get a good education. That was my grandparents, my mother and father really instilled in us education is something that no one can take away from you. And to have good work ethic.

Doug Lewin

Yep. So, and I just want to talk just a couple of minutes more about this, partly because I'm reading this excellent book by Isabel Wilkerson right now, The Warmth of Other Suns about the great migration from the South. And I just want to, I want to dive into this a little bit more because I don't think people often understand. We hear about segregation and we watch the documentaries when we're in school and stuff like that. This wasn't like segregation almost like Jim Crow segregation was something else, right? I mean, you had to… step off the sidewalk, you couldn't look at somebody the wrong way, lynchings were common, just violence for random infractions was severe. Did you experience anything like that growing up or see anything like that growing up? And I'm also interested how those experiences growing up in Alabama sort of led you to the work you've done throughout your career.

Robert D. Bullard

Well, you know, I didn't experience any lynchings or see any of that horrific kinds of killings, but it was there. And the idea of you are part of a larger movement. My grandmother voted because we owned land, you know, ten years out of slavery, 1875. My grandmother, my great grandmother and great grandfather were able to acquire 240 acres of timberland in South Alabama. So we had land, we had property, and my grandmother and my parents voted and they were Republican. And they would put on their Sunday clothes and vote, but everybody couldn't vote. And it was a period of time in Elba where we could vote because we were not in that concentrated Black Belt like in Selma and Perry County and Sumter County in that area. Coffee County, Blacks only made up I guess about 10-15% of the population. We were not a huge population so I guess we were considered not a threat per se. 

But in terms of having books that were two years old with other kids names in them, secondhand books or second editions. I couldn't go to the library because the library was for whites. I couldn't go to the swimming pool because the swimming pool was for whites. There were no paved streets in my neighborhood or street lights or sewer, water lines. So it was segregated to the core. But my parents, as I said before, instilled in us that education is a key. When the school closed, the library at our school closed. But that didn't stop some of us from excelling, learning, and understanding that we have to achieve, we have to do better, and we have to overcome. 

So instilled in me in an early age is the idea of wanting to be somebody and to do something in a way that you excel. During my sophomore year at Alabama A&M University, Vivian Malone left Alabama A&M and went to the University of Alabama to integrate the University of Alabama. She came from Alabama A&M University…

Doug Lewin

What year was that?

Robert D. Bullard 

…that was 1965 and that was the same year that the 1965 Voting Rights Act, you know, in the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I was in college during all of that time. And we would participate in marches and demonstrations. But at the same time, the whole atmosphere around us was one of horrific oppression. 

During my senior year, I graduated in May of 1968 and Dr. King was killed in April 4th, 1968. And of course there were all kinds of protests, demonstrations, there were riots. And seven days after Dr. King was killed, President Johnson was able to get the Congress to pass the Fair Housing Act of 1968. So there were the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Voters' Rights Act, 1968 Fair Housing Act. So there were a lot of movement, a lot of breaking down those artificial racial barriers as it relates to the law. 

But it was still, even though I graduated from high school in 1964, and ride the Greyhound bus from Elba, Alabama to Troy, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, to Birmingham, Alabama, to Huntsville, Alabama. The signs that said Black / White in the bus station had been taken down, but the fact that it was still segregated. The signs were down, and the white waiting room and the Black waiting room and the signs had come down from the water fountains, but those signs remained through the 60s. The invisible signs, not the written out signs, but in terms of on the buses, in the train stations, in the waiting rooms. I mean, it was a period of time when you know that you had to resist. Now that's the era that I grew up in. 

In 1968, I had graduated from Alabama A&M. I got a job in St. Louis because I could not find a job in Alabama. And so I had to go, I went all the way to St. Louis and I taught school from August until December and I got drafted and I spent two years in the United States Marine Corps and got out of Marine Corps in 1970, went back to school, got my master's from Atlanta University and got my PhD from Iowa State University in 1976 and I moved to Houston.

Doug Lewin

Let's talk about the move to Houston. Before we do, I just want to say, and I think it's really important as a setup to this conversation for folks to understand, because I think too often, particularly young people, and you can define that however you want. Even I was born in the, and I'm not young, I was born in the 1970s, right? So growing up in the 80s and 90s you don’t see the overt racism. And so sometimes the under… let's call it more, sometimes it's not subtle at all, so maybe that's the wrong word, but the more sort of systemic racism, you don't necessarily see it, it's not often pointed out. But to think that you are a man who has lived a quarter of your life before the Civil Rights Era, a lot of times people think this is so long ago, it's not that long ago, it's in the course of history, it's like, it's just a minute ago, right? 

