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Luke Cole pioneered environmental justice law. It's now such an established field that it's hard to believe it even needed pioneering. It's hard to believe that its pioneer was only 46 years old when he died last year. As I wrote then, still stunned with grief:

Luke Cole graduated with honors from Stanford, and cum laude from Harvard Law School. He could have done anything. He could have gone to work for any law firm in the country, and made a fortune.

Instead, he moved to San Francisco and co-founded a non-profit that specialized in environmental justice law. The San Francisco Chronicle explained:

"This was not a well-understood concept at the time," said Brent Newell, an attorney and legal director of Mr. Cole's nonprofit organization, the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment in San Francisco. Mr. Cole was executive director of the center.

"He was told by poverty law firms that they don't do environmental law, and the big environmental groups said they don't do law for poor people," Newell said.

But Luke met Ralph Abascal, himself a legend of poverty law, who worked at California Rural Legal Assistance.

Abascal understood exactly what Mr. Cole wanted to do, Newell said, and "gave Luke a phone and a desk." Abascal and Mr. Cole founded the center in the fall of 1989.

And the Los Angeles Times:

Cole first demonstrated his innovative approach in 1990, when he helped the poor, Latino residents of Kettleman City in the San Joaquin Valley defeat a proposed toxic waste incinerator project by pointing out that the environmental impact report had not been translated into Spanish, the primary language of almost half of the town's residents.

In the late 1990s he applied civil rights law to a case in South Camden, N.J., where an impoverished black community opposed the construction of a cement recycling plant. The proposed plant met technical requirements, but Cole, citing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, argued that it would worsen the quality of life in a minority community that was already suffering from high levels of exposure to dangerous pollutants.

In Kivalina, Alaska, he recently settled a case against a major zinc producer whose mining operations he said were fouling the water supply of a 4,000-year-old Inupiat Eskimo village. He was continuing to represent the Inupiat people in a new lawsuit alleging that Exxon, Chevron and other oil companies were contributing to global warming, which some experts say is causing Kivalina to erode.

Of the South Camden case, which was overturned on appeal, the New York Times wrote:

“It marked the first recognition by any court that African-Americans and Latinos were experiencing discrimination with regard to the siting of noxious, polluting facilities,” said Olga Pomar, a lawyer with South Jersey Legal Services and a co-counsel in the case. “That sparked greater awareness among environmental justice activists.”

An awareness that snowballed into a movement. More on that, but first a little about the man. Again, as I wrote last year:

Luke had bright, sparkling eyes, and one of the easiest and most heartfelt laughs I've ever heard. He met one of the warmest, most soulful women in the world, married her, and helped her raise her son. He threw himself a birthday party every year, adamantly refused all presents, and made it an occasion for root beer tastings, having speciality brands shipped in from all over the country. He also held chocolate tastings. He loved music, theater, and art, intensely supported the presidential campaign of the young Illinois Senator who had been just behind him, at law school, and went to Washington both for the inauguration and to be consulted on environmental justice issues.

He was a passionate birder, and traveled all over the world, leading eco-tourist expeditions to Madagascar. I got a postcard from him, just last week. He'd seen his first lemurs, including the rare and once endangered Perrier Sifaka, as well as plenty of new birds. He'd been bitten by leeches, and had been banged up in low-speed motorcycle crashes, on Madagascar's ragged back roads. He said my toddler son would love the place. He was headed to Uganda, to meet his wife and brother. It was in Uganda that he died, in a car crash. His wife is now twice widowed, and was herself seriously injured.

The last time I saw Luke was on the last night of my last visit to the Bay Area. Mrs. T and I had dinner with Luke and his wife. They brought a toy for our son to play with, on the drive back to Oregon.

A few days after writing that, I reflected on my grieving, here.

But as great a friend as he was, as great a person as he was, it's Luke's work that deserves to be emphasized. At a private memorial, timed to coincide with his birthday, his friend and colleague, Angela Harris, with whom he both taught and practiced law, explained part of what made Luke such an invaluable activist and attorney. She has given me permission to post her words, in their entirety. They are a lesson for us all.

Nancy asked me to say a little bit about Luke’s professional legacy. Luke and I taught the first environmental justice class at Berkeley together, which was probably one of the first such classes in the country. I was there when Luke created the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment in a little cubicle in the back room of California Rural Legal Assistance, and I was the founding chair of his board when CRPE officially became a separate organization. We’ve never written an article together, but I talked to him a lot about his ideas and I teach his work all the time because his writings are so funny and true and useful.

