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.
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.
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.
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.
In 2008, DWEJ and the Southeast Michigan Sustainable Business Forum partnered to develop plans for a building that would embody our sustainability ideals – the Detroit Sustainability Center (DSC). The DSC came from our trail-blazing Build Up Detroit program and was created to be a model community-driven green development that symbolized Detroit’s commitment to a green and socially just future, and serve as a community and professional resource hub for sustainability.
Our Vision for the Detroit Sustainability Center
Increase public and private collaboration to bring a comprehensive and efficient approach to promote greener, healthier buildings and communities.
Enhance quality of life for the residents and workers in Detroit and surrounding communities.
Expand the image of Detroit as a model of an equitable, sustainable green economy.
Establish credible green policies and programs across the city and region through innovative public-private collaboration.
The idea behind the DSC was to create a centrally located model of an ecologically sustainable building. It would be the catalyst for promoting Detroit’s revitalization by providing a new model for urban redevelopment. The DSC would provide space for civic engagement, job training, green business incubation, green construction, and policy innovation initiatives.
The Detroit Sustainability Center would provide:
State-certified job training in emerging green industries and brownfield remediation for displaced, unemployed, and underemployed workers
Resources for developers regarding green building techniques and financing tools for sustainable development
A center for organizing and youth leadership in environmental stewardship
A green cafe serving locally grown food
A coordinating center for policy around sustainability issues
An incubator for startup businesses pursuing environmentally sustainable practices
Technical assistance to businesses to reduce their carbon footprint by incorporating pollution prevention mechanisms and/or employing best practices
A sustainable solutions lab for public education, hands-on training and demonstrations
A Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum destination site with public access that would model Detroit’s unique opportunities for sustainable retrofitting of historic structures.
A Collaborative Effort
Designing the DSC would not have been possible without the help and support of four gifted graduate students from the University of Michigan: Alycia Hillman, Sheila Somashekhar, Carmen Violich, and Natalie Zappella. Their project Catalyzing a Sustainable Detroit: A Community-Directed Strategic Plan was completed in collaboration with DWEJ, the Southeast Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, and an array of Detroit stakeholders, such as documentary-maker Bill Kubota, and businesses and organizations working on sustainable development.
The purpose of the project was to, in the authors’ words, “represent the ways in which the tenets of sustainability could improve the lives of all people living and working in Detroit” and “to create a strategic plan for a sustainability resource and community activity center tailored to the unique conditions in the city of Detroit”. Without the help of these students, we would not have been able to plan our vision in such a meaningful way. We are extremely thankful for their help.
Despite our plans, the Detroit Sustainability Center has yet to become a reality. However, it serves as a great example of our history as innovators, a trait that lives on to this day as we continue on a journey of transformation. It also remains on our “to-do” list. DWEJ would love to see this project or one like it become a reality one day. Would you? We cannot do it without your support.
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
Helping Create a Community-Driven Neighborhood Plan
The Delray plan is one of several neighborhood plans created by the City of Detroit’s Planning and Development Department. For Delray, the City selected Rosetti, an architecture and planning based firm headquartered in Downtown Detroit, as lead consultant. Joining the team also, was Interface Studio, a planning and urban design firm based in Philadelphia. Having been selected to lead the community engagement strategy for the City’s Detroit Sustainability Action Agenda, DWEJ was added to this team to make sure environmental justice was incorporated into the conversation. Our goal was to make sure community needs would be accounted for throughout the process by helping to build the Framework Plan’s community engagement component.
A Bit More About Delray…
The Delray Neighborhood Framework Plan is a proactive response to the construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge/Trade Crossing between Windsor, Canada and Detroit. The 167 acre US terminal complex will be built in Delray. This construction project will radically alter the neighborhood through building the terminal complex, the destruction of numerous structures and roadways, and requiring the relocation of many residents.
Delray is a historic neighborhood situated on the southwest side of Detroit. It was once called the “Hungarian Village” due to the many immigrants who settled there from that country. Over time, Delray and the surrounding neighborhoods became heavily industrialized and significantly underpopulated. Today, it is home to the expanded Marathon oil refinery and the largest sewage treatment facility in North America. Delray also shares a border with Detroit’s 48217 zip code, found to be the most polluted zip code in Michigan.
Community Engagement Summary
As a result of the environmental justice issues faced by the Delray community, the Framework Plan includes a significant community engagement process, which DWEJ helped build with the rest of the consulting team and the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition, who is serving as the Delray community liaison. This inclusive Community Engagement Plan sought to build trust through resident surveys, interviews, public meetings, advertising, and data collection. In other words, the goal of the engagement process was to work with the people of Delray to create a collective vision for what the neighborhood might look like during and after the construction of the bridge, rather than informing them after the fact.
After completing the initial phase and distributing surveys and informational materials throughout Delray in July, the next challenge was to obtain input from the ~430 households who decided not to move out of the neighborhood. It was important to reach and engage them so consensus could be developed around key issues, such as development and revitalization, economic development, transportation and access, environment and infrastructure, and vegetative buffers and screenings.
