Our Stories

View from the Other Side

Bob Collin lived in a trailer when he was a child, and near the town dump for his first three years. The family fortunes saw a dramatic turnaround after his father got his engineering degree on the G.I. bill, but Collin had already been shaped by his early experiences. He had begun to question a status quo that sometimes seemed unfair.

"Why do we not talk about the inequalities in where we locate waste dumps and factories?" asks the senior research fellow with Willamette's Center for Sustainable Communities. "Why, in a country of plenty, do millions of mothers run out of food money at the end of the month? Where can underprivileged people or people of color find justice, if they can't find it in the courtroom?"

At 21, Collin helped argue his first court case as a New York law clerk -- for an elderly black woman who died of diabetes and privation -- and at 24 he signed on as a community activist in Kansas City, advocating for tenants who were being forced out of their homes by illegal condominium conversion practices. "All I owned back then was my bike and my books," Collin says.

"At night there were gunshots and police sirens, but many mothers were trying to keep their children above it," he says. "When kids are lost, it's a loss to society." Collin looked at poverty from the viewpoint of the impoverished. "My mother told me, 'Suspend judgment. You don't know why people are acting in any particular way.'"

Collin focused on poverty, and then housing and discrimination, and finally environmental justice, as he earned graduate degrees in social work, urban planning and law. The senior researcher has published prolifically, individually and with his wife, Law Professor Robin Morris Collin. Many of their publications address the environment and social justice. Disenfranchised people -- especially people of color -- bear the brunt of environmental decision-making, they say. Toxic wastes typically end up in the neighborhoods where people with darker skin or lower incomes live.

In 2006, the Willamette law professor published The Environmental Protection Agency: Cleaning Up America's Act, a volume in a series designed for citizens, teachers and students to learn how government works. The book details how a young, powerful federal agency was charged with the protection of America's environment, and how it handled crises like Love Canal and the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Collin and wife Robin Morris Collin, who also teaches at the Willamette College of Law, will co-chair Oregon's Environmental Justice Commission, and Collin's 2-volume Battleground: Environment is due out in spring 2008. The book analyzes more than 100 of the most controversial environmental topics, including climate change, the Kyoto agreement, genetically modified food, urban sprawl, reported links between air pollution and childhood asthma, and whether industrial pollutants cause cancer.

"Environmental issues have been fueling debate since the age of the pyramids," Collin says. "They inflame passions in people on all points of the political spectrum.

"People will be wrong. People will be right. What's critical is that each stakeholder have a say so we can have a reasoned debate." His book seeks to do that, providing a platform for spokespeople from industry, government and the community.

Willamette is in a unique position to carry this dialogue forward, he says. "There is a brain trust of environmentally minded professors and students here, including the unique constellation of people associated with Willamette's Center for Sustainable Communities.

"There are a lot of 'inconvenient truths' pressing down on us," Collin says, "and ultimately, everyone is going to be part of the conversation about the environment." By disseminating information, Collin hopes to ensure that the most disenfranchised can come to the table.