Solar Stories of Detroit

Solar Stories of Detroit

The Solar Stories of Detroit documentary project elevates 16 Detroit solar success stories with the use of collaborative storytelling techniques and in the form of short videos. From on-grid rooftop solar projects to off-grid ground mount solar installations, this video series allows us to travel across Detroit, from North to South, East to West, and discover the wide-ranging benefits that solar represents for the city’s varying communities and organizations.

In elevating the voices of diverse community leaders, Detroit residents, and business owners, who have “gone solar”, this project’s goal is to spread the word around Detroit that going solar is possible for people of all walks of life.

Ultimately, this project aims to help raise the citywide demand for solar, which will push government officials to be more prone to creating favorable and equitable policies for access to renewables. 

Catherine “Cat” Diggs, and Alexandre “Alex” da Veiga

In the fall/ winter of 2020, Catherine “Cat” Diggs, DWEJ’s former Manager of Programs & Outreach, who began her journey with us at DWEJ as a LISC AmeriCorps service member, received a mini grant under the Innovation Project national pilot LISC AmeriCorps put forward to its members. The grant program seeked to provide service members with a bit of funding to get an Innovative Project of their own creation up and going before the end of their term. Cat was 1 of 3 members nationally to receive a mini grant. 

With this money, she commissioned her long-time friend and project partner, Alexandre “Alex” da Veiga, a photojournalist and videographer, who had recently relocated from Detroit to Philadelphia, to work with her on this documentary project idea.  You can check out some of his work here. 

Alex flew into Detroit in mid to late November and spent  a month doing community outreach and field interviews with Cat. Despite the spike in COVID cases at that time, their project was received with open arms by many Detroit community leaders, who agreed to meet with them in person.

Cat and Alex spent almost 7 months from January to July of 2021 working remotely on editing the 11 in-person and 5 virtual interviews they collected between November and December of 2020. 

Through some of our available grant funds, we, at DWEJ, have stepped in to provide further funding to help make this Innovation Project a reality. 

Photo Belinda Gilmore and Cat

Why is it important? 

The impetus behind the Solar Stories of Detroit project was that Cat, who had been partnering with local clean energy and energy efficiency experts to develop programs in Detroit, had noticed that conversations about environmental issues and solutions, as well as community needs often took place in closed circles of subject matter experts. In other words, the everyday person, if present at those meetings, would not necessarily feel included or compelled by what is being said, no matter how pressing the issue is. The urgency of transitioning toward the use of renewable energy is no exception to that rule.

This project therefore seeks to provide an opportunity for Detroiters to have equitable access to information about the promise of solar energy in their lives and about what a clean energy future would look like for them. By making the language used less technical and by having the stories come from known and trusted community leaders, the project helps to  break down knowledge barriers for Detroiters surrounding the idea of going solar. 

Moreover, in a large urban sprawl like Detroit, it is crucial to connect success stories, in this case, solar success stories, and to centralize them into one place (i.e. the DWEJ website and YouTube channel) in order for Detroiters citywide to glean inspiration from them.  Oftentimes, community leaders are spread very thin between projects and are constantly on the search for more funding for their initiatives. One of the goals for Cat and Alex’s project was to give them a moment to stop and celebrate their accomplishment and be a part of a large Detroit-wide web of solar success stories.  

Furthermore, the City of Detroit, which has serious air quality problems due to its historic ties to the fossil fuel and auto industries, only currently uses 1% of its solar rooftop potential and sources less than 3% of its energy from renewables. For Detroit residents, who have historically suffered from asthma and chronic respiratory illness rates much higher than anywhere else in Michigan, solar energy could represent a transformative solution to our air pollution and public health problems. 

