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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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!
Politics. The mere mention of the word drives many people away, and often for good reason. Politics can be messy. Politics can be frustrating. Politics can be disappointing. Politics can also be the path forward to a better tomorrow. It’s all in how you approach it. Unfortunately, so many people do not want to engage in politics that things that need to happen don’t, and important issues get co-opted, watered down and taken over by people who do not share our vision and values.
DWEJ has often been on the receiving end of comments about our entry into the policy and political arena. People ask why we don’t just stick to grassroots advocacy and help people that way. We never stopped doing grassroots work and advocacy and have committed to getting more of it in our work moving forward, but the grassroots level has limitations. At some point, if meaningful change for all Detroiters is the goal, we have to “get into the game”. Doing so in the past has produced some tremendous results, like helping to get the City of Detroit to establish the Office of Sustainability, closing down the waste incinerator, and helping to create both the Detroit Sustainability Action Agenda and the Detroit Climate Action Plan – which led to the adoption of the city’s first greenhouse gas ordinance. Whenever we can get “a seat at the table”, we can push environmental justice forward and make sure it gets taken seriously in official plans and strategies, rather than being a matter to be dealt with later.
We are talking about this now because of a few important issues facing Detroiters in the near future. First are the 2021 citywide elections. Detroiters will be voting on the offices of Mayor, City Council and many other elected positions that affect day to day life and the future of the city. Second is the redistricting plans to redraw political district maps in a more fair, representative way compared to the partisan gerrymandering that gave us the maps (and the mess) we have today.
We are also talking about it because when communities of color and/or low-income are not actively engaged or represented in the political process, they have little to no voice. Decisions get made about them rather than with or by them. When coupled with a lack of cohesive, focused political power and longtime disenfranchisement, these are the people who are without a seat at the table and no say in what happens to their neighborhoods, the health of their families, and their own futures. Instead of being included in the process from the start, they are often left only with reactive measures after decisions have been made. That is why DWEJ urges people to get involved, to take action, to call their representatives, and to be informed citizens and voters.
We’ll leave you today with this great article about the connection between politics and environmental justice, and why right now is the time to get off the sidelines, speak up and take action. We will continue to do our part. What will you do?
House Bill 4236 will help promote reliable, affordable clean energy to low-income and BIPOC communities
LANSING – A group of more than 40 environmental justice advocates, community and faith-based organizations, residents, and local businesses, that have developed or advocated for the development of rooftop solar on buildings in low-income communities, today sent a letter to State House lawmakers in support of House Bill 4236, a bill that would remove restrictions for small-scale solar in Michigan.
Currently, there is an arbitrary 1% cap on the amount of utility companies’ energy that is generated from small scale solar systems and sold back to the grid through distributed generation. Several major utility companies have already reached that cap while others are quickly approaching it. House Bill 4236 would remove that cap to allow more small scale solar to be used to reduce energy costs and air pollution.
The bill is pending before the Michigan House Energy Committee and could receive a hearing and vote in the coming weeks.
“Michigan’s 1% cap on distributed generation is not only nationally unique, but it is one of the most limiting caps across the country. HB 4236, which will remove the cap, benefits pollution reduction, provides good-paying jobs, advances energy independence opportunities for low-income communities, and improves our state’s general well-being,” the groups wrote in the letter.
According to a 2018 Bloomberg Associates study, approximately 50% of Detroit residents pay more on their utility bills than what is considered affordable by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Over the years, this has led to thousands of low-income and BIPOC communities to experience heat and electricity shut offs.
“Access to energy is a human right, and yet people both in inner cities and rural Michigan are unjustly at constant risk of shut offs and outages. What’s more, energy rates continue to skyrocket as utility companies spend millions of dollars to keep their aging, inefficient fossil fuel systems online. Michiganders need meaningful access to affordable and reliable energy. Solar energy is part of that solution,” the letter states.
Finally, the letter outlines the benefits of reducing reliance on fossil fuels that have disproportionate impacts on low-income and People of Color communities.
“Knowing that people of color and low-income communities are at the forefront of the energy reliability and affordability crisis, whilst also disproportionately bearing the burden of the health impacts that come from living, working, and playing in polluted neighborhoods, it is imperative that we as a collective make sure to consider their experience while making decisions about distributed generation.
