Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Luke Cole, Thank You

Dear folks,

I’m sorry to bring this sad news to some of you.

Many of you know Tom and Linda Cole. Tom and Linda have been working in Africa for several years. Tom and I have been friends since we met in Cameroon in 1992. Tom is a wonderful person, Frisbee player and humanitarian. Linda is one of the most generous people in the world; she has been supporting women in refuge camps in northern Uganda for the past years through her organization, Community Action Fund for Women in Africa (CAFWA).

Tom’s oldest brother Luke, a world famous environmental justice attorney, was killed in a car crash in Uganda a few days ago. Luke was on sabbatical as the Director of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. He and his wife, Nancy, had just been to see the King of the Batwa (a heavily-persecuted pygmy tribe in Africa) when the accident occurred.

Luke was pure inspiration. His great intelligence and humanity were rooted with severe real-world, real-human, positive repercussions. The magnitude of his work has only begun to uncurl. Luke is on the order of, just below probably, Martin Luther King and Gandhi. He was a wonderful gift, remarkable goodness, filled with ferocious happiness and quirkiness. Luke, we bid you an only temporary farewell for now, and all of our gratitude for your life and your work. We miss you and will take care of your work now that you have evolved.

San Francisco, CA: The Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment (CRPE) is mourning the untimely loss of its founder, Luke W. Cole, who passed away in Uganda while on sabbatical on June 6, 2009.

Luke was a visionary leader who helped define the role of law and lawyers in the environmental justice movement. With the inspiration and support of his mentor, Ralph Abascal of California Rural Legal Assistance, he founded CRPE soon after his graduation from Harvard Law School. Luke saw that as a legal field, environmental justice could be a bridge between the traditional environmental movement and the traditional civil rights movement. Although he worked hard to bring lawyers into the environmental justice movement, he was always mindful of the secondary role they should play. Luke recognized that in the end, environmental racism is a political problem, not a legal one, and therefore that the ultimate end is to empower disempowered communities. In his view, no legal strategy was adequate unless it met the test of three questions: Will it educate? Will it build the movement? Will it address the root of the problem?

Luke came from privilege, and he often laughed about being called a “limousine liberal,” but in his life and his work he walked the walk. He used his education, his race and gender privilege, his “macho law brain,” his charisma, and his heart to help those who did not have a voice influence the decisions that affect their lives and health. His “from the ground up” philosophy of environmental justice advocacy has influenced an entire field of legal practice and scholarship, as well as built lasting relationships with the communities with which we work. While we feel his loss deeply, CRPE is committed to continuing his work and ensuring that his vision of justice and equity is realized.



Luke Cole directs the Center’s work. He represents low-income communities and workers throughout California who are fighting environmental hazards, stressing the need for community-based, community-led organizing and litigation. Through the Center, he also provides legal and technical assistance to attorneys and community groups involved in environmental justice struggles nationwide.
Cole has worked with dozens of community groups in local struggles across the United States. He represented Kettleman City residents in their successful efforts to stop Chemical Waste Management from building California’s first toxic waste incinerator in their community. Current cases include representing residents of the Inupiaq Village of Kivalina in northwest Alaska in a suit against the world’s largest zinc and lead mine, which has polluted the village’s water supply for years. Other recent cases include representing South Camden Citizens in Action of Camden, NJ, in a historic civil rights suit against the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection; the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe of Death Valley in its efforts to halt open-pit cyanide heap leach gold mining in sacred ancestral lands; Desert Citizens Against Pollution in the group’s successful challenge to tire burning in several cement kilns; and Communities for a Better Environment in a civil rights challenge to California pollution-trading regulations. Cole has been instrumental in halting the proliferation of mega-dairy farms in California’s Central Valley, and a key player in forcing local jurisdictions in California to study dairies’ environmental impacts and mitigate them.
Cole was appointed by EPA Administrator Carol Browner to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), where he served from 1996 through 2000 (including chairing NEJAC’s Enforcement Subcommittee from 1998 through 2000). He also served as a member of EPA’s Title VI Implementation Committee. In 1997, the American Lawyer magazine named Cole to the Public Sector 45, one of “forty-five young lawyers outside the private sector whose vision and commitment are changing lives.” Berkeley’s Ecology Law Quarterly awarded Cole its 1997 Environmental Leadership Award for “outstanding contributions to the development of environmental law and policy,” and the American Bar Association’s Barrister magazine named Cole one of “20 young lawyers making a difference” for his pioneering legal work. Community organizations have also honored Cole for his contributions to the environmental justice movement.
Cole is the co-founder and editor emeritus of the journal Race, Poverty & the Environment. He recently published, with Professor Sheila Foster, From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement (NYU Press, 2001). His legal publications include “Empowerment as they Key to Environmental Protection: the Need for Environmental Poverty Law,” in the Ecology Law Quarterly, as well as pieces in the Stanford Environmental Law Journal, the Journal of Environmental Law & Litigation, the Fordham Urban Law Journal, and the Michigan Law Review, among others. He has taught as a visiting professor at UC-Hastings School of Law, and also taught seminars on environmental justice at Stanford Law School, UC-Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, and Hastings. Cole graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School and with honors from Stanford University.

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