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Five takeaways from the Sustainable Detroit Forum by Planet Detroit

The fourth annual Sustainable Detroit Forum event was held on November 18th online with more than 100 people in attendance. The panel discussion, “Intersections of community development, environmental justice, and small businesses in Detroit,” was moderated by Joel Howrani Heeres, director of the City of Detroit Office of Sustainability. On the panel was Jamesa Johnson-Greer, climate justice director at the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition (MEJC), Donna Davidson, CEO of Eastside Community Network (ECN), and Ali Dirul, CEO of Ryter Cooperative Industries.


Here are five takeaways.


1. We’ve made progress, but there’s more to be done

In the last few years sustainability and environmental justice advocates and organizations have seen many successes, including closing Detroit’s incinerator, DTE’s plan to shut down some of their coal plants, and more action on air quality issues.


The City of Detroit has also made progress, with the formation of the Office of Sustainability, the creation of the first sustainability action agenda now, a climate action strategy in the works. But, there’s still work to be done. “Progress never moves as quickly as we would like,” Heeres said. One area where advocates saw a backslide was with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). “EGLE was allowing Fiat Chrysler to increase the emissions of volatile organic compounds in Detroit while offsetting them in Warren,” said Davidson.


A coalition formed to protest the expansion and updates to FCA’s plants, but FCA was ultimately awarded the permit they requested with little relief for residents living near the plants who suffer from increased air pollution and resulting respiratory problems like asthma, Davidson added.


On the city level, Heeres said, “I would really like to see more city departments fully integrating racial environmental justice and sustainability principles into their operations.”

Additionally, he said, “We need to elevate climate resilience to overarching community-wide concerns.”


2. Environmental justice organizations and community developers can (and must) work together

“There’s a misconception that environmental justice organizations are not proponents of community development and investment,” Johnson-Greer said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. We want investment in our communities, but we want it in a way that’s aware of the needs of the people that seeks and values the inputs of the community and doesn’t further harm our people.”


Davidson said community developers have historically been focused on brick-and-mortar types of projects, and organizations like ECN that have developed Detroit communities for decades have had to shift their focus, to see “that there is value in incorporating environmental justice into the work that we do.”


Because of this history, Davidson said, “There has been a breakdown in trust between residents and many community development organizations.”


In the last ten years ECN has shifted their work to address vacancy and increasing sustainable development, resulting in their Lower Eastside Action Plan where they work with residents to identify land use priorities, educate, and center community needs, Davidson added.


Contributing to the divide between environmental justice organizations and developers is the concept of “not in my backyard”– the tendency of residents to oppose developments that negatively impact their own communities, only for the development to be placed in someone else’s neighborhood.


Community and neighborhood developers are focused on boundaries inside of a community, Davidson said, but they need to think beyond the boundaries. “We all are going to breathe the same air whether it’s just outside my boundary or not,” she said.


Important in working together is to value the different ways that people might participate in justice. “It’s a multi-pronged approach to work towards it,” said Dirul. At Ryter, Dirul’s approach is focused on pragmatic and tangible solutions, adding that the visionary work of environmental justice organizations and the work of organizations like Ryter, go together.


3. Partnerships pave the way toward impact

Successful partnerships between community developers and environmental justice organizations is possible.


When DTE repossessed street lights, leaving thousands of Highland Park residents literally in the dark, Dirul/Ryter partnered with Soulardarity in 2016 to form the “Power UP” program. By working with Soulardarity they were able to install several hundred lights.


Like Dirul, Johnson-Greer has also successfully partnered with Soulardarity, in addition to other organizations like We the People Detroit. A recent partnership success for MEJC was the formation of a tri-county solidarity alliance in response to three different environmental justice issues that affected Macomb, Oakland, and Detroit counties simultaneously last year.

For the last 11 years, Eastside Community Network has had success with their Lower Eastside Action plan. A huge success that came from this was the side lot program, where residents can buy the lot next to their homes for just a few hundred dollars. Additionally, ECN has worked with multiple partners like Brilliant Detroit, on resiliency hubs to help people in times of crisis like during a heat wave or power outage.



4. We must connect broad sustainability and climate discussions with immediate issues like energy burden and access to clean water.

When people are trying to get their basic needs met, they don’t have the capacity to think about larger issues of climate change, Dirul said. But understanding the connections with what the most vulnerable are facing and larger systemic issues is essential for progress and creating climate resilient responses, he added, noting that Detroit residents can connect with climate change in a number of ways.

“Our water management issues are showing up on your water bill, our air quality issues are showing up in your lungs and your children’s lungs,” said Davidson. “Maybe I don’t care about solar, but I care about the fact that I can’t afford my energy bill.”

Johnson-Greer said the focus should always be on prioritizing people who bear the most harm while also looking to reduce greenhouse gases. The benefits to improving the health of the vulnerable will be experienced by all. “Healthy communities make us more resilient,” she said.

5. COVID-19 has highlighted why everyone should care about environmental justice

The COVID-19 crisis has prepared us for the larger crisis we face — the climate crisis, Dirul said..

“It’s been a reflection on us of where in the future we can start to strengthen our own lives and our own environments. . . and be able to structure those towards resilience.” said Dirul.

“COVID-19 has laid bare the real problems in our society,” said Johnson-Greer, referencing inadequate access to water and shelter, the compounding effects of air pollution, and health care inequalities.


When community members can’t wash their hands or take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 due to lack of resources, it puts everyone at risk. COVID-19 risk “can’t be confined to a population people just don’t care about,” Davidson said.


“Our fate is interdependent,” she said. “If the climate burns none of us will survive.”

A climate crisis and health emergency both come from the same thing, she said, “The fact that we don’t have resilience in our community, the fact that we are not equitable or just.”

You can view the full recorded event here. This event was sponsored by Walker Miller Energy Services, Ferndale Electric, Powersmiths, Mitsubishi Electric, Eco Achievers, Planet Detroit, and the U.S. Green Building Council Detroit Region.

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