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.
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.
Introduction to hazardous materials
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Placement and Follow-up: Through thePartnerships for Diversity & Opportunity and the MIRoad2Work.com 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
“Working for DWEJ definitely came as an answer to my prayer request. This life-changing experience has impacted my life, as well as my family’s lives in a way that I would have never imagined. It manifested as a source of restoration for my sense of dignity and integrity, which I had been longing for. When I talk about what I do for a living, it gives me a sense of pride that is 00000rewarding and gratifying. Entering into the field that DWEJ works in definitely represented a new territory for me, and therefore a challenge. I credit my success within this company, first to God’s grace. Second, to the support of a great team of qualified colleagues that care about what they do.” – Carla King, Energy Efficiency Specialist and graduate of DWEJ’s weatherization training program
“With the collaboration of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ) and Operation Able, I enrolled in the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) and graduated with honors. The impact DWEJ has made on my life and career has been life-changing. Midway through my career, DWEJ gave me an opportunity to work with people again, and change their lives! DWEJ is an awesome organization to be a part of. Its mission has made and is still making a positive impact in the city of Detroit. DWEJ is all about making sure people live in a healthy and safe community. My experience has been a blessing and I am grateful. I’m surrounded by caring, intelligent, and remarkable people, who want to make a difference in the World for ALL people. I am proud to be one of their team members.” – Anetha Walker, Energy Efficiency Specialist and graduate of DWEJ’s weatherization training program
What is the Energy Efficiency Assistance Program?
DWEJ’s Energy Efficiency Assistance (EEA) Program was born out of our Future Build Construction Group. We hired three graduates from the Future Build weatherization workforce training program in May, 2017 to work on the EEA program. We are happy to say that Anetha and Carla, two of our success stories, still work with us to this day.
Since 2008, Michigan utility companies have been required by law to create Energy Efficiency Assistance programs to help meet state energy standards. DTE Energy, Detroit’s largest electric utility, launched its EEA program in 2009, with a portion devoted to helping low-income residents who often pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income on their energy bills.
DTE’s early attempts included supplementing federal weatherization funding to specialized agencies, but this proved insufficient in supporting low-income communities. Like many utilities, DTE struggled to attract participants for their low-income energy efficiency programs, due in part to language barriers, lack of information, negative past experiences with utility shutoffs, and the complex paperwork required to enroll. To remedy this issue, they created partnerships with more than 30 agencies and organizations that served and understood the needs and concerns of low-income residents. DWEJ is one of those partner organizations.
In 2014, DTE added the Supporting Energy Efficiency in Detroit (SEED) Homes program to its EEA program as a way to expand their energy efficiency services by combining them with existing bill assistance benefits. DTE supplemented its partner organizations’ existing resources with its own funds generated from utility ratepayer surcharges, allowing its partners to expand their services to include energy efficiency improvements. In exchange, the partner organizations helped DTE increase program participation and in just the first year, reduced greenhouse gas emissions by an amount comparable to the annual energy-related emissions of more than 1,000 homes.
By doing our part in this large-scale project, we not only help DTE honor its mandate to meet Michigan’s energy efficiency standards, we help our low-income residents reduce their costs and reduce their emissions. It’s a win-win situation for all parties involved. On a more personal level, by making it possible for eligible participants to replace some of their old household appliances with newer, more energy efficient ones, we change lives in our community for the better. Through this work, DWEJ can address and improve household energy costs and efficiency.
Day-to-Day Work in the EEA Program
We are proud of the work we do, but none of it would be possible without our devoted staff: Lynette Cobb, Carla King, and Anetha Walker.
Every day, our Energy Efficiency Specialists, Carla and Anetha, receive calls from local DTE Energy customers looking to benefit from the free services the EEA program offers. Their role is to educate callers on cost savings if they replaced some of their older household appliances (refrigerators, furnaces and water heaters, as well as incandescent light bulbs) with new energy efficient models. They then perform an assessment of each customer’s annual income to determine if they qualify for the DTE EEA Program. Once the assessment is complete and the customers have demonstrated their eligibility, Carla and Anetha create customer cases for new appliance installations.
Lynette Cobb, our EEA Program Administrator, then works with private contractors and delivery people to make sure the approved customers get their new appliances delivered and installed. Anetha and Carla also go into homes to help with the installation of LED light bulbs. Participants are educated about the EEA program, energy efficiency measures, the equipment being installed and their emissions, and the positive impact this will have on their energy bills. We have experienced strong customer satisfaction as a result of our hard work and our customers are very happy with the service they receive from us!
Positive Impacts of the Energy Efficiency Assistance Program
I had a beautiful experience with you guys. I was so blessed that I received that call and that you guys were able to provide me with a new furnace. I cannot express the impact this overall experience has had on me, it was a miracle.”
“This program is awesome. I’m a senior who was in desperate need of a furnace which was given to me. I could not have afforded to buy one. This program is needed very much and I appreciate being a recipient. Thank you so much.”
– Renee Henderson, Detroit resident
By helping families lower the burden of their high energy costs through our EEA program, we have helped improve:
Energy bills: Program participants enjoy energy cost savings
Quality of life: They develop more confidence in their ability to pay bills and avoid power shutoffs
Homes: By undergoing energy upgrades, participants’ homes become more comfortable and safer to live in
Air quality: Energy is saved and less pollutants are emitted into the atmosphere by polluting and expensive power plants. This also reduces the need to build new power plants
Public health: By improving air quality, Detroit residents run a lower risk of suffering from four of the leading causes of death in the United States: cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, heart disease, and stroke, which are often directly associated with the presence of these pollutants in our atmosphere
Reliability: Reduced energy use also puts less strain on our vital electricity infrastructure. This is particularly important, given the amount of energy grid reliability issues we have in Michigan.
Jobs like the ones held by Carla, Anetha and Lynette are just a few of the tens of thousands created in Michigan by the energy efficiency industry. These jobs make up two thirds of Michigan’s clean energy jobs. This employment sector includes jobs like those in our EEA program, as well as jobs related to retrofitting ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in schools, insulating homes, and manufacturing ENERGY STAR-rated appliances.
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