Here is a quick list of the community leaders who generously granted us their time throughout this project: 

  • Malik Yakini, Founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (D-Town Farm)
  • Diane Cheklich, Co-founder of D2Solar and Co-chair of the Renewable Energy Committee of the Green Task Force (resident of the Willys Overland Lofts building) 
  • Gary Wozniak, Founder and Executive Director of Recovery Park
  • Ben Dueweke, Sustainability Director at Walker-Miller Energy Services (resident of North Corktown) 
  • Bob Chapman, congregation member of the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church 
  • Pastor Wallace Gilbert Jr., Assistant Pastor at Church of the Messiah 
  • Carolyn Leadley and Jack Van Dyke, co-founders of Rising Pheasant Farms
  • Anita Sevier, Development and Alumni Relations Director at Gesu School 
  • Lisa Nuszkowski, Founder of MoGo Bike Share Detroit 
  • Reverend Faith Fowler, Executive Director of Cass Community Social Services
  • Gibran Washington (Program Manager of Eco-D) and Henrik Mader (Energy Analyst), EcoWorks Detroit 
  • Tammy Black, President of Manistique Community Treehouse Center
  • Jerry Ann Hebron (Executive Director) and Natosha Tallman (Program Director) of Northend Christian Community Development Corporation and Oakland Avenue Farm
  • Belinda Gilmore – Founder and Owner of Bent Rim Brew House
  • Leandra King – Founder and Owner of Detroit Farm & Cider
  • Jessica Hauser – Executive Director of the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program 

Looking Forward…Knowledge is Power 

The completed Solar Stories of Detroit video series now lives on DWEJ’s YouTube channel, website, and social media pages. We are also excited for the community leaders who made our project possible, to share the videos within their networks. The hope is that this project will help increase the everyday person’s interest and belief that citywide access to solar energy for all is indeed possible if we fight for it.  

tiny homes
Tiny Homes

Since March and every third Thursday of the month, the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association (GLREA) has been featuring one of the Solar Stories of Detroit videos through the Michigan Solar Users Network (MISUN) statewide Zoom calls hosted by John Sarver, one of GLREA’s board members. The goal of this monthly meeting series is to raise Michigan-wide awareness about Detroit’s solar potential. Please feel free to check out the past 4 presentations, through the following links: 

There will be more to come in the next few months to a year.  

More concretely, this project is supporting the work of the Renewable Energy Committee (REC) of the Green Task Force (GTF), Detroit City Council’s advisory body on sustainability policies, which Cat has been actively involved in since the early days of the pandemic. Diane Van Buren and Diane Cheklich, the co-chairs of the Committee, were looking to collect case studies for how solar energy works for the City of Detroit and to create a platform through which other Detroiters can gain inspiration for starting their own solar projects. The Solar Stories of Detroit video series meets that need directly and all the videos are also featured on the GTF REC web page.

In April/May of 2020, the REC had launched a Solar Readiness Assessment project, through which nonprofit/neighborhood organizations and houses of worship were invited to get a free assessment by local installers to see how prepared they were to get solar installed on their properties.  The  groups that have been deemed “solar ready” could gain direct inspiration from some of these solar case studies and could gain valuable information on how to finance such projects. The idea is also for them to feel like they can contact the community leaders we have interviewed to ask questions and pursue a more elaborate conversation. This project therefore represents a way to bring people together and to strengthen a local support system for allowing others to go solar. 

The project will also help with the Detroit solar community’s common effort to revive the interactive “Detroit Solar Map”. This  map had been created in the context of the preparation of the Detroit Sustainability Action Agenda (2019), in order to determine how many megawatts of solar had been installed in the city. Now that the stories have been translated into video format, the incentive to update the map and repost it online, has been strengthened. This map will help the Detroit solar community collect data around new solar projects and trace the progress we are making in increasing our solar potential citywide.

Hopefully this project will become a more collective effort to document success stories and will live on into the future. To read some more, check out our Blog post on this project.

Check out the trailer to this documentary project, whose purpose is to to elevate the voices of Detroit residents, community leaders, and/or business owners, who have successfully “gone solar”. The final product of these collaborative interviews and storytelling techniques, is 16 videos. View the full playlist.

Sandra Turner-Handy Joins the DWEJ Board

Sandra Turner-Handy Joins the DWEJ Board

Published: 10/21/2020

Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice is pleased to announce that we have a new member on our Board of Directors. In September, Sandra Turner-Handy became the latest member of DWEJ’s leadership group, adding her wealth of knowledge and experience to our organization. Sandra is a lifelong Detroiter, and a graduate of Wayne State University, where she completed a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Master of Science in Leadership Development. She is currently back at Wayne State University completing a Doctorate of Education in Leadership Development.

