DWEJ has been involved in energy policy and education in Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Flint through a Joyce Foundation grant we received in October of 2017. The purpose of our work is to create climate and energy policy engagement at the state and local levels. Energy policy reform is an important expansion over our “traditional” issues of focus. Energy policy that is environmentally, socially, and racially just reduces pollutants from energy production that both accelerate climate change and disproportionately affect communities of color. Not only do the residents of these communities bear the brunt of that burden, they often pay the highest energy bills.
Addressing these issues directly can lead to a healthier, more equitable, society. Expanding renewable and electric vehicle infrastructure will create new green job markets, creating greater economic mobility and opportunity. Most importantly, these changes will help create a cleaner and more sustainable planet for future generations.
Why Expand our Work beyond Detroit to Grand Rapids and Flint?
Momentum in Detroit had been growing around energy policy and its impacts on air quality, climate change, renewable source, and fair pricing when we applied for the Joyce Foundation grant. The CA-PHE Public Health Action Plan, which offered strategies to improve air quality in the city, had just been published. DWEJ was on its way to publishing the city’s first Climate Action Plan. In that same 2016-2017 timeframe, we were the first organization to bring an environmental justice voice to the conversation in Lansing around Michigan’s proposed clean energy bill (SB 437 and SB 438), and the only organization specifically representing our constituency to enter the statewide conversation.
Why did we choose to enter that conversation? Simple. Five years earlier, when Michigan’s first clean energy bill was debated, environmental justice was not part of the discussion and critical needs had no voice. As a result, Detroit’s municipal waste incinerator was defined as “clean” renewable energy under the new regulation. Needless to say, it was terrible news for our community. It took another four years of fighting on the local level to close this toxic facility. Even after closing the incinerator, Detroit continues to have the highest asthma rates in Michigan.
In order for our voice to be heard loud and clear – not typical when new energy policy is being created – and for environmental justice to always have a seat at the table when decisions are being made, we expanded our grassroots reach beyond Detroit. Grand Rapids and Flint were chosen because both cities are also home to low-income communities of color who shared in the burden of energy poverty and unequal impacts of pollution.
Our history of working with a wide array of stakeholders allows us to put our skills, our networks, and our dynamic vision to work on a broad scale, expanding the connective power of the region around energy issues. Our intention is to create a broader energy environmental justice movement and give our communities’ a greater voice at the state level to influence the next vote on energy policy.
Before that becomes possible on a large scale, it’s vital for under-represented voices to understand the energy world and how it impacts their lives. Energy literacy is an increasingly important skill in our climate changing world, and is why we are engaged in these energy education and grassroots efforts. If we can help communities and policy decision makers speak the same language, they will become a unified force in a positive energy future.
DWEJ’s purpose has often been that of a partner rather than a leader. We build trust within the community by forging alliances, joining existing networks, and finding workable, community-based solutions.
Between 2017 – 2019, we worked to create positive impact toward the creation of better energy policy in Michigan by:
Identifying critical equality issues through community engagement. Although all three communities face similar issues (unhealthy levels of air pollution, energy rates, and site regulations), there are also very distinct differences
Educating local stakeholders on these issues to develop action-oriented solutions
Activating alliances of local organizations to implement these solutions
Working with residents to drive state-level change
Evaluating the short- and long-term impacts of our efforts so that we can improve our methods of engagement and outreach
Our Work in Detroit
Detroit’s energy usage derived from renewable energy sources was only at 3%, far from the City’s goal of 35%. DWEJ has been involved in multiple activities to help the city improve this figure.
We worked with the City Council, its Climate Change Subcommittee, and our coalition of partners to create a climate ordinance for the city. This resulted in the passage of Detroit’s first greenhouse gas ordinance on July 24, 2019, aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the city by 30% in the next 5 years.
We have been trying to remove zoning roadblocks
We participated in the coalition that worked on what would happen after the shutdown of the Detroit Incinerator.
We are advocating for environmental justice equity at state energy tables and continuing conversations with local and state elected officials
DWEJ strengthened and deepened our partnership ties through our continued involvement
We co-hosted a renewable energy town hall with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and other local groups where Consumers Energy, the Michigan Public Service Commission, and State Senators were on the panel. Our allies in the Grand Rapids Environmental Justice Coalition expressed increasing interest in advocacy and building the environmental literacy of elected officials, and our connections were vital for the hosted town hall on renewable energy.
We have been asked to continue working with local groups as an organizer for environmental justice issues and energy issues
Our Work in Flint
Flint has been, and will continue to be, consumed by water issues. Bringing energy into the conversation took time given what they face. Our partners, however, feel as strongly as we do that energy policy/infrastructure is one of the next pressing issue areas for the city.
