King celebration emphasizes links between equity and sustainability

A 1987 study found that the best predictor for where to find hazardous or toxic waste sites was not factors such as hydrology, geology or property values — it was race demographics. A similar study in 2007 found the correlation to be even more dramatic: toxic sites were more likely to be near minority neighborhoods.

Willamette University College of Law Professor Robin Morris Collin cited these studies Monday night as she iterated the importance of addressing equity in relation to sustainability. Her lecture, “Race, Waste and Sustainability: From Common Origins to Our Common Future,” launched the university’s two-week celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

With a theme of “Changing the Colors of Sustainability,” the celebration features a diverse array of lectures, discussions, community service events and artistic performances. Sustainability awareness is already strong at Willamette — which was named the first university in the nation for sustainability activities by the National Wildlife Federation — and the celebration aims to call attention to the social justice issues that often get left out of sustainability discussions.

The Monday evening program began with a dramatic interpretation of Angela Davis, performed by Jean Moule, associate professor at Oregon State University’s College of Education. Entitled “I Dream A World, Portraits of Black Women Who Dreamed America: Angela Davis,” the performance was a powerful account of Davis’s bafflement at discrimination and the burdens under which she operated as a young woman.

Davis herself, a long-time civil rights activist and educator, will address campus and the community Friday evening in an event in Smith Auditorium. (Learn more at

Collin, the first professor to teach sustainability at an American law school, initiated the discussion, asking what society is willing to exchange in order to be sustainable.

“Our ecosystem imposes limits,” she said. “We are forced to ask, ‘Who gets what?’ Sacrifice zones, such as toxic waste dumps, exist because we value something else more. And so privilege buys you a little more time.”

Science has carefully tracked the destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity by industrial development, but a discourse surrounding the social consequences of this development upon marginalized groups is virtually nonexistent, according to Collin.

“The environment will always tell the story,” she said, “and the color line is unacceptable.”

She hearkened to the words of King and John Donne’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in her discussion of a solution, calling for attention to ethics and action. Like King, Collin called out the “appalling silence of good people,” and emphasized that equity is a problem society should not wait to address.

She encouraged the audience, filled with many Willamette students, to follow the lead of people like King who stood up for their beliefs and actively worked for change in society.

“I believe in civility and mutual respect,” she said. “But power doesn’t concede because we ask nicely. We must demand what we need.”

For a full list of events celebrating King, visit the Office of Multicultural Affairs website.