As Detroiters, we are made of a collective grit that embodies the famous quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. where he stated that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.”
Sandra Turner-Handy (life-long Detroiter, EJ activist and DWEJ board member) sat down with us to share her journey of how she has continued to speak truth to power in demanding a healthier, cleaner Detroit.
Q: What prompted you to become a champion for environmental justice?
Years ago, when I worked in the Michigan Legislature as Chief of Staff, my office was called to a neighborhood in Detroit. When I arrived on this 90 degree day in July, I exited my car and was immediately hit by this wall of smell. My head started to hurt and I began to be nauseated. I noticed some local environmental justice advocates (most notably Donele Wilkins) and went to talk to them to find out more about what was going on. They told me that there was a wastewater treatment plant located at the end of this low-income community. Turns out, the plant was dumping the polluted water down the sewer and this waste was coming right back up into people’s homes.
I saw babies on breathing machines. Seniors who could neither breathe in or outside of their homes. It was at this moment that this fight became a part of me. After witnessing this first hand, I knew that I had to do all that I could to help my people.
After successfully organizing to get the plant to shut down, I realized that this incident is just a drop in the bucket. From that point on, every issue that I came across in the legislature was viewed through the lens of environmental justice because I understand that the quality of the environment is tied to every other social justice issue.
Q: What is the greatest lesson that you have learned to date doing this work?
The greatest lesson that I have learned is that everyone is born equal. Yet, this equity begins to shift as we move about the world. The question of an equitable society is something that humanity is very concerned about because it simply does not exist. Therefore, my vision is to help people amplify their voices so that they are heard and to understand that we, the people, are not powerless. A colleague of mine summed this up for me years ago when he said, “Sandra, if you’re not at the table, you are on the menu.”
Q: What advice would you share with younger advocates in the EJ movement?
Working for environmental justice is not easy. With that in mind, I would tell young people to build up their energy. Fighting against environmental injustice is not a quick solution. It takes time so be prepared. And always keep in mind that this injustice can happen in your own backyard.