DWEJ has become a core team member of the monthly Sierra Club Environmental Justice Chapter-hosted calls and meetings
We hosted a successful fireside chat in which the mayor, local activists, and State Senator Jim Ananich’s office participated
Established and deepened relationships with residents by meeting them in their communities
Our Ongoing Goals
We have been working hard to build stronger relationships, to meet people where they live, and respond to their needs.
Our goals remain to:
Expand our grassroots reach in Detroit by focusing on policy opportunities that emphasize equity, environmental justice, climate change, and clean energy solutions
Our Community Engagement Coordinator is currently working in collaboration with the Detroit 2030 District and the Renewable Energy Committee of the Detroit City Council’s Green Taskforce to help both entities with their outreach efforts throughout the City of Detroit to promote building energy efficiency and solar energy.
Broaden our audience as much as possible
Strengthen networks in Detroit by bringing people together around common causes
Elevate voices in the community through our social media channels and storytelling tools
In November 2019, DWEJ and other community leaders partnered with the University of Michigan to create a new online interactive planning tool, called the MI-Environmental Project. Our former CEO, Guy Williams, was a co-author. The goal of this research and mapping tool is “to identify the relative vulnerability of census tracts (a geographic region defined for the purpose of taking a census) within Michigan to cumulative environmental exposures”. The tool visualizes exposures that contribute to heat stress vulnerability from future climate change and defines a measure called the Heat Stress Index.
This index averages three factors that can contribute to climate change-related heat stress: vulnerabilities among people (children, elderly people, people living with underlying conditions), places (“the built environment”) and projected temperatures. From there, the tool maps and compares the most vulnerable census tracts in Michigan to the least vulnerable ones. In short, the map measures which communities and locations are likely going to be most affected by climate change impacts within the state.
Research investigator, Dr. Trish Koman (University of Michigan School of Public Health), said: “Heat stress vulnerability is something that we can plan for.”The tool was made to help guide policymakers and community organizations as they tackle the climate change challenge.”
In 2019, DWEJ partnered with LINC UP, a Grand Rapids non-profit organization, to create “The Neighborhood Environmental Action Report: Health, Environment and Race in Grand Rapids”. The report discusses environmental injustices in Grand Rapids by drawing attention to the ways environmental conditions in the city intensify problems for residents in vulnerable and impacted neighborhoods.
LINC UP had historically focused on neighborhood revitalization in Grand Rapids before an EPA Superfund site was established across the street from their offices. Jeremee DeRoo, Executive Director of LINC UP, explains in his forward to the report:
“The signage and fencing came about due to an evacuation by the Kent County Health Department of two properties because a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality investigation had shown the indoor air in the buildings was 10 times above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) safety limits of a known carcinogen. EPA found traces of the pollutants that entered the building as a result of off-gassing from chemicals. The chemicals were left behind from a dry cleaning facility that had closed more than two decades earlier”.
This experience drove home the idea that their work included the environment and that “the people of neighborhoods…need to have safe and clean air, water, and soil if they are going to live healthy and full lives.”
LINC UP saw that there was no single agenda in the City of Grand Rapids to address these problems or create solutions. They also saw the same pattern of environmental injustice where African American, Hispanic and other communities of color, or low-income communities, bear much of the burden caused by environmental pollution. LINC UP had connected the dots and now understood that their work in revitalizing neighborhoods had to be about more than brick and mortar, attracting new restaurants, shops, residents, and superficial aesthetics. The land, water and air that made up the environment of these neighborhoods had a direct impact on why they were in need of repair in the first place, and why the people who lived in the neighborhoods suffered health issues at rates higher than in other parts of the city. They also realized how the history of these neighborhoods led them to such a state of environmental disarray.
For example, LINC UP saw the fundamental issues that created neighborhoods like the 49507 zip code—an area with the highest concentrations of poverty in the city and county, along with the highest rates of asthma, lead poisoning and poor birth outcomes.
Reaching Across Michigan for a Partner
LINC UP wanted to form a neighborhood environmental action initiative that would bring people together, increase knowledge, and foster understanding around equity and environmental justice, but they lacked the experience to achieve their goals. As they were new “members” of the environmental justice network, they searched for an experienced organization to lend a hand. Following a recommendation, they reached out to DWEJ to fill that role. Our 25 years of experience gave us the accumulated knowledge, experience, resources, writing and publishing history, and contacts LINC UP would need to move forward on the much needed report for the Grand Rapids community.
