For Earth Month, we were thrilled to chat with Jasmine Graham (photographer, author and program committee member of DWEJ’s upcoming Awareness and Advocacy Through Art initiative) who uses her camera to bring into focus the voices and issues of Detroiters.

Q: What is Stills to Story?

Stills to Story is the brand that was created to combine all of the things that I love so much. Although I was trained and earned my degree in broadcast journalism, I am an artist at heart. In college, I was taught how to be in front and behind the cameras; telling stories through writing, radio and audiovisual formats. Stills to Story is the manifestation of my gift to use the medium of still photography to fuel the stories of Detroiters.

Q: What was the motivation behind your 2021 art showcase, A Love Letter to the Land?

For years, I was cautious in branding myself as an artist. But in 2019, my friend invited me to be a part of a group art showcase. This gave me the boost that I needed because I already knew that I was skilled in tackling a challenge. I also felt like this invitation was a nudge from God affirming that art was indeed my path.    

Then in 2020, the blackout occurred. I remember being in the shower when a story was literally downloaded into my spirit. This story, which later became my first book (The Blackout Novella) and first solo photo installation, describes the dilemma that a young Black man named Genesis faces after being murdered by the police. 

Looking back, the showcase that I participated in in 2019 was geared towards Black women. In 2020, my work was addressed to Black men. In 2021, I was inspired to once again reflect on the signs of the times.

During the pandemic, the world slowed down. This limited movement and interference by people allowed the land to finally rest and be refreshed. Although the world is opening back up, we still have a duty to protect and care for the world that we live in. Every action counts in preventing the continued degradation of the planet. This is true people power; the recognition that we are all one and mutually responsible for each other.

Q: What role does art play in environmental justice?

As a Black person and a Detroiter, I believe that anything we do is a political statement. Most art forms, particularly music genres like blues, jazz and hip hop, are rooted in the trials that Black folks have and continue to endure in this country. When it comes to environmental justice, Detroit as the Motor City was built on the automobile industry and the toxic output of factories. 

Art is one of the last mediums we can truly express ourselves and share our concerns with others. There are no rules. If we are not talking about what plagues us, then who will? Those that hear our message, will hear it. If they don’t, it wasn’t meant for them anyway.



As we celebrate women activists leading the environmental justice movement in Detroit, we were honored to sit down with Monica Lewis-Patrick (aka The Water Warrior) who gloried in the impact of those who have and continue to birth a brighter day for present and future generations.

Q: What prompted you to become a champion for environmental justice?

I give credit to Mama Rhonda Anderson who is an environmental justice organizer at the Sierra Club. I remember voicing my dissent about why I should care about environmental justice when my people are out here fighting for our lives. Mama Rhonda turned to me and told me that I could not be a good social justice activist if I would not recognize the connectivity between the health and welfare of the people and that of the planet.

I also give thanks to my grandmother who was a no-nonsense community member who once interrupted a meeting of city officials to demand that she be given the keys to a pool after it had been shut down.  She then ran that pool for years ensuring that children in the neighborhood had a place where they could swim even though she couldn’t. It was this fire that impressed upon me and my mother. I learned early on the importance of community organizing because I benefited from the work of the women who had come before me.

Q: What role have women played in fighting for the health and wellness of Detroit’s most impacted communities?

Oh, the list is so great! Nevertheless, I have to lift up the following:

  • Rev. Dr. JoAnn Watson who created the green taskforce for food distribution and helped to birth the Office of Sustainability ushering in the first water affordability plan;
  • Donele Wilkins who you simply cannot talk about environmental justice in Detroit without saying her name;
  • Charity Hicks who labored in connecting the importance of food and water on a national and international level;
  • Dr. Gloria House (aka Mama Aneb) who helped to translate the importance of civic engagement on a scholarly level while ensuring that the work remained at a grassroots level;
  • Donna Givens Davidson who works to ensure that a thriving community exists on the East Side;
  • Mama Hanifah who is dedicated to ensuring that our babies are educated in the art of farming;
  • Tawanna Petty who embodies the difference between doing art and being art as an expert in antiracism and digital justice;
  • Martina Guzmánwho uses her voice to amplify environmental justice issues happening across the city; and
  • Gwen Winston who connects Black women and Black womanhood to water justice.

Q: What advice would you share with younger advocates in the EJ movement?

I would tell them to identify a mentor or two; someone that is operating in this movement whose work they admire and whose values are demonstrated in leadership. This relationship must also include honest conversations about the dysfunctions that exist in organizing so that they can effectively navigate through challenges which may seem to only be directed at them.

Ultimately, in order to see change, they must deputize themselves. Nobody is coming to save us. Collectively, we are the ones that we have been waiting on.



As DWEJ continues its celebration of Detroit’s own environmental justice warriors, we spoke with Theresa Landrum (life-long Detroiter, community activist and outspoken griot) who shared the circumstances and lessons learned throughout her journey as the people’s advocate.

Q: What prompted you to become a champion for environmental justice?

