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. 

Catherine “Cat” Diggs, and Alexandre “Alex” da Veiga

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. 

Photo Belinda Gilmore and Cat

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.  

tiny homes
Tiny Homes

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.

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