Robert D. Bullard 

Yeah.

Doug Lewin

So this is, I think, what has, in my view anyway, what has defined your career is bringing this awareness that there are patterns of discrimination. So you talked about housing. There's obviously even into the 80s and 90s and some places even to today, there's restrictive covenants that keep people from living in certain places. 

Robert D. Bullard 

Yes.

Doug Lewin

And then that of course leads to environmental racism where there are facilities that nobody wants around them that are concentrated particularly in Black communities, Black and Brown communities, Native American communities, etcetera. 

So you come to Houston in the 70s and you're not there very long, in 76, and you're not there very long before this landmark case in 1979 about landfill sites. Can you talk a little bit about, I'd love to hear about the case, but also Houston in the 1970s. What brought you there? What was the environment like? And then talk a little bit about this case, and which I think is what kind of brought you into the environmental justice work, which that didn't really exist as a term maybe at the time. But anyway, talk a little bit about Houston in the late 70s, if you would.

Robert D. Bullard

Yeah, well, uh, Linda McKeever Bullard and I, my wife at the time, moved from Michigan in, uh, 1976. I'm from Alabama and she was from Michigan. It was cold up there. I'm an Alabama boy. I want to come back south. And so I convinced her to, uh, let's move to Houston. And I got a job at Texas Southern University, um, as an Assistant Professor of Sociology and I convinced the university to give me a split appointment, half-time teaching and half-time research, the Director of Research at the Urban Resources Center that was directed by Dr. Neal Meladdee at the time. And so my area, as I said before, was housing and residential segregation. And that was 1976. 

And three years out of graduate school, 1979, Linda came home one day and said, Bob, I've taken a lawsuit and I've sued the City of Houston, Harris County, and the state of Texas. And I said, ‘you did what’? And she said, yeah, I sued the state because this company is trying to put a landfill, get a permit to put a landfill in the middle of this predominantly Black middle-class suburban community in Houston, northeast Houston. And I said, you sued the state of Texas. I said, you know, I work for a state university? She said, yeah. And so she said, I need, she said, I just, I just filed a temporary restraining order to try to stop this permit. And I need somebody to do a study and look at and find where all the landfills, incinerators, garbage dumps are located in Houston from the very beginning. I need somebody to put it on a map and then where the facilities are, and then tell who lives around those facilities. I said, you need a sociologist. She says, that's what you are, right? And I said, yeah, but… And so she convinced me to do the study. I had 10 students in my research methods class at Texas Southern University, and I told my students, I said, students, we have a research project. 

Now understand, Linda developed the legal theory behind environmental racism. It was Bean versus Southwestern Wage Management Corporation. Bean, Margaret Bean et al. But the Northwood Manor was the neighborhood. It was a middle class suburban neighborhood of homeowners. 85% of the people owned their home. It was not a ghetto or poverty pocket. This was a really stable Black middle class neighborhood. Nothing out there except trees, houses, and Black people. And this company was planning on putting a landfill out there. And so they hired Linda. And I got drafted, arm twisted, into doing the study. 

And there were no GIS Mapping. There was no database. There was no Google. There was none of that. There was no laptops, iPhones, iPads. It was ancient. And I developed the research design, the methodology, we went through old archives, old records. We did, we had maps, census maps. And we used the system of magic markers and pens and color coding. Yellow is yes, yellow marker is coloring the census tract or the block groups, less than 10% minority. And green, less than 25%. And then all the way up. 50% or more was red. And so it was unusual as a sociologist to find something so amazing, so incredible in terms of, this was not random. In terms of all the pens that were the map pens representing landfills and incinerators and garbage dumps located in the red. 

And the short version of this, when we looked at city-owned waste facilities, five out of five of the city-owned landfills, six out of eight of the city-owned incinerators and three out of four of the privately owned landfills were located in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

So 82% of all the waste dumped in Houston from the 30s up until 1978, the waste was disposed in predominantly Black neighborhoods, even though Blacks made up only 25% of the population during the period of time of the study from the 30s up to 1978. Now that's an aha research in your face. We're in federal court. It went to court from ‘79 to' 85. It went to court in 85. We lost in court and went on appeal in 1987. We lost on appeal from the Fifth Circuit. But the idea of losing in court, not able to show intentional discrimination, but to have articles and research documented in referee journals showing that this was not random, this was significant in the way that that you can't just show that this was just accidental. And because it was such overwhelming evidence, you know, I said, no, this has to be carried on and expanded beyond Houston. That's how Dumping and Dixie came about.