It was not a chosen profession. Raised in Southwest Detroit, pollution and environmental racism was part of the air. When my family migrated from the South, the draw for many African Americans was better jobs. Living in 48217 (what has later come to be known as the most polluted zip code in Michigan), we lived among a variety of industries which was a direct result of redlining practices that limited the settlement of Black people during that time.

Growing up, I always noticed that we had dirt on our cars due to the fallout from surrounding industries and the skies always glowed orange at night. Yet, I didn’t realize the impact this would have on the health and well-being of all of us. Environmental justice wasn’t even talked about back then. 

Then during the 1980s, the salt companies shut down and these businesses petitioned the city of Detroit to store toxic waste in the shaft of the salt mines near our neighborhoods. A decade later, I and my neighbors notices a shifting in our houses, streets and driveways due to explosions to excavate salt occurring under our streets from the local mines. We got a small group together and successfully petitioned the city council to stop this from happening.

Later during the citywide blackout in Detroit in 2003, the loss of power made it so that the mechanism that monitored pollution from local factories no longer worked due to this loss in electricity. The blackout also made it so that my neighbors (many of which were elderly and had only a landline) could not reach out to their family to alert them of what was going on. And to top this off, there was no emergency evacuation from the city. We were simply left behind.

Seeing my friends and family get sick and the injustices happening due to toxic practices, I started doing research and saw the connections between environmental health disparities and pollution. It was not one event. My activism evolved over time and circumstance. 

Q: What is the greatest lesson that you have learned to date doing this work?

I have learned that we have a voice and we have to use our voice. We have to come together collectively and educate each other on how policies are made. So many people are disenchanted with the government and with good cause. This indifference by elected officials has proven to be true over and over again. Yet, what we don’t know hurts us. Once we learn what’s going on, we have to stay the course and don’t give up.

Q: What advice would you share with younger advocates in the EJ movement?

I would tell them to seek knowledge. Learn to be self-reliant and resilient because in this work, you will be attacked. Also, trust yourself because when you have the facts, this can’t be refuted. Be strong and don’t be intimidated. Some say you must have a thick skin to do this work, but I say you must have a backbone and conviction.



As Detroiters, we are made of a collective grit that embodies the famous quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. where he stated that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.”

Sandra Turner-Handy (life-long Detroiter, EJ activist and DWEJ board member) sat down with us to share her journey of how she has continued to speak truth to power in demanding a healthier, cleaner Detroit.

Q: What prompted you to become a champion for environmental justice?

Years ago, when I worked in the Michigan Legislature as Chief of Staff, my office was called to a neighborhood in Detroit. When I arrived on this 90 degree day in July, I exited my car and was immediately hit by this wall of smell. My head started to hurt and I began to be nauseated. I noticed some local environmental justice advocates (most notably Donele Wilkins) and went to talk to them to find out more about what was going on. They told me that there was a wastewater treatment plant located at the end of this low-income community. Turns out, the plant was dumping the polluted water down the sewer and this waste was coming right back up into people’s homes.

I saw babies on breathing machines. Seniors who could neither breathe in or outside of their homes. It was at this moment that this fight became a part of me. After witnessing this first hand, I knew that I had to do all that I could to help my people.

After successfully organizing to get the plant to shut down, I realized that this incident is just a drop in the bucket. From that point on, every issue that I came across in the legislature was viewed through the lens of environmental justice because I understand that the quality of the environment is tied to every other social justice issue.

Q: What is the greatest lesson that you have learned to date doing this work?

The greatest lesson that I have learned is that everyone is born equal. Yet, this equity begins to shift as we move about the world. The question of an equitable society is something that humanity is very concerned about because it simply does not exist. Therefore, my vision is to help people amplify their voices so that they are heard and to understand that we, the people, are not powerless. A colleague of mine summed this up for me years ago when he said, “Sandra, if you’re not at the table, you are on the menu.”

Q: What advice would you share with younger advocates in the EJ movement?

Working for environmental justice is not easy. With that in mind, I would tell young people to build up their energy. Fighting against environmental injustice is not a quick solution. It takes time so be prepared. And always keep in mind that this injustice can happen in your own backyard.

Solar Detroit: Message from the Creator of the Project

Solar Detroit: Message from the Creator of the Project

Eco Works

My name is Catherine “Cat” Diggs, former Manager of Programs & Outreach, at Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ) and have spent the past 10 months working on the Solar Stories of Detroit documentary project with my project partner, Alex da Veiga. We have just recently completed it and I wanted to share our journey of completing it with you. 

The purpose of this project is to elevate the voices of community leaders, who have transitioned partially or fully toward the use of solar energy, in the form of short videos. Through our in-person or virtual interviews, the community leaders (organizational leaders, residents, business owners, faith leaders, urban farmers)  we met were able to relay their solar journey in relatable and inspiring terms. They were able to explain how solar energy has had a positive impact on their lives and the lives of their respective communities. This project gave them an opportunity to take a moment to celebrate their accomplishment in the midst of a very challenging year of great human loss, uncertainty, transition and oftentimes, isolation. 