It’s in everyone’s interest to lessen the burden of fossil fuel use on most impacted communities. We now know that solar energy not only helps build grid resilience, but also good-paying jobs. It plays a significant role in helping us collectively reduce our emissions and improve public health. HB 4236 is one modest step in the direction of that just and climate resilient Michigan we are all fighting for, and we hope you will join us in supporting this legislation.”
DWEJ is proud to be hosting the Midwest premier of the acclaimed short film, “The Sacrifice Zone”. This event will be a Zoom Watch Party on Tuesday, April 20 starting at 7pm. “The Sacrifice Zone” is a story about the fight for environmental justice in Newark, NJ’s notorious Ironbound neighborhood, considered to be one of the most polluted and toxic in America. It’s a powerful story of community action, resiliency and perseverance to create a better future.
Joining us will be Maria Lopez-Nuñez of the Ironbound Community Corporation and the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. Maria is featured prominently in the film and will be talking about it and her experiences leading a group of residents determined to break the cycle of poor communities of color serving as dumping grounds for our consumer society. Attendees will also be able to speak with Maria during the “After Party” Q&A session.
Kicking off the evening will be a screening of one of our own “Solar Stories of Detroit” short films. Series co-creator – and DWEJ Program Manager – Catherine Diggs will talk about the film and take questions from the audience. Joining Catherine will be Anita Sevier, Development and Alumni Relations Director from Gesu Catholic School, and a group of student alumni who led the project.
We are excite to bring you this exclusive event! We look forward to seeing you there. Don’t forget to invite your friends!
Interested in sponsoring this event? Information can be found on the ticketing site. Click “Show Details” under each sponsorship level to learn more.
About the “The Sacrifice Zone”: As the film begins, Covanta, the largest incinerator on the East Coast which is located in the Ironbound, has just applied to renew its permit, which includes releasing ‘acceptable’ levels of dioxin and mercury emissions. Inside Covanta, we can see what 10,000 pounds of trash actually looks like, and how the facility produces energy from waste. The sheer volume of the problem is brought into sharp focus, and the exasperation of the neighborhood is palpable.
Maria has dedicated her life to challenging the current political system and holding polluters accountable while building resistance within her community. She is the “Erin Brokovich” of the Ironbound, investing everything she has for the sake of survival. She and her colleagues aren’t just fighting for their community, they’re fighting for us all.
Throughout the film, Maria and her fellow activists lead Toxic Tours that show the harsh reality on the ground. These tours move us through the neighborhood, where we experience firsthand the proximity of so many polluters concentrated in a small area. One of the stops on the Toxic Tour, the Passaic Valley Sewage Treatment Center, processes waste from 3 million people in the NY/NJ region. Urban planner Ana Baptista explains that during Superstorm Sandy an eight-foot tidal wave washed through the open waste-water pools in front of us, carrying sewage into the waterways, rivers and local residents’ homes. Shockingly, no significant precautions have been taken since then and the neighborhood is just one major storm away from catastrophe.
Maria is an inspiration as she continues to fight for environmental justice, policing industrial polluters, holding government agencies to task, and empowering her community to take charge of its own destiny. (Credit: Talking Eyes Media)
As we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month, we wanted to recognize the vital role that women played in creating Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. Without their efforts, passion and dedication, we might not be here today. Our heartfelt thanks goes out to: Donele Wilkins, Kathryn Savoie, Mary Hollens, Andrea Kidd-Taylor, Akua Budu-Watkins, Kari Moss, Alice Jennings, Kathryn Lynch-Underwood, Grace Lee Boggs, Mama Lila Cabbil, Elizabeth Toomer and Kathy Milberg. We owe them all a debt of gratitude!
Clifford Terry, the construction lead of our Future Build enterprise, was featured in an article discussing the lack of minorities and women in the construction trades, and some of the Detroiters trying to change that. From the article:
Clifford Terry has seen his share of ups and downs in the Detroit construction industry. Clifford Terry grew up in New Jersey helping his neighborhood carpenter on weekends, before launching his own construction company in 1989. He registered his company, now Terry Group Contracting, in Detroit in 2018 and has “slowly, but surely” built his business. It hasn’t been a smooth path.
“You hear a lot of rhetoric about wanting minority participation,” Terry says. “But there’s so many hurdles in place that it’s still next to impossible.”
Read the rest of the article and Clifford’s interview on our “In the Media” page.