Doug Lewin 

And I highly recommend this book to everybody, whether you're in this field or not, it is accessible to a general audience. I got my copy right here, all marked up. And this was really the first book, if I'm not mistaken, Dr. Bullard, this is the first book specifically on environmental racism, is that right?

Robert D. Bullard

That's correct. That book, that book was the first book and it was not an easy lift to get it published. I finished that book, when I said, I'm going to take the Houston case and see is this just Houston? Because Houston is very unique. It's the fourth largest city and the only major city that doesn't have zoning. And I say, is this just happening in Texas? And I went to Dallas and I looked at the lead smelters in Dallas. And it's just so happened the lead smelters, just happened to be located in Black and Brown communities. Then I said, let's go to the Black Belt, the nation's largest hazardous waste facility, located in the Alabama Black Belt in Sumter County, in Emelle, Alabama. That's 95 Percent Black. 

Then I went to Louisiana Cancer Alley and found the same pattern in Louisiana. And then in ‘82, 1982, there was this huge explosion in Bhopal. And then I went to West Virginia and found the same chemical plant that was the prototype for the Bhopal plant in West Virginia, Union Carbide plant. And so I had Institute West Virginia and a lot of people didn't even know there were Black people in West Virginia. Well, Black people in West Virginia, in that little area in the Kanawha River Valley had been there since the 1860s when West Virginia broke away from Virginia and was not to become a slave state, and a few Black people followed freedom. 

So West Virginia, Cancer Alley, Dallas, the Alabama Black Belt, and Houston, that formed the basis for Dumping in Dixie. I finished a book in 1989, I couldn't get a publisher. I got nasty notes back from publishers saying, well, there’s no such thing as environmental racism. The environment is neutral. And that everybody is, it’s experienced the same. Everybody is treated the same. And then I lucked out. I guess I say luck, but it was to be a publisher in Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press. And if you've never been to Boulder, there's something different about Boulder. Mountain high air, bean sprouts, tofu, marijuana. They published my book and Westview Press made it a textbook and it got adopted across universities and colleges across the country. And it took off as the book for the issue around environmental justice, environmental racism. That was 1990.

Doug Lewin 

So I think there's a lot of people that would listen to this or listen to you and say, okay, well, that was 1990. Obviously we're only a decade or two removed from the Civil Rights Era, but here we are in 2024. Clearly this kind of thing doesn't persist through to the present day. And I want to read you a quote. It was a year and a half ago, before the legislative session, for folks that don't know about this, there is something called the Sunset Advisory Commission. And they look at every state agency top to bottom and they do a review and they looked at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state level EPA in Texas. 

And they wrote their report saying too many people feel that the agency is not responsive to the needs of the people. It's too protective of industry. And at the hearing where they presented some of their findings, a lot of folks came from Houston to testify and they talked about environmental racism. And the Chairman of the TCEQ got up to speak and was asked by the Senator from Houston, Boris Miles, about environmental racism. And he did acknowledge, and the wording is interesting here, “a history of discrimination, right?” The suggestion being history, it's in the past. And then he said, “Environmental racism, I'm not sure what to do with that term.”

And I found that really striking that after 40 years of scholarship on this, and it's obviously not just you, you're a leader in this, but there's scholarship all over the place at almost every, you know, I mean, not just institutions of higher education, but in, I mean, there's wide awareness about this. And it was kind of striking to me that the head of the environmental organization for Texas didn't know what to do with that term. Can you talk about A, what would you say to him? And B, how is environmental racism different and how is it the same from what you saw when you were starting in this field in the 1970s?

Robert D. Bullard 

Well, Doug, we have to understand that environmental racism occurred in Houston in the 70s when we were looking at the Houston solid waste landfill studies and it exists today in 2024. And it's taken different forms. And if you track the segregating housing, the racial redlining that occurred in the 30s, and you take those same maps and then you overlay which communities are more prone to having more industrial pollution and health threats, the areas that are more prone to flooding, the areas that have more permitted facilities, and the areas that have less green canopy, green space, they are called urban heat islands, the areas that have fewer grocery stores. This is real. And I think the fact that TCEQ, even to this day, does not acknowledge the policies and practices that have been put in place over the decades and how when they grant permits and oftentimes those permits get approved and it's almost as if somehow TCEQ has never met a permit that it didn't like or didn't say was approved. 