The first thing to say is that Luke pretty much started the field of environmental justice lawyering. He didn’t start the environmental justice movement, but he started the conversation about how you lawyer for the movement. For people who don’t know, the environmental justice movement is about recognizing that environmental hazards, like pollution, pesticides, toxic waste, and natural disasters, affect everyone . . . but they don’t affect everyone equally. Because of the way our society is structured, poor people and people of color suffer the most, whether it’s farmworkers in the Central Valley dealing with toxic plumes of pesticides blowing off the fields into their homes or little villages in Alaska having their hunting and fishing livelihoods destroyed by oil extraction, pollution and climate change.

It seems obvious, and yet Luke was the first person to recognize that for lawyers, an environmental justice practice meant bringing together two fields that had always been understood as totally separate and unrelated: environmental law and civil rights law. His very first article, which made him famous in the academy, was about how lawyers have to master both fields in order to understand and represent poor people and people of color who are facing environmental hazards. Indeed, even for lawyers who have a purely “environmental” practice and lawyers who have a purely “civil rights” practice, it is important to recognize that a clean and healthy environment for all requires some measure of social justice, and that the fight against discrimination includes the fight for clean water and air and the right to participate in decisions made about the environment.

But Luke’s contributions went beyond inventing a new legal practice area. He also spent a lot of time writing and lecturing and teaching young lawyers about how to be a lawyer in this new field. The first lesson that he was always trying to teach was a professional lesson about service and humility. Because we have our professional degrees and we have what he called “macho law brains,” we lawyers always think we should be up there at the front of the struggle, filing lawsuits and saving everybody. Luke really tried to give lawyers the opposite message: Lawyers should be “on tap, not on top.” It’s not our job to run everything. It’s our job to help communities help themselves. He told young lawyers not to take any action until they could convincingly answer the following questions:
       Does it educate?
       Does it build the movement?
       Does it get to the root of the problem?

The second lesson that Luke tried to teach young lawyers was that, in the end, environmental justice isn’t about law anyway; it’s about power. People of color and poor people always get the short end of the stick, not because we need more laws, but because our capitalist system with its history of racial exploitation is structured that way. So building power is what environmental justice is all about, and that’s why CRPE has lawyers and community organizers working cooperatively to build the movement.

Sometimes realizing that it’s all about power is hard for people. Another thing Luke used to talk about was what he called the “three great myths of white Americana.” The three great myths are these:

  1. The government is on our side.
  1. The truth will set you free.

And last but not least:

  1. We need a lawyer.

And even though Luke was all about professional humility and a service ethic for lawyers, when it came to building power, he was also all about kicking ass. He was never afraid to afflict the comfortable as well as comforting the afflicted. If he needed to be in your face, he was in your face. And although he was good at representing his clients in meetings, he was also good at completely shutting a meeting down.

So that’s what Luke was all about as a professional person. The last thing I want to say is that I was really happy to get a chance to talk about his legacy with you all, because his words are so true and so right, and when I say them I feel as if he is still here. Most importantly, I am happy  because his work continues. When I talk about Luke’s work, I get to speak in the present tense. And that is a very great gift.

Luke saw a need and filled it. He did what was right because it was right. When everyone told him he couldn't do it, he refused to listen. When there was no place for him to do what he knew needed to be done, he created a place—for himself, and for the many who have now joined the cause.

Luke and CRPE were named recipients of the 2009 American Bar Association Award for Excellence in Environmental, Energy, and Resources Stewardship. At a public memorial held last September, it was announced that a permanent chair was being established at Stanford Law School, called the Luke W. Cole Professor of Environmental Law and Director of the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic.

It's hard to believe that a year has passed since his death. It was hard to believe when it happened, and it's still hard to believe today. Luke was so much larger than life, and yet he was so beautifully human. Knowing he was there, fighting the good fight, was a source of strength and comfort. It's still hard to conceive that both we who knew and loved him, and all who didn't know him but benefitted from his efforts, will forever more be without him. He is an inspiration, now, still. To those who work in environmental justice law, he is nearly legend.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Jun 20, 2010 at 10:00 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  A young lady I talk with is headed to law school (9+ / 0-)

    this Fall and Luke is her primary inspiration.  She wants to do pioneer law in the area of animal rights 'just like Luke Cole did with environmental law'.

    Some people are a gift that keeps on giving.

    "Goldman Sachs forced to legally change name to 'Goldman Sachs,Those Bastards'...The Onion February 1, 2010

    by St Louis Woman on Sun Jun 20, 2010 at 10:09:06 AM PDT

  •  Thank you for this beautiful tribute. (10+ / 0-)

    The world needs people to carry on his work.