Sandra’s extensive professional history includes serving as Chief of Staff for Michigan Representative and State Senator Hansen Clarke. It was while working in this role that motivated her to work and engage in the areas of social and environmental justice in Detroit. Sandra has found her niche in engagement of others to raise the quality of life for residents within the city.

In addition to serving on our board, Sandra is the Engagement director for the Michigan Environmental Council, where she has worked for the past 12 years. She also sits on a number of boards and coalitions whose goals are to mitigate environmental impacts, improve Detroiters’ health and improve the built environment through innovative programs and policy changes. Outside of work, Sandra enjoys reading, landscaping, writing, mentoring youth leaders and working on beautification projects in her community.

We look forward to Sandra’s contributions and efforts to help Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice pursue our mission and move ahead into the future.

EJ Challenge: South Dakota Access Pipeline

EJ Challenge: South Dakota Access Pipeline

Published: 9/30/2020

The issue – When several Native American tribes led by the Standing Rock Sioux opposed the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), in 2016, a national protest movement was galvanized. The long-standing legal battle waged by tribal nations against Dakota Access, LLC and the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), has taken a few more turns this summer. 

The controversy around the construction of this Pipeline, has centered on the portion of the pipeline that runs underneath Lake Oahe, a large reservoir on the Missouri River in North Dakota and South Dakota. Lake Oahe is a vital water source for the region and is sacred land to several of the tribes whose reservations are nearby.

A little background – In 2017, the Trump Administration undid an Obama Administration decision to halt construction until a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was completed by the USACE. And yet, the Plaintiffs filed their suit, claiming the issued permits were done without the required EIS. In June 2017, the DC District Court found deficiencies in the USACE’s environmental review and ordered them to perform a more thorough review by February 2019. After this review was complete, the Plaintiffs moved for summary judgement, stating that the USACE failed to correct the issues found in the previous court ruling.  On, March 25, 2020 the DC Circuit Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and disallowed the easement to build under Lake Oahe and the Missouri River.

Summer 2020 events – On July 6, 2020, the DC District Court issued a shutdown order for the DAPL and denied the easement in question. The court gave the company 30 days to comply with ceasing all oil transportation and drainage of the pipeline. The court recognized the economic impact, but expressly stated the seriousness of the USACE in not preparing an EIS and instead stating that, with limited review, the pipeline operations posed no threat to the Lake of the Missouri River.

On the same day the shutdown order was given, Dakota Access requested a provisional stay of the order and filed a notice of appeal, in an attempt to overturn the shutdown order. On July 9th, the DC court heard arguments on the motion to stay, and the presiding judge decided to deny the motion, allowing the shutdown order to stand. Dakota Access then filed an emergency motion to stay on July 10th and on July 14th, a DC Court panel granted their request, temporarily suspending the shutdown order and allowing operations to continue while the court further considered the matter. 

On August 5th, the court overturned the previous shutdown order, allowing Dakota Access to resume operations. However, that is not the end of the matter. DAPL does not have an easement for construction and operation at Lake Oahe. On top of the original legal matters regarding the full EIS, the USACE must now decide if they will allow operations to continue without the easement and if the court will accept the decision to do so. A report from the USACE on how it would handle DAPL’s operations status was due on August 31, 2020. From there, the court would schedule more hearings. At the time this blog article was written, no more information has been released. 

It’s not over yet. Stay tuned…
Read more about the DAPL from the perspective of the impacted tribes.

Green Jobs Training Program (2008-2017)

Green Jobs Training Program (2008-2017)

Detroit’s First Comprehensive Green Jobs Training Program

Our first workforce training program operated for over a decade and its positive impacts continue to be felt by Detroit residents to this day. At the time, our program was the city’s only comprehensive green jobs training program. It existed in partnership with Clark Atlanta University’s Environmental Justice Resource Center and Laborers-AGC Education and Training Fund, was approved by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and was accredited through the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University (New Orleans, LA). The 12-week program delivered job training skills for the emerging Green Economy and built community, business and university relationships. Similar programs were also implemented in New Orleans, Atlanta, Dallas, and Baton Rouge. Our operation trained up to 500 Detroit workers and was a leading member in this coalition of green job programs.