Just a week or so ago, there was a permit application for an expansion of the Hawthorne Landfill in Carverdale in northwest Houston. And that permit was being favored to be granted by TCEQ. But the Carverdale residents and their allies had a public, there was a public hearing in 2022 in June. And a number of us testified and I presented testimony to TCEQ Commissioners that said Carverdale had hosted, involuntarily, a landfill. It was a construction and debris landfill, C&D landfill, type 4 landfill. For 45 years.45 years.

And here this company wanted to get an expansion permit to extend it for another 46 years. So they're talking about 91 years for this community to have lived with a landfill. And we looked at the track record of permitting and of facilities across the state and across the Houston Metro Area particularly. And it seems that permit after permit have been granted by TCEQ. And I asked the commissioners point blank: I=if a hundred permits had been presented to you with all of the I's dotted and the T's crossed in terms of permit, and if all those permits, of those applications, were being proposed in Black and brown communities, would anything on their radar be triggered to say, well, something is wrong? And the response was, we don't have anything that would somehow stop us  from granting permits in Black and Brown communities in perpetuity and we would just have to grant the permits. 

We said, well isn't there a Civil Rights Act of 1964 that's supposed to somehow prohibit discrimination and permit you know governmental agencies from taking federal funds and somehow discriminating? And they said that we would need a new law in Texas and that there's nothing that they could do.

We said no to that. As a matter of fact, because so much pressure was being placed by community organizations, by the Carverdale community and their allies, civil rights groups, and others, that the company withdrew the application. Withdrew the application, not TCEQ looking at it and saying this is discrimination and that we will not grant this permit.

So, Houston, we got a problem. And the agency that's supposed to regulate and enforce environmental protection doesn't see its mandate as in doing that in a non-discriminatory way. That's a problem.

Doug Lewin

That's a major problem. So let's, I think that's a good segue to talking about Texas Southern University and the work you have done and continue to do at TSU. And I love the way you and others at TSU talk about the, the communiversity that you have this, uh, community of academics that are in touch with and, and working with folks in the community. Can you talk a little bit about your sort of conception of the university and its partnership with communities?

Robert D. Bullard

Yes, you know the fact that this communiversity model was developed and actually was born, developed, tested and deployed in the 90s. And it's no accident that the first environmental justice centers at universities, all five of them were at HBCUs, Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice was at Xavier University. The Environmental Justice Resource Center was at Clark Atlanta University, that I started. The Environmental Justice Clinic, Legal Clinic, was at Thurgood Marshall School of Law. There was an Environmental Justice Center at Hampton University and Environmental Justice Health Institute that was at Florida A&M University. 

Our Centers were developed to be an anchor and a resource to communities that were on the front line. And we developed, what's called today, it's called Community-Based Participatory Research. That's what they call it now, research to action. That's what they call it now. But we didn't have a name for it. Our name was, our universities, because we were founded out of struggle. Our Black colleges and universities were founded out of struggle. Texas Southern University was founded out of struggle. Thurgood Marshall School of Law was founded because human sweat. A Black man was not allowed to go to the University of Texas. So we have a special mission and that mission is service in the pursuit of excellence and the pursuit of justice, equality, and fairness. So it's no accident that I do what I do at Texas Southern University, even though I've worked at the University of California at Berkeley and Riverside and UCLA. When I left the University of California, I went back to my alma mater, Atlanta University, Clark Atlanta University, and started the Environmental Justice Resource Center in 1994. 

So that's the, I guess the underpinnings of why we do what we do at Texas Southern University in the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice. Now I was doing this before we had a center at TSU. I came back to Houston in 2011 as Dean of the Barbara Jordan - Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs I did that for five years and then we got a call from a Foundation to say we want to give you some money for you to start a center and we want the center named In your honor and I said, okay and so our Center basically do the things that we were doing at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, but on a more expansive basis. And the idea that you can do a lot with money, you'd be surprised how much you can do with money. And you can have good staff, good graduate students, post-docs, good community university partnerships, develop a consortium of HBCUs. We developed this consortium at HBCUs and the anchor university is Texas Southern..

Doug Lewin

Yeah, it's interesting, you know, in sort of like common language when people say, oh, that's that well, that's just academic, right? In the pejorative sense, it's like, well, that doesn't really have any connection to people's on-the-ground reality, which you're really trying to do. And I think in fairness, a lot of academics try to do this is connect your work to outcomes to people's quality of life, which I think is, in that context, let's talk a little bit about the recent award that TSU and the Bullard Center just got, the Thriving Communities Award from EPA, the Environmental Grantmakers Award. Can you talk a little bit about that and what that means for the people of Houston and for the, I think for the region, right? It's a regional grant? Yeah.

