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Childhood tales of oppression spur environmental advocate

Lori Ann Burd

The echoes of oppression in Jewish history have shaped Lori Ann Burd’s strong sense of Jewish identity and desire to do good in the world.

“I am so privileged, and have come from these people who fought so hard just to survive,” says Burd, 39. “I have literally no excuse except to devote my life to public service. There’s nothing else I could possibly do except be an activist.”

Burd, environment health program director and senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, has had a winding journey to get to where she is now and it begins with her parents, immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Growing up in the USSR, neither of her parents knew very much about their Jewish heritage, except that “Jew” was stamped on their passports. Her father, along with his family, was sent to a forced labor and “rehabilitation” camp under Stalin’s Siberian gulag program when he was just a few weeks old. He spent his early childhood there before being released back to Moldova after the dictator died. Her mother was raised near the sea in Odessa, Ukraine. Throughout the USSR, any practice of Judaism, including celebrations of Jewish holidays and culture, were strictly forbidden.

They fled to the United States from the Soviet Union in the first wave of refuseniks in 1977 and settled in Chicago, assisted by HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), and by the Jewish community at large.

“The Jewish community really took it upon themselves to help these refugees once their terrible plight in the USSR became known,” Burd says.

A life shaped by a desire to help others

Since immigrating, Burd’s family has been rooted in Jewish values. She and her siblings grew up near Chicago, going to a Conservative synagogue and hearing stories about the “heroes who stood up to oppression, especially during Passover and Purim,” she says.

“She’s always been a very compassionate person,” says Jessica Zimmerman, Burd’s sister. “She’s very in tune with the needs of the downtrodden and always fighting for everyone’s rights, especially those who are more neglected.”

After high school, Burd, drawn to the wide open spaces and mountains of the American West, wanted to learn more about how systems of oppression operate and how the powerful establish and maintain power, so she pursued a women’s studies degree at Colorado College. She wrote her thesis on the different ways in which women in developing and developed nations participated in activism around food system sovereignty and fought the imposition of multinational corporations.

“Through that study I became really interested in biodiversity in food systems,” Burd says. After graduation, Burd worked as a farmer at a small organic farm on the East Coast. Wanting to develop more skills to be an effective activist, she moved to Portland, Oregon in 2003.

In her first years in Portland, Burd worked for a women’s rights group, promoted immigrant and refugee farming; volunteered as an English tutor for a refugee family; did some landscaping and medical transcription, landed a policy internship with a regional sustainability group, and participated in activism against corporate control of agriculture. During this time, she also worked as a canvasser with Bark, defenders of Mt. Hood National Forest, and became passionate about protecting the public lands she, an avid hiker, had come to love.

“I was canvassing one night. It was dark and raining and a dog lunged at me and I skinned my knee,” Burd recalls. Pressing on, she ended up on a man’s doorstep. “I was giving him a spiel about how we had to fight this timber sale and how they were slipping it through the crack, and he said, ‘Oh, I know how that works, I’m an environmental lawyer and I fight those kinds of projects.’”

Walking away, Burd thought about how law school could give her some valuable tools to fight on the front lines against environmental destruction. And she figured it couldn’t be that much harder than the tough work of canvassing, she says.

She enrolled at Lewis & Clark Law School, where she studied environmental law and was able to work on the issues she was most passionate about as a volunteer with the school’s environmental groups.

After law school, Burd returned to Bark as a staff attorney and Restore Mt. Hood campaign manager. After a few years, she took a break to spend time with her family in Israel and around the United States.

She worked on a broad scope of issues as a contract attorney for a number of environmental groups for several years after she returned, and the Center for Biological Diversity was one of her clients during this time. Also during this time, Burd and her family suffered a tragic loss, the death of her beloved brother, Gershon Burd. “His sincere kindness and devotion inspires me every single day,” she says.

She eventually joined the Center as a full-time staff member, defending the Endangered Species Act, and soon was tasked with founding and directing a new program focused on environmental health. Today, along with her husband, she splits her time between Portland and the Center’s main office in Tucson. Alongside her team of advocates, lawyers, and scientists, she battles against pollution via litigation, policy advocacy, science, education, and creative activism.

“We focus on a broad swath of issues, including pesticides, air pollution, factory farms, pollinator protection, and just generally helping people understand that the fate of humans and all other species are inextricably intertwined,” Burd says. “For example, toxic chemicals like pesticides can harm and kill farmworkers, cause once-common species like monarch butterflies to become endangered, contaminate our food, and poison waterways. Our work is aimed a protecting and uplifting the needs of endangered species and vulnerable humans alike.”

“She’s just an eco-warrior,” says Paula Simmonds, chief development officer at the Center and an active member of Tucson’s Jewish community. “She’s out there fighting for the health of the planet, for children, to stop horrific pesticides from being indiscriminately sprayed by mega corporations that don’t care about people. I’m proud to fight alongside her every day.”

Sofia Moraga is a student at the University of Arizona School of Journalism.