Gerald Torres
Illustration by Sam Hadley
Integrity of Purpose

Integrity of Purpose

Gerald Torres, who joined the Yale School of the Environment (YSE) faculty in January as a professor of environmental justice, talks about two pivotal events in his career that continue to inform and inspire his work and teaching on environmental and social justice.
Whenever he gets tired, stressed, or starts to think his work is difficult, Gerald Torres looks up at a photo hanging in his office. It’s of a group of 30 Indian children and their elders standing in the ceremonial office of the attorney general. It was taken in 1994 when Torres was serving as an advisor to then Attorney General Janet Reno. Several months before it was taken, Torres had accompanied Reno to the first “listening conference” with tribal leadership in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After the conference, Attorney General Reno spoke at a pueblo in New Mexico. After speaking at length, Reno told those in attendance that they shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to her if she, or her office, could help with anything.

It may sound like typical “politician speak,” but the children in the audience took her at face value. They began organizing their pueblo and drafting a list of things they thought the attorney general might be able to help them with, including improvements to the juvenile justice system in Indian Country and the establishment of a senior center on the pueblo.
They wrote a petition and ran a relay race from Albuquerque to Washington, D.C., to present it to Reno at the Justice Department. So, several months after the listening conference, when the guard at the Justice Department gate asked Torres what to do about the group of children who were asking to see the attorney general without an appointment, he replied: “let them in.” After talking with the children and their elders and explaining that Attorney General Reno was currently testifying on Capitol Hill, he asked the official Justice Department photographer if he were available to take a photo.

“I look at that photo to remind me that words matter,” Torres says. “I remain moved to this day by the faith of those kids in the power of their own beliefs, in the belief that the government would listen to them. It reminds me that I have to take my work seriously because it may produce good for others beyond myself.”
Gerald Torres says he looks at this 1994 photo of Indian children and their elders gathered in the ceremonial office of the U.S. Attorney General whenever he needs a reminder that words matter.
The listening tour, itself, could be counted as among the good that Torres’ work at the Justice Department produced. Reno, who was very interested in Indian affairs law, had asked Torres to establish a different model for communicating with the tribes and for setting priorities for the Justice Department’s work on tribal affairs. In conversations with Reno and Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, among others, the idea of the listening conference was born.

“We were just talking, and we thought, ‘why don’t we do it in reverse? Why don’t the tribes set the agenda,’” Torres says. “So, we created the first listening conference which brought all the tribes together with federal officers working on Indian issues, including three at cabinet level.”

The listening tour model created the basis for federal Indian policy in the Clinton administration and has had a lasting influence on the way federal agencies develop and carry out Indian affairs law and policy. It also was one of the catalysts for the creation of The Office of Tribal Justice. Formed in 1995, the Office serves as a central point of contact and advisor to the Attorney General on Indian country-specific legal and policy matters.

The Advancement Project 
Although he doesn’t have a picture from that time hanging in his office, Torres also credits his work with the California-based Advancement Project beginning in the late ’90s as having a critical influence on his scholarship and thought on racial and social justice.

Dedicated to “transforming the public systems impacting the lives of low-income people of color in California,” Torres and his colleagues at the Advancement Project, including prominent civil rights activist and lawyer Connie Rice, wanted to track the public health dollars that California was spending by breaking it down to neighborhood level. Their goal was to understand better how and where money was being spent and make that data more usable, particularly as a tool to inform political work.
Canopy 2020 01 Spring
This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of Canopy magazine.
“We wanted to look at communities holistically, using mapping technologies and social science research to understand how people actually experience their lives,” Torres says. “We’d have meetings where we’d put a map on the wall and ask people to identify places where they felt unsafe and ask why. Maybe there’s a liquor store there and a couch where people sit, and it’s on someone’s path to the grocery store. It’s not a crime scene, but enough to affect someone’s quality of life.”
That’s one of the many things that excites me about [YSE] — you have people working in areas that have to become part of environmental justice scholarship.
— Gerald Torres
To achieve their goal, the Advancement Project brought together interdisciplinary teams of experts, including geographers, public health workers, lawyers, economists, community organizers, sociologists, and others to try to define the myriad of problems closely linked to social and racial injustice in Los Angeles — and to develop solutions. It was an experience that Torres says reinforced for him how crucial interdisciplinary work is in achieving solutions and even defining a problem sufficiently.

“That’s one of the many things that excites me about [YSE], you have people working in areas that have to become part of environmental justice scholarship,” Torres says. “Industrial ecology, for example, I’ve been trying to convince people that we need this discipline to help us asses the regulatory framework we have, whether it’s capable of working the way we need it to, and to figuring out how to achieve the goals of the statutes.”

Another way that the Advancement Project differed from many other organizations focused on civil rights and social justice, Torres says, is that group didn’t think of litigation or even legislation as the sole methods of addressing the problems they were identifying. “We tried to look at what would offer the most redress to that set of problems in the community. It might be floating a bond; it might be helping to mount a political campaign or building a community organization so people could advocate for themselves,” he says. “We never assumed there was one solution or that the first solution you worked on would yield the results you wanted.”

When he looks back at those two pivotal times in his career, Torres says, two things come to mind: integrity of purpose — a purpose that was defined by goals that were larger than immediate objectives — and the importance of working in teams.

“I’ve been fortunate to work with many talented and gifted people throughout my career, and I never saw them patting themselves on the back,” he says. “They realized that we rarely accomplish anything by ourselves, and we’re never as smart as we think we are. Those are lessons I always try to pass on to my students — the importance of building teams and making sure that your work stays true to its principles — that and that no defeat or success is ever final.”

Note: Professor Torres uses the term “Indian” (as opposed to Native American) in conversation, explaining that many Native people feel that the term carries their history for the past several hundred years. In addition, many Native people prefer to be called by their specific tribal name whenever possible.
PUBLISHED: July 1, 2020
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.