As a sociologist in the 1970s, Robert Bullard made a dismaying discovery: Houston landfills and incinerators were far more likely to be located in communities of color than in white neighborhoods, even though blacks made up just one-fourth of the city’s population. That realization launched a lifetime of environmental justice work, including leadership in convening the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit and framing the landmark 17 Principles of Environmental Justice in 1991, bringing environmental justice to the fore at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and catalyzing creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice.

Now dean of the Barbara Jordan–Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, Bullard is widely considered the “father of the environmental justice movement.” He shared his reflections with Ensia in the wake of the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898, which instructed federal agencies to address environmental justice in their activities.