From Start to Finish 

The program provided participants with basic skills, technical and green job skills training, certifications, on-site job training, practice with soft skills training (teamwork, interpersonal relationships), as well as job placement assistance.

Basic Skills

  • Study skills
  • Mathematics
  • Introduction to hazardous materials
  • Physical fitness
  • Computer basics
  • Life skills
  • Job readiness

A counseling component to the program provided students with problem intervention and assistance, and information on a wide range of social services to aid them in achieving their educational and vocational goals. 

Green Tracks

Participants had opportunities to acquire skills in the following environmental/green work fields:

  • Energy Audits/Retrofitting: Energy audits evaluate a system (such as a building) to understand its energy use. Retrofitting is the adding of new technology or features to an existing building to make it more energy efficient. 
  • Computer Aided Design (CAD): the use of computer technology to aid in the design and drafting of a part, a product, or entire buildings.
  • Deconstruction: the selective disassembly of building components, specifically for reuse, recycling and reducing waste. It is a way of salvaging the value in a building that is to be taken down. 
  • Geothermal systems: Ground source heat pumps use the natural warmth of the Earth to heat and cool your building. 
  • Green Landscaping: a method of designing and maintaining yards, gardens, and larger areas to reduce harm to the environment, save time and money with lower maintenance, and have healthier places to work and play.

Training and Certification 

The program included state-administered certification testing for each technical segment. After satisfactory completion of the program, each participant received Asbestos, Lead, and Mold Hazardous Waste Worker Certification (HAZWOPER), an OSHA 10 workplace card, and First Aid/CPR certification. 

Job Placement and Career Training

Throughout the training, participants worked with a job coach to acquire skills like resume building, interviewing techniques, and other career development skills. 

DWEJ Apprenticeship Readiness Program 

This program, created in 2013, accelerated career opportunities for Detroit residents in the building trades and labor unions by bridging the “skills gap” for individuals who lacked the necessary skills needed to become craft professionals. The DWEJ Apprenticeship Readiness Program was a 12-week training program designed to develop, observe and evaluate the progressive development of job readiness, skill assessment and curriculum comprehension of participants. 

Training included:

  1. Workshops: Candidates were required to attend all four workshops before entering the training program. Workshops were designed to give students personal and career building tools necessary for success in career planning in the building trades, job search skills, financial literacy, as well as personal development with an emphasis on positive self-esteem, responsibility taking, enhanced interpersonal skills (i.e. motivation, punctuality, reliability, team building, task completion), and workplace diversity. A final workshop was offered on the “fundamentals of environmental literacy”, i.e., the basics of environmental science, best practices and how to apply them in a green and built environment.
  2. Classroom and Technical Training (12 weeks): The Construction Craft Laborer core-curriculum was part of one of 70 craft areas taught. This curriculum introduced the trainee to a variety of trades, including carpentry, masonry, ironworking, electrical, welding, heavy equipment, and crane operation. Upon completion of this two-level course, trainees had the basic knowledge needed on any job site.  The Construction Craft Laborer curriculum covered subjects such as, Site Layout, Reinforcing Concrete, and Electrical Safety. 
  3. Hands-on and Practical Experience: Trainees received on-the-job-training so that they developed the skills necessary to becoming an apprentice, and to develop the skills and proficiency of a journeyman worker. Training was under the direction and guidance of the instructor and project supervisor. 
  4. Module Examination and Testing: Trainees needed to score 70% or higher in each of the  9 modules to receive a certification of completion from the National Center for Construction Education & Research (NCCER). 
  5. Performance Testing: Trainees needed to perform each task to the satisfaction of the instructor in order to receive a certificate of completion. Demonstrations were used to satisfy the performance test requirements.
  6. Placement and Follow-up: Through the Partnerships for Diversity & Opportunity and the websites, program applicants were able to directly apply to job openings. DWEJ’s community partners and Employment Advisory Council members were also committed to actively seeking placement for program graduates.  DWEJ would then follow-up with placements for one year through our Constituent Relationship Management system.
  7. Evaluation: The program was internally evaluated throughout its delivery process, with the goal of continuously improving each component of the program. An external evaluator was used to assist with end-of-grant reporting to the Kellogg Foundation, who funded the program.  Program metrics were used to help determine outcomes and the overall success of the initiative. 