Robert D. Bullard 

Yeah. Well, you know, the concept of the Thriving Communities Grant Markers Award is that, when we were working with the Biden Administration, we were talking about how is it that we can get resources in the hands of organizations and develop these partnerships and build that capacity? And knowing that government applications for grants, it's so cumbersome, it's so complicated, it's so, I guess, hard.

Doug Lewin

Yeah.

Robert D. Bullard

And so the idea is how can you streamline a process, how can you place an organization or institution in the position of becoming a grantmaker to work with communities that they have worked with for many years and decades and to show how we can get the kinds of transformative results and change. 

And so the EPA using the Inflation Reduction Act funds, $600 million for this Grantmakers Program, and each of the entities would get $50 million to represent a grantmaker and to make awards in the regions. And so TSU, the Bullard Center applied for one of those regional awards. We got it. And we have partners with ACTS, which is a community-based organization, an environmental justice organization in Pleasantville. We have relationships with some of our other consortia organizations, the HBCU Climate Change Consortium and the Gulf Coast Consortium and the National Black Environmental Justice Network. So the organizations and the networks and the community-based organizations that we've been working with all along, we have, partner with them to assist us in trying to shape a grant making program that can really get to the organizations and the community that need it most. And it's a five-year program. It's substantial funds. There's never been a $50 million grant program or no, $600 million grant programs for environmental justice. Never been anything like that. The Inflation Reduction Act provides lots of monies for that. And so it places our university and our Center in a role, a very responsible role, of being able to stand up a grant making program, and to get the kinds of advisors, of reviewers, and to set up a streamlined application process similar to private foundations. Their applications is nothing like government. And to work with the TCTACs, the Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers, and they are all across the country. For Region 6, it's New Mexico State University and Deep South Center are the TCTACs for our region…

Doug Lewin 

Deep South Center is in Louisiana, right? Deep South, yeah.

Robert D. Bullard 

New Orleans. Yeah, it's in Louisiana. So the idea that we'll be working together in partnerships and that organizations that need technical assistance and support will be applying to the Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers to get the kinds of capacity and assistance in developing the proposals, etc. So it's a partnership kind of thing. And we have been allowed enough time in years, not a one-year grant, but we got five years to move this into action and our communities have been needing this, frontline communities have been needing this for decades. And this is the opportunity that we see happening today and we're just proud and blessed that we are sitting in the position to make awards to well-deserved organizations and institutions and groups that are out there doing fantastic work.

Doug Lewin

Yeah, absolutely. And so, you know, there will be now grant opportunities that haven't been available on anywhere near this scale for, for instance, organizations that are doing work, you know, around, near the very same landfills we were talking about before. You know, still to this day cited predominantly in communities of color. You mentioned ACTS, Achieving Community Tasks Successfully, that if I'm not, if I'm not getting it mixed up, is near the Port, right? It's kind of focused on.

Robert D. Bullard

Yes.

Doug Lewin

So again, if you look at where the Port is and the communities that are around the Port, those are communities of color that have been subject to the pollution, the higher incidence of asthma and all sorts of things, right? The community, famously though not famously enough, that was near the Union Pacific Rail yard, right? The cancer cluster right there in Houston. These kinds of communities that just haven't had the kinds of resourcing that commensurate with other parts of society now, potentially will with your help. It's pretty exciting.

Robert D. Bullard 

Yes, so the idea of building the capacity, assisting in the grant writing, and then building the kinds of community organization infrastructure to manage the grants and to grow their programs, to leverage the resources. And we've worked with some of our organizations for a decade, like ACTS for example. And ACTS has been able to leverage a private foundation, apply for EPA grants, get monitoring grants. This program that we will be making grants for include a number of those kinds of activities in terms of community monitoring programs, looking at issues around clean energy, issues around health assessments. You talk about workforce development, training. The idea that we have a lot of opportunities to fill those gaps and for those organizations that can access this federal grant making pot of money can also build their capacity in a way to also apply for these foundation grants that are now being creating these funding hubs to work public-private partnership kinds of funding. So this is exciting times. We didn't have anything like this in the 70s in Houston or the 80s or the 90s. 

And so this is an opportunity to grow young people in terms of mentoring programs for developing climate and environmental justice core opportunities for high school kids and for college students, internships. I mean there's a lot of need that's there that were under-resourced and underserved. Now it sounds like a lot of money, but when you look at it, it's still not enough given the size of the challenges that face many of our communities, whether it's dealing with transportation or dealing with housing, dealing with water issues, infrastructure issues, dealing with flooding. I mean, when we talk about these issues, all those issues converge. As we define the environment, the environment is everything. Where we live, work, play, learn, worship, as well as the physical and natural world.

