Luke’s Legacy

Luke Cole (1962 – 2009)

Co-Founder & Executive Director

Luke and Nancy

"Luke Cole’s professional life was all about two words: environmental justice.”

Brent Newell

The Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment (CRPE) was founded by Luke Cole, along with his mentor Ralph Abascal of California Rural Legal Assistance, in 1989. Luke was a visionary leader who helped define the role of law and lawyers in the environmental justice movement. He passed away in Uganda while on sabbatical in June of 2009. He represented low-income communities and workers throughout California fighting environmental hazards. In his work, he stressed the need for community-led organizing and litigation. Through CRPE, he also provided legal and technical assistance to attorneys and community groups involved in environmental justice struggles nationwide.


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 lawyers should play. 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.


Cole worked with dozens of community groups in local struggles across the United States, including representing Kettleman City residents in their successful efforts to stop Chemical Waste Management from building California’s first toxic waste incinerator in their community. 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.


Cole’s legal publications remain foundational to the field of environmental justice legal work. He was the co-founder and editor emeritus of the journal Race, Poverty & the Environment and co-author of the book From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement with Professor Sheila Foster. He was a visiting professor at UC-Hastings School of Law, and also taught 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.

Luke at BVHP
Luke_ARB Scoping Plan Hearing
Luke_with_YUCA _nd_Bob_Bullard
Luke touched many people in his life and defined the environmental justice movement through his work. To dedicate a donation to CRPE to Luke’s legacy, visit our Donate page.