    Hey BP! A person's a person, no matter how small!/twittering RL_Miller

    by RLMiller on Sun Jun 20, 2010 at 10:13:23 AM PDT

  •  Luke Cole (14+ / 0-)

    Free Image Hosting at

    Luke Cole, a leading theorist and practitioner of environmental justice law, who battled toxic waste facilities, mega-dairies, mining companies and other pollution threats in poor and minority communities in California and Alaska, died Saturday in a car crash in Uganda. He was 46.

    Cole was traveling with his wife on a rural road in western Uganda when a truck hit their vehicle head-on. He died at a clinic a short time later, according to his father, Herbert Cole. His wife, Nancy Shelby, was flown to a hospital in Amsterdam, where she is recovering from her injuries.

    A man of many passions, Cole was the executive director of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, a San Francisco-based nonprofit he founded in 1989 to address environmental racism, in which low-income and minority communities are alleged to suffer a disproportionate share of pollution problems.

    Here we are now Entertain us I feel stupid and contagious

    by Scarce on Sun Jun 20, 2010 at 10:14:18 AM PDT

    •  What would Luke have said (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mrkvica, Laurence Lewis

      about the BP disaster, about the proposed use of methyl iodide on strawberries?

      Talk about regulatory capture! MEI takes the cake.

      I think about how I felt after driving on Highway One by a field a couple years ago where spraying was in process about a quarter mile away. I felt out of breath and contaminated for the rest of the day from the airborne gas. How do I know that's what it was? I could smell it even though the windows and the air intake were closed.

      I think about the families of field workers who will be exposed, in utero, new born, young children, all inhaling the residues from the air and their parents' clothing. That contamination by proxy has been documented.

      Surely that's not what strawberry fields forever was about?

      Talk about family values and environmental justice.

      Thanks to Luke's leadership, the new MEI outrage may not come to pass.

  •  Excellent (6+ / 0-)

    environmental justice isn’t about law anyway; it’s about power

    "...calling for a 5" deck gun is not parody. Not by a long shot." (gnaborretni)

    by annieli on Sun Jun 20, 2010 at 10:15:00 AM PDT

  •  your words are beautiful tribute for your friend (12+ / 0-)

    environmental justice has a long way to go, and in fact, it is a field that now expands beyond poor or minority communities. but thanks to your friend and others, the links among environment, human rights and civil rights offer a foundation to build upon.  

    I hope some night you will host our EcoJustice series here at DK. :)

    Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Mohandas K. Gandhi

    by Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse on Sun Jun 20, 2010 at 10:15:08 AM PDT

  •  When did he graduate Harvard? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MT Spaces, Laurence Lewis, rb137

    Just curious.

    Full Disclosure: I am not Ben Leming. But I think he's pretty cool.

    by Benintn on Sun Jun 20, 2010 at 10:15:09 AM PDT

  •  Many thanks for this. (4+ / 0-)

    A beautiful, well deserved tribute.  I shared it on Digg, Reddit and Twitter. :)

  •  Yeah, a giant in the field (8+ / 0-)

    I count myself amongst his disciples. I learned from him when I was a law during the mid-1990's, and I structured my education and then career in the law largely along the lines that he was talking about in terms of not only the intersection between environmental and civil rights law, but also a lawyering style that puts the community and its leaders front and center, not the lawyers.

    Following his lead, for the past eight years, I've worked at a legal aid office in the inner-city, providing legal education, counsel and advice, and representation to community-based organizations that have been, as Angela Harris put it, "building power" in low-income communities to address issues relating to not only the environment and public health, but also housing and economic justice.

    It's never easy to find people who want to pay for this kind of lawyering, but it's crucial, rewarding work, and we all owe a great debt of gratitude to Luke Cole for pioneering so much of it.

  •  Thanks (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mrkvica, Laurence Lewis, rb137, jethrock

    This was educational.  I knew about environmental justice, but I never knew the history behind the law/lawyer aspect of it.

  •  He led a busy and brilliant life. (6+ / 0-)

    This is a great reminder of what altruistic dedication can do and how far it can go.

  •  Thanks for this inspiring Sunday afternoon read.. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mrkvica, Laurence Lewis, fhcec, rb137

    With all the bad news consistently being thrown in our face, it is truly inspiring to read about innovative people with focus and determination for the long haul.

    "Trying to hold back the revision of history is always a good thing." -- Peter Christopherson

    by jethrock on Sun Jun 20, 2010 at 10:58:21 AM PDT

  •  Another touching tribute (6+ / 0-)

    He did what was right because it was right. When everyone told him he couldn't do it, he refused to listen.

    Let him be an inspiration to us all.