Many of our communities, there's no green space, there's no tree canopy. It's hot in those neighborhoods. So we mean, so there are all kinds of opportunities to address those issues. Some of our neighborhoods, it's prone to flooding. So we have to make sure we start building and making our communities more climate resilient. It's cold right now. And so it means that we have to plan for these cold spells and have these heating, you know, these heating stations. And when it gets so hot, cooling stations. And we have to build for climate resilience hubs in neighborhoods. There’s money for that, for organizations that want to develop that in partnerships with city/county government. 

So that's what we are looking to have these programs as they stand up in terms of the regions, in terms of region six, but also their national programs that's funded under those programs where the national programs got $100 million. So there are other programs where people, organizations can apply in that big pool of money, that $100 million. So that's the kind of, I guess, opportunity that we will be advertising, that we'll be speaking to, get people, organizations, local city governments to understand in terms of our school boards, in terms of the school infrastructure, money to implement that, in terms of clean buses, you know, in terms of getting away from this, in terms of the Port, you know, getting our ports cleaned up so we're moving away from the dirty diesel and getting electrifying, you know, those kinds of facilities as well as vehicles. That's the kind of thing that we're talking about, environmental, climate, energy, justice.

Doug Lewin 

So, so exciting. There's so much there. So where I think I wanna go next, cause I think you're right, like the $50 million over five years, it's a lot of money, it could do a lot of good, but to be successful, it's going to have to leverage other things going on in the world, right? Not as certainly other grant sources, but also just things happening in the market, right? Happening in energy markets, happening with new technologies that are coming in, right? 

So as we look at these, compounding threats from climate change. Obviously the experience of Harvey was devastating for the Houston area,and not just Houston, Beaumont, Port Arthur, so on and so forth. The experience of Winter Storm Uri, devastating. We just continue to see these traumas upon trauma, these climate impacts that are sort of like added one on top of the other. And we also are in, and this will be a subject of this, many episodes of this podcast, we're seeing sort of this explosion of small resources, right? Solar, storage, energy efficiency, that can be sited at, you were talking about schools, school districts are great places to put solar and storage that people have a place to go if the power goes out or if there's a hurricane or whatever it might be. Churches and synagogues and mosques and in people's individual homes. 

But as you know, and I'd love for you to talk about this a bit, if we aren't very intentional about how the energy transition happens, we will almost certainly repeat the patterns of the past. It is about communities of color, but it's not just about communities of color. It's a broader issue, um, about people who are poor to middle income, not being able to access the technologies that others are. So, uh, yeah, can you talk a little bit about the energy transition and where its overlap, particularly these distributed resources and how those can provide resilience, and where the intersection with your work on environmental justice is?

Robert D. Bullard

Yes. If we look at the Inflation Reduction Act, it's a $369 billion initiative, the largest climate program funding in history of the U.S. And there's $60 billion in that carved out for environmental justice, another $60 billion for clean energy transition. Now, so when we talk about clean energy renewables and the transition we have to place justice at the center. Because as you said, we don't wanna reproduce this old system where you have this inequity. And so that means that we have to plan for and we have to be intentional about this work.

For example, there was a Solar For All grant that came out for organizations to apply for. And it meant that financial institutions, uh, pretty much had to be the person or the organization applying for it.

Doug Lewin 

This is, Dr. Bullard, this is for like the, for the Green Bank part of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.

Robert D. Bullard

Yes, the Green Bank. That's right. Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. And, and it was sent out and then organizations would apply. The Bullard Center, at Texas Southern, partnered with the Green Fund of Texas, the Green Bank of Texas, and applied for, and the Green Fund of Texas applied as the, as the organization, applied for the, for the grant, $250 million. Now we don't know if we're gonna get it, but the idea was, is that we have, uh, a partnership with the Green Fund of Texas and, and the fact that relationship is one that's real. And in turn, what we were proposing is to look at our current infrastructure working in the Gulf Coast and the organizations that we work with and our HBCUs and, and using our consortium concept to have our HBCU consortia and the organizations, the community-based organizations in the cities that we are found to be the, the framework for, for building out, uh, this clean energy transition in terms of that particular process. 

And one of the pilot projects that we're talking about is developing a pilot between Texas Southern University and Cuney Homes, which is a public housing development that's next door to TSU, and the community centers in Third Ward, the elementary schools, etc. To have that as a project to be a microgrid that would provide solar for the campus, the public housing development, community center and the schools to work in partnership. So that means the Houston Housing Authority, the HISD and some of the community centers that the city. 