I want to thank the LISC AmeriCorps program, DWEJ and my partners at the Renewable Energy Committee of the Detroit Green Task Force for supporting my Solar Stories of Detroit Innovation Project.

This project has allowed me to feel connected to my role as Community Engagement Coordinator and Manager of Programs throughout the COVID crisis, which required us to work remotely and socially distance from one another. It has allowed me to put my organizing and storytelling abilities to work. And for that, I am very thankful.

Cat Diggs and da Veiga
Cat Diggs and Alex Da Veiga

I am also very thankful to have been able to work with Alexandre Da Veiga, a trusted project partner, with whom I have teamed up many times in the past 5 years for other projects. He is an experienced photojournalist, who was based in Detroit from 2015 until the summer of 2020, when he moved to Philadelphia, where he now resides. This means that he traveled all the way from Phili to Detroit, in order to work with me on this project, and I frankly would not have been able to do it without him. So thank you, Alex. Check out his website here: http://alexandredaveiga.com/.

I would also like to thank all the musicians and producers, who have shared their music with us: 

  • Jienan Yuan – jienanyuan.bandcamp.com
  • Charnell Williams – @charisma _ creative 
  • Chad Van Jenkins – chadvanjenkins.bandcamp.com 
  • Moopy – djmoppy.bandcamp.com 

Without them, the videos would not have been as engaging and vibrant. 

Eco Works

It was back in October that I came up with the vision for my project:

“Creating a platform where the voices of Detroit residents, community builders and/or nonprofit leaders, urban farmers, faith leaders, as well business owners, who have made the transition toward the use of solar energy, can be elevated through collaborative storytelling techniques (video interviews) and used as a source of inspiration for breaking down knowledge barriers and by extension, growing the demand for solar energy in Detroit, which only uses 1% of its rooftop potential citywide.”

In other words, my goal was to interview community leaders citywide (ideally in person and socially distanced), in order to have them talk to us (Alex and I) about their journey with solar energy in relatable terms, not in highly technical terms. To share with us, their story as organizations, residents, businesses, houses of worship, urban farms, in regards to their journey with solar energy and the positive impact it has had on them and their respective organizations and communities.  And despite all the odds (COVID cases rising both statewide and nationally, the weather changing from hot to cold, the time restraints of needing to schedule interviews in a timely manner, of getting to the interviews without a vehicle of our own, of editing a handful of those videos on deadline), Alex and I have received incredible support on our project from the community.  While our original goal was to document 5 to 10 solar success, all and all we will have collected a total of 16 community leaders (11 in person and 5 virtually)

Cat and Belinda

The interest community leaders showed in our project and their willingness to share their story was a true honor to us and gives us a strong sense of accomplishment. Our hope is that this project gave them an opportunity to take a moment to celebrate their accomplishment in the midst of a very challenging year of great human loss, uncertainty, transition and oftentimes, isolation. I believe that is why most community leaders have been open to hosting us in-person for the interviews. The masked and socially distanced interactions we shared with them were therapeutic and allowed us all to feel more connected to the work that we do to support our communities. Throughout the interviews, Alex and I have received tours of the respective properties we visited, shared meaningful conversations, climbed on roofs, and really got to learn more deeply about the wide array of inspiring initiatives that are taking place across the city as we speak.

Moreover, through this project we have allowed community leaders to share in relatable terms why “going solar” is so important for Detroit and why it might be more accessible than we think. In doing so, they are helping us break the knowledge barriers surrounding the idea of going solar. They shared lessons learned, how-to’s, and tips for how to finance such projects. They gave their communities words of encouragement about the promise of a clean energy future for all. In that way, once the videos are edited, finalized and embedded online, the everyday person should feel more included and compelled in a conversation surrounding the urgency of transitioning toward the use of renewable energy. This project is therefore in many ways, a way to bring people together and to strengthen a local support system for allowing others to go solar. 

MoGo and Bikes

The fact that the project was so successful tells me that no project of the sort had not been truly pursued before. Individual coverage of stories had perhaps been performed, but no effort had been pursued to document so many divergent projects citywide. Also, the topic of the project was targeted (solar energy and why it works?) and the interviewees were from diverse socio-cultural, gender, racial, and professional backgrounds.

I think our project contributes a value added to our sustainability efforts in Detroit, because more often than not, organizations and community leaders city-wide do not have the time or resources to celebrate their contributions, especially during the COVID era. I think it is extremely important to connect those stories and to weave them together, in order to spur inspiration among Detroiters. The idea is to spread the word around Detroit that going solar is possible.

Ultimately, the idea is that if grassroots demand for solar grows from all sides, government officials will be more prone to creating favorable and equitable policies for access to renewables. A more unanimous transition toward solar will, in turn, help us reduce citywide emissions.

Alex and I are excited to share the finished product of our work – 16 short videos- with you and our hope is that this project will become a more collective effort to document success stories around sustainability initiatives that will live on into the future and inspire others to become part of the solution!