    The best way to save the planet is to keep laughing!

    by LaughingPlanet on Sun Jun 20, 2010 at 10:59:10 AM PDT

  •  Wow -- thanks for this. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Laurence Lewis

    We should really post about him on Monday night at EcoJustice sometime. I missed the stuff you posted last year...

  •  So sad (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mrkvica, Laurence Lewis, rb137

    What a great man. Too bad he died so young.  Truly someone to look up to.  

    The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government. - Thomas Jefferson

    by ctexrep on Sun Jun 20, 2010 at 11:26:49 AM PDT

  •  I knew Luke when he was at Harvard Law School (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mrkvica, Laurence Lewis

    he was an inspiration even then.  full of passion and on fire for justice.

    I cannot get my mind around the fact that he is gone so soon.

    "Politics is like driving. To go backward put it in R. To go forward put it in D."
    --Tom Harkin

    by TrueBlueMajority on Sun Jun 20, 2010 at 11:33:07 AM PDT

  •  Confederate widows--give me a break. (0+ / 0-)

    I will be 59 this year, and my GREAT-GRANDFATHER fought in the Civil War. Isn't it time to give it a rest.

  •  Remembrances of Luke and Lessons for Us (4+ / 0-)
    I believe that I first met Luke when he and Carl Anthony came to the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in 1990 here in Eugene.  He expressed his frustrations with the state of the environmental law movement and its failure to pursue justice as well as law.

    Based on that, less than six weeks after they returned to California they co-founded the "Race, Poverty, and the Environment" (RPE) newsletter (which continues today as a journal).  

    Characteristically, Luke did not just vent his frustration.  Instead he channeled it into a constructive and progressive direction, vowing to make things better.

    As explained on RPE's web page:

    In 1990, the journal was founded as a joint project of the Urban Habitat Program and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation's Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. Since January 2004 RP&E has been solely a project of Urban Habitat.

    As described by founding editors Carl Anthony and Luke Cole in the first issue of RP&E published on Earth Day April 20, 1990, "The idea for the Race, Poverty and the Environment Newsletter grew out of a caucus of interested people at the University of Oregon's Public Interest Law Conference, held March 1-4 1990. Caucus participants recognized the importance of increased attention to the nexus of race, class and environmental issues and the need for a forum in which to continue their dialogue.

    Luke's influence went far and wide.  One of his classmates -- a law professor who is now an official in the current Administration -- wrote last year, upon Luke's death:

    As a college and law school classmate of Luke, I can say that Luke was a man of many talents and mountains of compassion and charm.  I write and teach about environmental justice because of Luke's early example.

    Another of his classmates wrote:

    I, too, was a lawschool classmate of Luke's. I am deeply saddened and shaken by his death.  Luke was a co-author with Sheila Foster at Rutgers of a leading book on the history of the environmental justice movement and counsel for the Native Village of Kivalina in its nuisance case against Exxon and other large greenhouse gas emitters.  He was also a multi-talented man with many passions in addiiton to environmental justice, including birding, sidewalk seals and rootbeer.

    A third classmate remembered:

    Interestingly, he wasn't active in the environmental community as a law student, focusing more on civil rights/civil liberties issues and tormenting the Dean's Office and Federalist Society.  As far as I know, it was only when he headed west after law school that he had his insights into (1) the tight connection between environmental protection and human rights, (2) the powerful role an activist organization could play in this field, and (3) how to create and successfully direct such a group.

    Another law professor wrote:

    [M]any . . . students in environmental planning and policy at UC-Berkeley worked with him. He was a great inspiration and was the one person who really made the connection between farm workers' rights and the environmental consequences of industrial agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley. He will missed greatly, but his legacy will live on in the work of countless inspired by his example.

    Still another law professor:

    Luke was never complacent. I admired the way he relentlessly challenged me and other environmental academics, environmental lawyers, and environmentalists to do more for environmental justice. Our meetings in recent years were mostly happenstance but I never ceased to enjoy his company, no matter how brief. His passion for people, for life, and living, ranging from the compelling needs of indigenous peoples to the best root beer and birding, enriched the world around him.

    Yet another:

    I first met Luke years ago when he was young, brash and brilliant and talking up an idea of a statewide environmental justice center.  . . . He was my go to person when I was confounded by an environmental justice issue.

    The tributes go on:

    I first met Luke in the early 1990s after I began teaching an Environmental Justice Seminar . . . .  Luke encouraged me to continue the class and sent me great stuff to include in my course materials.  I mined Race, Poverty and the Environment for all of the great articles and clipped them out for my students.  I was always inspired by his passion for environmental justice and his ability to cut through conventional thinking and get at what matters.  What a huge loss for those of us in the academy and out.