Despite COVID-19 having affected our team’s community engagement efforts, we are still striving to make sure the voices of Delray neighborhood residents are heard throughout the planning process.
Along with many other organizations and Detroit residents, DWEJ spent years pressing for an Office of Sustainability within the Detroit City Government. Our combined efforts were rewarded in 2017 when Mayor Duggan established the Detroit Office of Sustainability. This action, which coincided with the publication of Detroit’s first grassroots Climate Action Plan, created goals for applying sustainability across all elements of City departments and domains, and brought Detroit into alignment with other large cities that were already addressing climate change.
Two years later, we saw the results of our work building the Detroit Climate Action Plan become the foundation of the Detroit Sustainability Action Agenda. After being created and staffed, the Office of Sustainability committed to create its own sustainability plan that would outline a strategic roadmap to create a more sustainable city where all Detroiters thrive and prosper in a more equitable and green city, as well as work together as resource stewards.
The Office of Sustainability began searching for a consulting team to help them implement a thorough, citywide community engagement process to generate the agendas’ goals and actions. Their goal was truly to reflect the will of the people of Detroit, especially those that had often been excluded from past planning processes.
Building Strategy through Community Collaboration
We were selected to oversee the design and implementation of the engagement phase, in conjunction with AECOM, EcoWorks, SAGA Marketing, and coUrbanize. It was truly a blessing for us earn this opportunity. Our goal was to work with grassroots community partners to determine how to move forward together with a shared vision, and to include residents from the beginning.
Through our three-phase community engagement strategy, we used a wide array of methods to engage Detroiters in as many neighborhoods and demographics as possible, such as:
14 Sustainability Ambassadors from the community hired to maintain an ongoing presence in their neighborhoods
4 Workshops relating to: (1) Environment and Health, (2) Housing and Neighborhoods, (3) Infrastructure and Open Space, (4) Transportation and Economic Opportunity
4 Town Hall meetings hosted across the city, which were widely publicized
Paper and online surveys in multiple languages and formats that were shared at community meetings, face-to face, or distributed by the Sustainability Ambassadors. They were also circulated online through e-mail lists, websites, Twitter, and other social platforms, as well as through the coUrbanize website.
7 focus groups targeting under-represented communities
A Plan that Elevates the Voices of Detroit Neighborhoods
Through this robust engagement process, our team reached thousands of Detroiters (residents and businesses), to learn more about the challenges they face in their day-to-day lives, as well as to hear their voices, opinions, and suggestions about building a more sustainable Detroit. We are proud to say that:
6,800 Detroiters were engaged
1,600 surveys were collected in Spanish and English
1,200 online comments were collected on coUrbanize
2,000 Detroiters were reached by attending 100+ existing community meetings
860+ Detroiters met with Sustainability Ambassadors
370 Detroiters were engaged through Town Halls
50+ Detroit-based organizations were engaged through eight Practitioner Workshops
Our combined, collaborative efforts allowed the voice of the people to not only be heard, but to influence and guide the development and focus of the Detroit Sustainability Action Agenda.
Once this intensive engagement phase was accomplished, the Office of Sustainability laid out its plan for an accessible, transparent, and easy-to-read Detroit Sustainability Action Agenda. The Agenda was created to achieve four outcomes: (1) Healthy, Thriving People; (2) Affordable, Quality Homes; (3) Clean, Connected Neighborhoods; and (4) an Equitable, Green City. Through these outcomes, the City is committed to achieving 10 goals and implementing 43 actions to address many of the most pressing challenges that Detroiters face today.
DWEJ has partnered with universities in Detroit and around Michigan for many years. Sometimes, those partnerships are focused on research and policy development. Other times, they are more hands-on and directly engage students. In 2020, we worked with students from graphic design and industrial design classes at Lawrence Technical University’s Detroit Center for Design and Technology, located in Midtown Detroit. The collaboration was in two parts, each providing students with an opportunity to work with DWEJ, as their nonprofit client, and giving them real-life experience and project credentials.
In one part of the collaboration, students worked in teams to design and produce promotional pamphlets and donation cards for DWEJ. The selected materials would be distributed to the public, our partners, at events and meetings, and via mail. Representatives from DWEJ met with students to review their proposal, provide feedback, and view the presentation of their completed work.
Students Design their Vision of Sustainability
In the second part of the collaboration, we worked with the same graphic design students and a class of industrial design students. They worked in teams to develop recycling and waste reduction pilot projects to support the waste management community in Detroit. Once again, we provided feedback, as well as advice on community outreach, launching innovative programs, and waste reduction/recycling in Detroit.
Two of our staff members, one with a strong recycling background and one with experience in social science and outreach/education programs, helped coordinate the project and shared resources and contacts. Our Community Engagement Coordinator arranged a field trip to Recycle Here!, one of Detroit’s first individual drop-off recycling centers, in order to give the students an up close and hands-on experience of the recycling process and what it entails. As with the promotional materials, the teams met with DWEJ to review proposed projects, get feedback, and present their work.
We are very proud of and thankful for the work they have done and we look forward to working with LTU more in the future!