Building A New Detroit Workforce
Anthony Kashat’s Story
Part of Detroit’s resurgence is removing the old to make way for the new. But what happens when there’s a shortage of workers to make it all happen in an environmentally forward way?
Take, for example, the many abandoned and blighted homes in Detroit. Once a home is ready to be torn down, it has to be surveyed for any toxic materials or pollutants on site—most commonly lead and asbestos. Then, those materials have to be removed in a clean and safe manner.
For years, DWEJ’s Workforce Training program has helped train Detroiters in aspects of this work. But recently, demand has increased for workers who can build on their initial training and grow into more advanced positions—with better pay. That’s why DWEJ has developed its Future Build program, which advances the skills of Detroiters who have basic work training, employing them in living-wage jobs with a focus on repairing and protecting the environment.
“As the head of an environmental service company, I’m not looking for laborers,” says Anthony Kashat, principal and co-founder of AKT Peerless, which provides environmental and energy solutions in Detroit and beyond. “I need individuals who have a foundation of training and want to take their career in the next direction.”
Kashat, who has partnered closely with DWEJ on the Workforce Training program since its inception—even hiring trainees who completed the curriculum—says he’s now eager for more help through Future Build.
“I’m looking to hire people who can do environmental survey work,” he says. Because his company has large numbers of homes slated for demolition, he needs surveyors who can assess whether there’s asbestos or lead in the home, and identify any toxic materials present. The surveyors then generate a report, which Kashat gives to the abatement companies so the toxic materials can be removed safely.
“We’ll pay these people, and get them the training and experience they need,” Kashat says. “But they have to be ready to take their career to the next level.”
He says Future Build is a missing link—a program that gives people with entry-level skills the opportunity to advance. “It can help the right people be able to grow.”
Being Part of a Green Detroit
Heather Barnes has lived in Detroit her whole life. She knows it’s a city that’s always changing, and she took DWEJ’s Workforce Training program as a way to understand how she could be a part of that change.
“DWEJ training opened me up to possibilities,” Heather says. Part of the curriculum included meeting speakers who came to class to talk about their different industries. One of those speakers was Anthony Kashat, owner of AKT Peerless, a green environmental consulting company. His company was hiring, and they found the right candidate in Heather.
“I started out doing project assistant and administrative work three to four hours a day,” Heather explains. “Going through the training, I had an understanding of what the business was. It gave me a feel for what they do.”
After graduating from the Workforce Training program, Heather began working for AKT Peerless full-time and growing her position. She now provides project setup, billing and accounting work for AKT Peerless offices in Detroit, Atlanta and California.
“I found my niche is organization skills,” says Heather. “Tony has been great about allowing me to use my skill sets and encouraging me to keep my certifications up to date.”
Now, Heather’s son, David, is interning at AKT Peerless while he attends college at Eastern Michigan University. It may not be a coincidence that this work is generational: Heather says that during Workforce Training, she would go home and teach her sons about environmental justice. “That way, I was educating them along with myself,” she says.
She believes that it’s a critical time for people to understand what a “green Detroit” really means. “I think people need to be better educated to understand the benefits and what green industry is,” she says. “Who wouldn’t want to protect our environment and live healthier lives? But people need to realize that it’s not some fancy, intellectual idea. It’s something everyone can embrace. Change is happening in Detroit. We all can and should be part of it.”
Collaborating for a Better Future
Dolores Perales and her mom thought maybe Dolores was just working out too hard. As a high school athlete, Dolores would play sports and “always be out of breath.” It got so bad that she started sitting out competitions. Finally, Dolores’s mom took her to the doctor, and she was given a diagnosis: asthma.
It wasn’t just Dolores, though. Her little brother had the same condition. And a close cousin down the street in her Mexicantown neighborhood in Detroit had asthma as well.
According to a 2016 Newsweek article, Detroiters are hospitalized for their asthma three times more frequently than other Michiganders. Now, Dolores is using those statistics and her own experiences as motivation to “make changes in my own life.” As a junior at Michigan State, she’s studying environmental studies, sustainability, and epidemiology. Through education and community outreach, she is “finding ways that things can get better.”
One of those ways is through her work with Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, a nonprofit committed to improving air quality in Detroit, and an organization that has joined with DWEJ on a project called Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments (CA-PHE). The CA-PHE initiative is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and involves research through the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan.
“Having help from other companies and nonprofits that share the same vision—it’s amazing to see all these people coming out and making it happen,” Dolores says.
She says DWEJ’s input on policy is critical, “so we know how to make changes happen or how they can physically be made. By working together, I feel like we get the end goals done to help the community out.”
As a Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision field supervisor over the summer, Dolores also oversees volunteers who are working on infrastructure projects that dovetail with DWEJ’s own community work. This includes cleaning up lots, building rain gardens, and grant writing to create green spaces.
“Pollutants in the air have had a huge influence on my health,” Dolores says. “You can’t really escape, and sometimes it can make life hard. Together, we’re making the necessary change so people in the future don’t have to deal with these issues.”
After the Rain
Eddie and Minnie Lester
When it rains, it pours.
Eddie and Minnie Lester know this all too well.
In their Southeast Waterfront Neighborhood in Detroit, heavy rains in recent years have flooded homes, closed streets, backed up sewers, and generally wreaked havoc.
“We’re afraid every time it rains that our basement is going to flood,” says Minnie.
And with good reason. Research by Professor Larissa Larsen at the University of Michigan says that heavy rains are up 45 percent in the last five years in Michigan. In and around Detroit, this spells disaster as the aging sewer and water infrastructure fails to keep pace with the deluge.
But with help from DWEJ, the Lesters have been able to make changes that help keep the water from seeping inside their home—as well as other homes in the neighborhood. “DWEJ came into the community and informed the people about the environment and what we can do to help protect ourselves,” says Lester.
The proposed solutions included rain gardens, bioswales designed to help carry runoff surface water, rain barrels, and downspouts. Lester says DWEJ helped them install these much-needed tools.
So far, it seems to be working. “The majority of times we don’t have any rain but when it does rain, we have an overflow,” says Lester. “That’s where the rain gardens, and bioswales are helping alleviate the water going down into the structure of the homes and the basements.”
With DWEJ’s help, the Lesters also formed a climate ambassadors group in their community. The ambassadors provide “information regarding climate change and what we can do to help with the backups, or how to contact the city and let them know what problems we’re having.”
Lester adds that DWEJ also helped him establish a youth climate ambassadors team, comprising five teenagers.
“We are continuing with educating the community in regards to the rain gardens and rain barrels. DWEJ came in and showed us how, and now we’ve learned how to do it ourselves and can show others.”