summer 2008 Edition
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the emancipation of robin morris collin

Law Professor Robin Morris Collin knows a thing or two about social justice. She was raised on it.

Robin Morris Collin

Some of her great-grandparents were still slaves when Willamette University was founded in 1842. They were not allowed to marry, “own” their children or choose their profession. Perhaps that’s why their descendents have been righting wrongs ever since.

After Emancipation Collin’s greatgrandfather became a university professor at a black college. Her grandfather became a minister and civil rights activist who focused his energy on ending segregation in the Methodist Church. And her father championed social justice as a lawyer, although his introduction to the practice of law didn’t come easy.

After graduating at the top of his class, Collin’s father received only one job offer, as a librarian with a Washington, D.C., law firm, with the express understanding that he would not meet with clients. His classmate and best friend, with a GPA just 1/100th of a point higher, was inundated with offers. Collin’s father turned down the demeaning offer, established the first integrated law firm in Chicago, and made his name with a landmark case. He successfully sued to allow black doctors access to Chicago hospitals — not on the basis of discrimination, but antitrust laws; the hospitals, he said, had conspired to restrain competition. “My father saw that changes could be made using rhetoric and the law,” Collin says.

Collin with her father, John Payton Morris

Collin with her father, John Payton Morris

When Collin’s father was offered a position as a law professor in Arizona, he asked his 12-year-old daughter what she thought of the idea of moving. “Are there any black people out there?” Collin asked. When her father said no, she said, “Well, we’d be kind of like pioneers then, wouldn’t we?” They moved in 1968, just months before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and Collin has been reflecting ever since about what it means to be a pioneer.

“African Americans are sometimes pioneers for much the same reason white people were pioneers,” Collin says. “If you feel you have an opportunity to live a more fully engaged life and develop your God-given potential, you’ll change your life radically. You’ll move away from your comfort zone. I followed my father’s path.”

Collin first attended law school at age three, when her father parked her in a basket under the law library desk where he worked. After she earned her own law degree, she threw her energy into civil rights. “In my case there have been controversies white people could ignore that I can’t. If you’re going to open the way for others, you need to speak up.

“But I do think we’re in a different era. Our work is different. My grandfather knocked down structural barriers. The struggle now is one that addresses the narratives that go on in people’s minds. We need to dismantle the mental paradigm of racism, and that task is more nuanced and slippery.”

Collin also sees a changed landscape, one where environmental ills, not barred lunch counters, are the primary threat to people of color. “We can’t even talk about fixing the problems of poverty and racism without talking about the environment,” says Collin, who has spent countless hours as a writer, speaker and advocate for environmental justice and sustainability. “We don’t live in ecological communities alone, but in social communities, and for those communities to be sustainable, they must be fair and inclusive.

“The best predictor of toxic waste in a neighborhood isn’t geology, hydrology or property values,” Collin says. “It’s race. The darker the skin or the poorer the people, the more toxic their neighborhood is likely to be. The pattern holds in neighborhoods and between nations. Look across the border of almost any poor country and you’ll see it: illegal dumping of toxic waste, exploitation of environmental and human resources, and violation of environmental laws. Poorer, lessdeveloped nations are far more likely to be recipients of the new global trade in hazardous wastes, with the disenfranchised bearing the brunt of unsustainable lifestyles and behaviors. It’s environmental racism.

Collin’s father with her grandmother and grandfather, Grace Carroll Morris and the Rev. Robert Gammon Morris

Collin’s father with her grandmother and grandfather, Grace Carroll Morris and the Rev. Robert Gammon Morris

“But environmental degradation eventually reaches us all,” she says. “The Earth’s natural systems are interconnected without regard to national borders, race or wealth. Contaminated water leaches from degraded landscapes into city water systems, just as the jet stream brings pollution from coal-fired power plants in Beijing to the Oregon Coast. One country’s environmental development may lead to another country’s environmental disaster, but our natural systems are becoming so deeply intertwined that sacrifice zones are no longer sustainable. Absurd and dangerous decisions are made when we fail to include the people who live with them. Inclusion means a voice for all, not just for the economically and politically powerful.”

Collin co-founded the Conference Against Environmental Racism and the original Sustainable Business Symposium, both in Eugene, Ore.; helped establish the Environmental Justice Action Group in Portland; was appointed to Oregon’s new Environmental Justice Task Force; and has served on the Willamette University Sustainability Council, where she helped frame Willamette’s approach to environmentalism, in which equity plays a significant part. Collin’s three-volume encyclopedia of sustainability, with one volume dedicated to equity, will be published in 2009. And she helped envision the College of Law’s Certificate Program in Sustainability, where students combine studies about environmental, energy and natural resource law with environmental justice.

Collin also taught the first American law school course on sustainability, in 1993. The first time she taught it, her students were “profoundly depressed.” She says, “I took that to heart. It’s distressing to hear that everything is going wrong. But for me, sustainability is a way to make sense of the chaos and distress. I want to teach law and say, 'Here are the tools for changing the story.’”

For the last 13 years, Collin has done just that, giving students, faculty and community members the tools to protect not just the Earth, but also its most vulnerable citizens. Her ancestors taught her well.