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Tribute to Luke Cole

What is it that you most remember about Luke Cole?
It is strange to me that one of the strongest images I have of Luke Cole is of him giving one of the most brilliant lectures I ever heard on environmental justice, to my class on race and poverty at the University of California, Berkeley. When Luke presented his case to a classroom filled with African American, Asian American, Latino, Native American, Pacific Islander, and a small group of white students, was it nothing short of breathtaking.

I say it is strange, because I also have so many images of Luke at public rallies, in his modest apartment in the mission, in poor people’s homes, in gathering places, and in small towns in the San Joaquin Valley. I remember clearly attending his wedding reception at a beautiful home on a vineyard in the Central Valley. As the sun went down over the family spread, his family, the well off folks, and the farm workers with mud on their boots were all there, celebrating his marriage with Nancy. Even his mentor friend from Harvard Law School, the famous African American attorney, Derrick Bell, was there. It‘s as if his life’s work was to use his privilege to put his family and community in order.

Yet, this image of Luke as a teacher in the classroom is the most poignant. Luke taught hundreds of students of color, many the first in their families to go to college, what they truly needed to know. Luke described the David and Goliath struggle of the small farm worker town, Kettleman City, against the largest toxic waste dumping company in the United States. “Poor communities are targeted for dump sites because those in power believe they have no voice.” Eloquently building his argument, Luke laid out the facts of the Kettleman City to my class. “But the struggle for environmental justice is not primarily a legal struggle. It is not a technical struggle. It is a political struggle. Most important of all, vulnerable communities must organize, learn to tell their own stories, and speak for themselves. When they do, like El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio (People for Clean Air and Water), they can win.”

What do you believe are some of his greatest achievements? And how did his work coincide with the mission and goals of Urban Habitat and the Journal?
Luke Cole was a giant in the environmental justice movement. The most militant of environmental justice advocates, as well as those with impeccable academic credentials respected him. His organizing and support of the Kettlemen City Law Suit was a turning point in the early environmental justice movement. His book, From the Ground Up, Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement, is a classic in the field. Throughout history, people who live in cities have ignored those outside the city walls, oblivious to the exploitation of rural populations.

Tell me about his work with Urban Habitat. How and why did you decide to collaborate and produce Race, Poverty & the Environment Journal?
I first met Luke Cole in March of 1990. The year before, I had been talking with a few of my friends about issues of the environment and race, and a few of us, Karl Linn, Arthur Monroe, Victor Lewis, Eleanor Walden, the late Chapelle Hayes, Amhara Hicks at the Forest Service, Ellie Goodwin at NRDC, and Cordell Reagon of SNCC, formed a loose core group of the Urban Habitat Program. The collapse of the Cypress freeway in West Oakland riveted worldwide attention on rebuilding inner city transportation. I wrote an essay, “Why African Americans Should be Environmentalists,” and sent it to a dozen of my friends. On February 1, 1990, The New York Times reported that members of a number of civil rights groups and other communities of color, had written to the eight largest civil rights organizations in the country accusing them of racist hiring. As a result of these events, I was invited by NRDC to make a presentation at a panel on urban justice and ecology at the Public Interest Law Conference on Land, Air and Water, in Eugene, Oregon on March 1, 1990.

I posted my name on several bulletin boards seeking a ride from the San Francisco Bay Area to the conference, and ended up in a car with Luke and two other people. About halfway up to Oregon, after the ice was broken, Luke and I got talking and it turned out that I knew Luke’s Dad, Skip Cole. He had given a lecture on ceremonial houses in Eastern Nigeria, at a class I was teaching in the School of Architecture at U.C. Berkeley. From then on, Luke and I hit it off pretty well.

Our panel, with Felicia Marcus, Juan Soto, and the now famous architect, William McDonough, was a little odd. No one in the environmental movement was talking about cities in those days. As I recall, about 20 people showed up.

After the panel, I told Luke that I had felt a little weird participating in a conference about the environment with a thousand lawyers, and besides Juan Soto and myself, there were no other people of color. Luke agreed and drew up a flier calling for an impromptu caucus meeting. About 30 people came. As we went around the room we learned that people of color were fighting environmental justice battles all across the country. We agreed to collect their stories and publish them. Luke came up with the name, Race, Poverty, and the Environment (RPE), A Newsletter for Social and Environmental Justice. The first issue was published on April 22, Earth Day 1990.

Carl Anthony co-founded Urban Habitat in 1989 and RP&E in 1990. He currently serves on Urban Habitat’s board of directors.

Climate Change: Catalyst or Catastrophe? | Vol. 16, No. 2 | Fall 2009 | Credits

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