Following the success of the Green Job Training Program, we launched Future Build Construction Group in 2017. This social enterprise was created to meet the growing need for green construction in Detroit and to hire our trainees. Today, our workforce program continues to evolve and remains integral to our mission.

Build Up Detroit (BUD) (2008-2012)

Build Up Detroit (BUD) (2008-2012)

Green jobs aren’t just for environmental specialists; they include jobs in manufacturing, services, skilled trades, design, scientific research & development.

Since 1994, DWEJ has advocated for educating and empowering the people of Detroit to “Take a Stand for the Land in the Hood” through our community and civic engagement programs. Like other groups, we advocated for better jobs with fair pay, so we decided to put our vision into action and created a job training program called BUD.

BUD, or Build Up Detroit, started in 2008 and was dedicated to transforming Detroit into a national leader in sustainability through a comprehensive strategy of: 

  • Green job creation and training
  • Civic engagement through youth programs and public education about health hazards
  • Community and economic development

BUD integrated economic development, social equity and environmental protection to promote a truly sustainable revitalization in Detroit and to empower communities to take leadership in transforming their environments into healthy places in which to live, work, and play. It encompassed some of our earlier programs and led the way in creating new ones as well.

BUD was truly ahead of its time and devised practical, creative solutions to previously unaddressed environmental justice problems in Detroit. For example, through our Workforce Development program, we were able to provide economic empowerment to low-income populations in the green construction industry. 

BUD: An Umbrella Program for Community and Civic Engagement Initiatives  

BUD training

Green Jobs Training 

The Green Jobs/Workforce Development Training program was created to prepare Detroit-area residents for jobs in the emerging green economy through state-certified training in lead, mold and asbestos abatement, hazardous waste worker training at EPA-approved technician level, energy-related technology and environmental assessments. We also developed a framework for a pre-apprenticeship training program, one of the few to invite citizens returning from incarceration.

Youth on Patrol Against Pollution

Following best practices in peer training, problem solving, intergenerational leadership, mentoring and community organizing, this program built youth capacity for advocacy and civic engagement. Students researched polluting facilities to conduct “toxic tours,” worked with the Belle Isle Nature Center, and prepared to start environmental justice clubs at their schools. Learn more.

Community Hazards Awareness Training Seminar (CHATS)

One of our earliest and longest running programs was created in collaboration with the University of Cincinnati and as part of the Midwest Consortium for Hazardous Waste Worker Training.  More than 5,000 people were trained through this program. DWEJ conducted seminars to help participants identify known asthma triggers and other health hazards in their homes and communities, such as lead and other toxins. CHATS was also an organizing tool – first to educate community members about the environmental health hazards in their homes and neighborhoods, and then to build their capacity to make their community a safer, healthier place to live for the most vulnerable population, such as children ages 5 to 14, minority populations, and low-income urban residents. 

Home Intervention Team (HIT)

Skilled professionals tested the home of children who had traces of lead in their systems and provided in-home intervention and remediation services, such as modified lead abatement, asthma trigger control and mold removal. 

A Vision for Sustainability

In addition to the programs above, BUD laid out full plans for a Detroit Sustainability Center, which was designed to bring our vision to life. The Detroit Sustainability Center was envisioned as a model for ecologically sustainable building that would serve as a networking resource and community education center.

photo by inFORM studio, Conservation Design Forum, and URS Corporation

Although the BUD program did not survive the substantial changes Detroit underwent from 2008 onward (corruption scandals, interim mayorship, special elections, bankruptcy, emergency management, etc.), it lives on today through our Green Jobs program and the Detroit Environmental Agenda Collaborative. It also inspired numerous organizations in Detroit in their fight for a greener, safer, and healthier city. 

Read Catalyzing a Sustainable Detroit: A Community Directed Strategic Plan.