Through our joint efforts, as well as the efforts of numerous other contributors, LINC UP released the Grand Rapids Neighborhood Environmental Action Report in 2019. The report summarizes the state of environmental issues and environmental justice in Grand Rapids, presenting research and recommendations for action, or “next steps” for six identified issues:
We also helped LINC UP take the extra step and examine how sustainability and environmental justice are connected when discussing the history and impact of these issues, as well as how they can best be addressed to create equitable solutions.
Following the Flint Water crisis that started in 2014, then Governor Rick Snyder announced the creation of the Michigan Environmental Justice Workgroup (EJWG) in February of 2017. The workgroup was created following direct recommendations by both the Flint Water Advisory Task Force and the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee’s Policy Subcommittee. The new group was charged to “develop and provide recommendations to the Governor that improve environmental justice awareness and engagement in state and local agencies. The EJWG will examine policy and recommend for implementation environmental justice guidance, training, curriculum, and policy that further increases quality of life for all Michiganders.”
Speaking about the EJWG, Governor Snyder said the following: “Ensuring every Michigander has the same protections from environmental and health hazards is of the utmost importance. My goal for this group is to have thoughtful, productive conversations about this complex issue and I look forward to their recommendations and insight on this topic.”
In order to carry out their mission, the EJWG set out “to examine current environmental justice guidance, policies, and activities in Michigan, best practices from around the country that address Michigan’s specific needs and engage with local communities to better understand environmental justice in the State of Michigan.”
Environmental Justice Gets a Seat at the Table
DWEJ was one of the 23 organizations appointed to this group. Guy Williams, then the CEO and President of DWEJ, represented our organization. Guy joined representatives from across Michigan, coming from academia, nonprofits, government agencies, and business. With only a few environmental justice representatives in the group, being given “a seat at the table” presented us with a substantial opportunity to influence the outcome and amplify the voices of the people we fight for.
The EJWG report, published in March of 2018, included 33 recommendations to meet the requests Governor Snyder had laid out in his State of the State address the previous year. In addition to the environmental justice guidance, combined with training and curriculum recommendations, the workgroup also reached consensus on a vision for environmental justice in the State of Michigan. This vision included:
Integrating and strengthening environmental justice and public health considerations in agency decision-making
Enhancing tracking, monitoring and metrics
Increasing funding for environmental justice issues and aligning tax policy with environmental standards
Improving collaboration across all levels of government and with indigenous tribes
Creating tools and resources for Michigan residents
Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice has a long record of working with universities to create or contribute to research, lend expertise, or provide opportunities for learning. We have contributed to several environmental health initiatives, such as Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors (CURES), as well as the Great Lakes Environmental Law Clinic, Detroit’s Urban Research Center (of which we have been a member for 20 years), and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. DWEJ has also been an advisor to a variety of research programs at Wayne State University, University of Michigan, and Michigan State University.
Responding to a Public Health Crisis
In 2016, we were honored to join a project led by the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, investigating how poor air quality was impacting health outcomes for Metro Detroit residents, and more importantly, what could be done about it. The project, called the Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments (CA-PHE), is an ongoing partnership among community-based organizations, Metro Detroit residents, health service providers and public health researchers. Many partners, including DWEJ, have been part of multiple community-academic research partnerships with the University for over 20 years.
Industrial pollution and the environmental damage it causes, has been a problem in the Detroit area for decades. Environmental pollution harms the health of people living in and near the polluted areas, causing illnesses like acute asthma and increasing asthma-related hospitalizations. One study, produced as a result of the partnerships, estimated that each year in the Detroit Metro Area alone, air pollution was responsible for 690 deaths, 1800 hospitalizations and ER visits, as well as thousands of missed school and work days. The cumulative impact measured at the time was over $6.9 billion per year.
CA-PHE was created to develop and implement a science-based, community-led public health plan to reduce air pollution in Metro Detroit, and in turn, mitigate the health effects it causes. DWEJ contributed our expertise in community engagement, collaboration, research as well as our knowledge of pollution issues in Detroit to help develop recommendations, engage stakeholders and prioritize the implementation strategies.
A Plan Offering Solutions to Improve Detroit’s Air Quality
“In 2009, I went to Copenhagen, Denmark to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 15). During this conference, many countries committed to reducing their Greenhouse Gas emissions. As I was reading the Copenhagen Accord, which listed all of the cities that committed to reducing their Greenhouse Gas Emissions, I realized that Detroit was not on the list. So in 2011, I was compelled to convene key stakeholders to discuss the possibility of developing a Climate Action Plan for the city of Detroit. In 2012, we formed the Detroit Climate Action Collaborative, which led the development of the City of Detroit’s first Climate Action Plan. We established a steering committee and several workgroups. Those workgroups developed the content for the Detroit Climate Action Plan. While working at DWEJ, I recognized the importance of engaging allies from diverse backgrounds, especially businesses. Our contention was that if businesses are part of the problem in contributing to rising greenhouse gas emissions, they should also be part of the solution.