And there are examples in other parts of the country that have used that model such as the Bronzeville Community Microgrid in Chicago, and there's other projects in California. And there's, of course, Microgrid at University of Texas in Austin. The idea is that we don't have to invent the wheel, reinvent the wheel, but we do have to show that there's community involvement, that there's a project that could be a ready project. And again, if we get the grant, that would be one project, a pilot that could show how this could be transported in other places in our region, in the Gulf Coast, to do something like this. 

And then there are other examples that we were talking about rolling out, but we need something that could show quickly. Texas Southern University has a Memorandum of Understanding, MOU, with Brookhaven Lab, which is in New York, which is a DOE lab, which has expertise in doing something like that. So we have all the pieces in place to work on something like that and we have a relationship with National Argonne Lab through our HBCU Climate Change Consortium. So it means that there are opportunities to do something like this with our students, with our universities in terms of saving money. 

One of the largest expenses on, not just HBCUs, but college campuses is utilities. And so if we can get that down, that means the money that would be spent on utilities paying out could go to scholarships or could go to other kinds of enhancements.

Doug Lewin

Yeah. And you know, so, um, as, as we're talking just, just a day or two ago, I put the first episode of Energy Capital out. It’s with the former Commissioner of the Public Utility Commission Will McAdams. And he talked a lot about, our conversation was a lot about these distributed energy resources. I think Dr. Bullard, this is a really interesting sort of like test case for people.

We can see hopefully the broader public and policy makers of all different kinds can hopefully understand this, that what you're talking about is very good for those communities that will get the benefits directly, right? The churches, the school district, you're talking about third ward. It's also good for everybody because the more of these resources we have sited locally, the more resilient and reliable the grid is for everybody.

I really love Heather McGhee's book, The Sum of Us, which really talks about how racism and let's just say the outcomes of racism, right? I'm not talking about somebody's individual attitudes, but the systems that are a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, which again, as we talked about earlier, weren't that long ago and the impacts are still with us, hurt everybody.

And as we put these kinds of programs into place, and as we're dealing with people's high energy bills and the lack of reliability or resiliency, it definitely will benefit those communities and it will benefit the entire state of Texas as well. It was a little bit of a speech, but if you want to add to it, please do. Any thoughts you want to add to that?

Robert D. Bullard

No, no. Yeah, no, you're exactly right. The whole idea is that when we lift those who have experienced the greatest amount of inequity on the bottom, and then we talk about bringing them into this whole energy, environmental, health, equity, economic justice, we're talking about basically making our society much more livable for everybody.

When we talk about using, electrifying school buses and getting our schools to become green schools, the kids learn. All kinds of studies show that as you start greening the schools, the kids learn. And we start reducing the pollution, kids learn better. And so as we start building out, you know, trees and green canopy and parks and green space and nature, kids learn. I mean, it has a lot of impacts. And when we talk about behavioral issues in terms of calming kids down, but also reducing crime. We have, I'm a sociologist and we have lots of data on this, so that we save lives, we make communities healthier, and we make for a much more secure America. So it's the best interest of the whole country to do this now and to do it right and to make sure that those benefits accrue to those who historically have been left out and left behind, and also make sure that we look to the future in terms of becoming a much more just, fair, and equitable society.

Doug Lewin

Yeah, that's right. And it's ultimately not a zero sum game. I think that's what Heather McGhee's point in the Sum of Us is, is actually these things are additive. If Third Ward is doing better, that doesn't take away from anybody else to the contrary. That actually makes everybody else stronger too. I don't know, dare to dream. I hope we're gonna be able to understand this. As a society. 

I wanna just ask you about something before we end. And I think this is important as we go forward and as we are going to continue to talk about environmental justice and environmental racism, we have to be able to not only solve that problem, which needs to be solved, not that it will ever be solved, we need to continue to get better and better at it. But also because so many of our problems in society are bound up in this, right? How we talk about it is important and how we bring people in is important. There was a part in, um, Clint Smith's brilliant book, How the, How the Word is Passed, where he talks about when people challenge, he was talking about Thomas Jefferson. And when you, you know, bring up the fact that Thomas Jefferson owned a lot of slaves. And you bring up the inherent racism of that. He says: that you're in fact challenging not just Jefferson, but the conception of themselves, people's conceptions of themselves. 

