As DWEJ continues its celebration of Detroit’s own environmental justice warriors, we spoke with Theresa Landrum (life-long Detroiter, community activist and outspoken griot) who shared the circumstances and lessons learned throughout her journey as the people’s advocate.

Q: What prompted you to become a champion for environmental justice?

It was not a chosen profession. Raised in Southwest Detroit, pollution and environmental racism was part of the air. When my family migrated from the South, the draw for many African Americans was better jobs. Living in 48217 (what has later come to be known as the most polluted zip code in Michigan), we lived among a variety of industries which was a direct result of redlining practices that limited the settlement of Black people during that time.

Growing up, I always noticed that we had dirt on our cars due to the fallout from surrounding industries and the skies always glowed orange at night. Yet, I didn’t realize the impact this would have on the health and well-being of all of us. Environmental justice wasn’t even talked about back then. 

Then during the 1980s, the salt companies shut down and these businesses petitioned the city of Detroit to store toxic waste in the shaft of the salt mines near our neighborhoods. A decade later, I and my neighbors notices a shifting in our houses, streets and driveways due to explosions to excavate salt occurring under our streets from the local mines. We got a small group together and successfully petitioned the city council to stop this from happening.

Later during the citywide blackout in Detroit in 2003, the loss of power made it so that the mechanism that monitored pollution from local factories no longer worked due to this loss in electricity. The blackout also made it so that my neighbors (many of which were elderly and had only a landline) could not reach out to their family to alert them of what was going on. And to top this off, there was no emergency evacuation from the city. We were simply left behind.

Seeing my friends and family get sick and the injustices happening due to toxic practices, I started doing research and saw the connections between environmental health disparities and pollution. It was not one event. My activism evolved over time and circumstance. 

Q: What is the greatest lesson that you have learned to date doing this work?

I have learned that we have a voice and we have to use our voice. We have to come together collectively and educate each other on how policies are made. So many people are disenchanted with the government and with good cause. This indifference by elected officials has proven to be true over and over again. Yet, what we don’t know hurts us. Once we learn what’s going on, we have to stay the course and don’t give up.

Q: What advice would you share with younger advocates in the EJ movement?

I would tell them to seek knowledge. Learn to be self-reliant and resilient because in this work, you will be attacked. Also, trust yourself because when you have the facts, this can’t be refuted. Be strong and don’t be intimidated. Some say you must have a thick skin to do this work, but I say you must have a backbone and conviction.

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