Kimberly Hill Knott, President/CEO of Future Insight Consulting, LLC and Chair of the City of Detroit’s Green Task Force Climate Action Committee
The Detroit Climate Action Collaborative Comes Together
Scientists around the world acknowledge that climate change will have serious environmental, public health, and economic consequences from which it will be increasingly difficult to recover. Whether Detroiters know it or not, we are impacted by those changes in our daily lives. DWEJ has a responsibility to help make sure our people and businesses are well-informed, are provided tools to create change, and are guided toward a healthy, resilient city for everyone. DWEJ takes this responsibility seriously.
Let us travel back in time to 2011. It was a busy time for Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. Not only were we operating our Green Job Training Program and working with other groups on what would become the Detroit Environmental Agenda, we also realized there was another problem that the city was facing and would continue to face— global climate change and the need to become climate resilient. While many US cities had plans to address and prepare for global climate change, Detroit was unprepared.
We decided to take action. We convened the Detroit Climate Action Collaborative (DCAC), a partnership between a broad array of local and regional allies—nonprofit groups, businesses, government agencies, and educational institutions.
To get started, we asked a blunt question: “How does a city attempting to thrive in the present day begin to think about what it will look like 50 years down the road?”.
The Detroit Climate Action Collaborative was a grassroots effort created to conduct research, gain community support, draw upon community knowledge, catalog greenhouse gas pollution, and offer real-world, achievable solutions and action plans to tackle climate change and related issues faced by Detroiters.
Detroit’s First Bottom-Up Climate Resilience Plan
In 2017, after many years of work, it all came together when DWEJ led the preparation and publication of the Detroit Climate Action Plan. It was a first for Detroit and one of the few plans in the nation to be written from the streets up, not the top (government) down. The plan was purposefully written to be easy to understand by residents. Inclusion has always been a mainstay of our strategies. and it continues to be a thread that weaves itself through every project, every endeavor, every program we undertake.
The Detroit Climate Action Plan is more than just a report and a wish list collection of ideas. It is an actual plan, complete with specific actions and attainable goals with benchmarks that serve as a stimulus for generating public and political support for action. The Plan contains over 100 action steps, focusing strategy on five major themes:
Businesses & Institutions
Parks, Public Spaces & Water Infrastructure
Homes & Neighborhoods
To learn more about the DCAC’s journey in creating Detroit’s first grassroots Climate Action Plan, check out Diane Cheklich’s mini documentary titled “FROM THE BOTTOM UP: Climate Action in Detroit” (2017)
Understanding the Impact of Climate Change in Detroit
We commissioned Detroit-specific studies on greenhouse gas emissions, vulnerability, and climatology. We talked and listened in town hall and neighborhood meetings, organized summits with business, health and youth organizations, and regrouped over and over again to get it right. This work was critical to the creation of the Detroit Climate Action Plan.
A project of this importance and scale took a lot of hard work by many people. The Detroit Climate Action Plan was the result of close collaboration and thousands of hours of research, brainstorming, and meetings with our partners, including University of Michigan, Wayne State University and Michigan State University. Business supporters included Ford Motor Company, General Motors Corporation, DTE Energy, Detroit Salt Company, and Data Driven Detroit. (See the report for the full list.)
The Economic Impact of the Detroit Climate Action Plan
Following publication of the Detroit Climate Action Plan, DWEJ commissioned a financial study, called the Economic Impact of the Detroit Climate Action Plan, which examined the potential economic impact created by implementing the action steps of the Plan. The report was published in 2018 and stated that we must reimagine how we plan and fund government activity to achieve our goals and directly improve the day-to-day experience of Detroiters. One way is to invest in infrastructure—repairing storm sewers, upgrading pumping systems, and repaving roads.
One of the first major policy victories resulting from the Detroit Climate Action Plan and Economic Report occurred on July 24, 2019, when Detroit City Council unanimously passed a greenhouse gas ordinance. This was the first ordinance of its kind in Detroit, and aims to cut emissions from City government sources 30% by 2025 and 100% by 2050.
We continue to work with the Detroit Green Task Force’s Climate Action Committee, chaired by Kimberly Hill Knott, who previously worked at DWEJ as our Senior Policy Director and Project Director for the Detroit Climate Action Collaborative. Our shared goal is to continue creating and implementing priority action steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Detroit.