    The list of law professors influenced by Luke goes on and on:

    Like many of us, I met Luke years ago.  In my case, it was when Luke was a young upstart student at Harvard Law School and I was a waitress in Cambridge, living with a friend who was a class-mate of Luke's.  I think knowing that Luke and his pal were law students made it possible for me to think that I could be one too.  Of Luke's many interests and talents, drawing cartoons must also be mentioned.  He had a very funny strip about "HLS, Inc." that I still sometimes refer my students to.  

    Luke was responsible for more law professors going to law school that perhaps he even knew:

    The efforts of Luke Cole and other pioneering environmental justice lawyers were the reason I went to law school; with their example as a model, I wanted to work on the confluence of environment, human rights, corporate responsibility, and development.

    And this professor's recollection:

    I teach EJ today . . . , and many of the techniques I share with my students I saw Luke apply in practice.  Indeed, he was a pioneer and will be remembered and missed.  

    Those techniques are what some professors have remembered most about Luke:

    [H]e had an incredible knack for drawing students into the real world of EJ law, politics and rabble rousing; I always felt like only a point-headed academic in comparison.  

    He also supervised a number of my students' outside projects, giving of time that I knew he didn't have, inspiring them always.

    One professor (also a classmate at Harvard) gave an example of Luke visiting his law class:

    [Luke] would start by asking the students to play the role of local residents concerned over the proposed siting of a haz waste facility in their poor community of color.  He then would lay out three different approaches they might consider.

    Starting with the "professional model," he would take on the persona of a DC-based lawyer with a suit, explaining in detail the different steps of the permitting process and explaining how his organization would represent the community every step of the way.  . . .

    He next played the role of what he called the "participatory model," explaining how the community members would get involved by reading over the proposed EIS and helping the lawyers prepare comments.  They hoped this involvement would prevent the siting but, if not, they could always sue.  . . .

    He then turned to what he called the "power model" (and my favorite part of class theater).  Playing the role of the grassroots radical, Luke would turn to the students, look them in the eye, and shout, "Everything you've heard about legal approaches and impact statements and public comment, that's bullshit!  These processes are set up for one reason and one reason only -- and that's for the powerful interests to win and for you to feel good about losing!  The only thing these people understand is power and we will hit them where it hurts."  

    He would then outline a more political and confrontational approach, such as identifying local council members in favor of the siting and printing  "WANTED" posters with their names, faces and "crimes" listed.  Needless to say, the students loved it.

    Finally stepping back into his own character, his take-home message was for the students to ask three questions in assessing each model:

    - Will it educate?
    - Will it build the movement?
    - Will it address the problem or only a symptom?

    He would end by explaining that an effective advocate took something from each of the three approaches.  Needless to say, he always had a line of students waiting to talk with him after the class.

    Luke's approach was detailed in an article he wrote in 1995 in Community Initiative: MACHO LAW BRAINS, PUBLIC CITIZENS, AND GRASSROOTS ACTIVISTS: THREE MODELS OF ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCACY.

    A professor noted an important message for public interest lawyers, not just for law students or professors, on the importance of respect:

    I've been struck by Luke's rare capacity to be both a great leader and a loyal servant to his clients.  His leadership is unquestioned - his vision, strategic skill, and articulate advocacy are known to all in the field.  At the same time, he evinced a deep respect for and grounding in the needs and views of his clients.  That respect is, of course, the message he articulated all along.  But Luke didn't just articulate the principle, he walked the walk.  

    May we all follow Luke's example of turning our frustrations into productive initiatives.

  •  Thanks so much for this. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mrkvica, Laurence Lewis

    I hope you don't mind that I'm forwarding a link to the SFBirds list.  He had many friends among SF birders, and that they would appreciate this piece.

    They only call it Class War when we fight back.

    by lineatus on Sun Jun 20, 2010 at 03:31:05 PM PDT

  •  Such a great reminder. I never met Luke (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Laurence Lewis

    Cole, but knew Ralph Abascal and CRLA well back in the 80's (my husband was with CRLA back in the 60's,70's).  

    It's only since my retirement from civl legal aid that I've gotten into environmental law.  (I  used to do legal aid in TN,in the 70's/80's, then in California  I always thought there were such similarities in my clients, either in the mountains of East Tennessee, or in the Sierra foothills.)

    Now I'm working with the same folks in fighting Appalachian MTR.

    I remember your earlier tribute to Luke just after his death.  And used to follow your writings as turkana.  Somehow missed that that's you.  Good to know.  I imagine we have lot's of common friends/acquaintances.

    Buy a Boat. Save the Seed.

    by cumberland sibyl on Sun Jun 20, 2010 at 08:39:23 PM PDT

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