So when we talk about environmental racism and we hear somebody like Chairman Niermann say, I don't know what to do with that. I think a lot of times, and it's not just him, I don't wanna pick on Chairman Niermann, I think there's a lot of people that have this reaction that's like, well, I'm not a part of that. I didn't do that. It's not my fault. You're challenging their identity. You're not doing this, but the way people hear it, right, is you're calling me racist. That of course is not what's happening, but how do we deal with that to try to bring more people into this as opposed to sort of drawing, you know, starker dividing lines between people?

Robert D. Bullard

Yeah, that's something that those of us who've worked on these issues for decades have been trying to meet this challenge. And early on, people would say, oh, I didn't own any slaves. I would say, that's not what we're talking about. I'm not a racist. That's not what we're talking about. There are institutional and structural barriers that somehow we must break those artificial walls down so that we can see clearly. And the idea that the understanding that the quest for justice that we're talking about is not a sprint. I mean, it's a marathon. And as a matter of fact, it's a race that doesn't exist, a marathon relay. You know, it's like you run your 26.2 miles and then you pass the baton to the next generation to run the 26.2, but you don't stop. You don't just pass baton and then sit down. You have to cheer the person on, be a mentor, and as I said, a rallier, a cheerleader, all of that, to say that we must get to this finish line in a way that we bring everybody to clarity about what these artificial barriers is doing in terms of holding us back, not releasing the greatest energy in terms of our minds and thinking about what could be. And keeping us from reaching that whole idea and justice for all. 

And again, some people will see this as not a message that's somehow directed at them, calling them a racist, or somehow saying, well, your white privilege is somehow stopping me from getting this. I think looking beyond that personal individual, but looking at the collective. And that's how we have been trying, our movement has grown as our ideas of who gets the benefits from this. We all get the benefits in the end. It's just that some people may not realize that they're getting a benefit from regulations that make our air cleaner because there's no White air, no Hispanic air, no Black air. There's air. And most of us don't say we're going to stop breathing next Wednesday. We have to breathe air. Drink water, and eat food. And we have to fight to make sure that it's all safe for everyone. Now that's how I see it. And that's what's kept me going.

Doug Lewin

Yeah, I hear you. And that's a perfect example because if we're able to reduce pollution, like you said, that air doesn't just stay in one place. It is more concentrated. It more impacts communities of color, for instance, near the port, but it doesn't just stay there. It drifts over to West Houston and North Houston and everywhere else around the region. So we all benefit from cleaning up. 

Just the last thought, just to sort of end on this note, we're recording just a couple days after Martin Luther King Day. I particularly love his Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community. And he writes in there, and I think this is just as true today as it was in 1967 when he wrote it, “The racism of today is real, but the democratic spirit that has always faced it is equally real.”

What is your outlook? Do you agree with that? Do you think that is still true today? And do you kind of have hope that there, that like you said with that marathon, we're passing the baton? Are we bending that arc towards justice? Is it happening?

Robert D. Bullard

Yeah, I think our movement is bending that arc. It's still long. And I think the idea of the generational mobilization, intergenerational mobilization. I'm a Boomer, proud of it, still standing, still fighting. But Millennials and GenXs and Zoomers, they outnumber my generation. And they are much more inclined to want to get it right and dismantle some of those artificial barriers that's holding us back as a people and as a nation. And so I'm optimistic. I think we have to keep fighting. We have to understand that environmental justice and energy justice, transportation justice, racial justice, and justice for all also means saving our democracy. Basically fighting for the right to vote and the right to have our votes count. And that voting is, that's one of the pillars of a democracy. And if we lose that, we lose a whole lot. 

And so it's, you know, our justice movement is bound up in civil rights and human rights. And so we just have to fight for those rights and not let anyone or any organization somehow take it away from us or convince us somehow that that's not important. It's very important. My grandmother knew that. And when she dressed up in her Sunday go-meeting clothes and voted, and voted Republican, because the Republican Party back then was much more progressive than the Dixiecrat Democratic Party.

Doug Lewin

The courage of that action is almost unfathomable. And I see that courage in you. It's been an incredible honor to talk to you. Congratulations on all the success with the Bullard Center, having your name on there, well deserved. And thanks for all you've done over 40 years. Here's hoping you got 40 more. You look like you're younger than me, and so hopefully you continue to carry this torch forward. And I know you're handing it off to a lot of younger people at TSU as you're continuing to do the work yourself. Looking forward to seeing what you continue to do, and thank you for all you've done and continue to do.

Robert D. Bullard

Thank you very much.

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Energy Capital Podcast
The Energy Capital podcast focuses on Texas energy and power grid issues, featuring interviews with energy professionals, academics, policymakers, and advocates.