Year in Review

Maureen Martin

2020 was a year none of us will forget. It was a year of facing challenges and of rising to meet them.

The hardships and losses that we endured, combined with the resiliency shown by so many in our communities, have given us an appreciation for what matters the most: our network of allies and supporters. They allow us to continue pursuing our mission of advocating for a healthy environment through innovative community and policy action that values all people. 

2020 will always be remembered for COVID-19. It has had, and will continue to have, a tremendous impact on our country. Those in the environmental justice movement have long-known how pollution and environmental conditions contribute to higher rates of disease and poorer health outcomes for the low-income and people of color communities the movement advocates for.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid this reality bare for all to see. On February 22, 2021, the United States surpassed 500,000 COVID-related deaths. As of that day, Michigan had sustained over 16,000 losses, while Wayne County, home to Detroit, accounted for over 25% of those lost. Early data and current research both show the same alarming trend –  communities of color, particularly  who are lower-income and living in inner-cities, have been hit the hardest.

While COVID-19 and related events in 2020 created obstacles, it also opened the door for new opportunities. 2020 changed the way we approached our work in many ways, but it didn’t stop us. Like the old adage says, “Necessity is the mother of invention” and we, like so many of you, found new ways forward. Even in a year filled with change and challenges, we enjoyed many successes, and we would like to share those with you here.

Changes at DWEJ

We would be remiss to not first mention the departure of two members of our family who played major roles in our work. Guy Williams, who served as our President and CEO since 2010, announced his retirement. Guy helped DWEJ remain a stable organization as he was the second person to lead us since our inception in 1991, and his efforts helped us gain more credibility and recognition in Detroit and well beyond. We also said goodbye after 4 years to Wibke “Vee” Heymach, who served as our Senior Policy Director.

These major departures created an opportunity for us to pause and take time to consider not only where we are and who we are as an organization, but how to best serve our community as we move forward under new leadership. To that end, we brought in respected environmental justice expert and consultant Jumana Vasi to do a “deep dive” into DWEJ’s history and help us create a strategic plan for the future, while also recommitting to our grassroots work and focus. The first task in that journey, finding our next Executive Director, is currently in progress.

We were also fortunate to host Catherine Diggs, who came to us through the LISC AmeriCorps program as a Community Engagement Coordinator. Catherine played an important role in helping us maintain stability at the organization through a time of great transition. At the conclusion of her AmeriCorps service term, Catherine was therefore asked to join our team full-time in the role of Program Manager.

We welcomed the addition of Sandra Turner-Handy to our Board of Directors. As a born and raised Detroiter and long-time environmental justice advocate, she brings a wealth of knowledge and experience and we are thrilled to have her with us.

Our Future Build enterprise gained Clifford Terry as lead of the construction group. Clifford brings over 50 years of experience, along with a dedication to help and hire those recovering from addiction.

Strengthening our partnerships and expanding our programs

Less time spent traveling to and from meetings due to public health restrictions created more time to connect with others. We took this opportunity to focus on some of our ongoing working relationships and programs, as well looking for new connections.

Through our partnership with the Joyce Foundation, our now-Program Manager Catherine Diggs:

  • Built partnerships with the Detroit 2030 District and the Renewable Energy Committee (REC) of the Detroit Green Task Force to support their outreach efforts, such as expanding the low-income building membership base for the Detroit 2030 program and promoting the REC’s Solar Readiness Assessment pilot project to support nonprofit and neighborhood organizations journey of “going solar”.
  • Contributed content for an “Event Recycling and Waste Reduction Guidebook” through the Recycling and Waste Reduction Committee of the Green Task Force. The guidebook was commissioned by the Detroit City Council after they passed an “Event Recycling and Waste Reduction Resolution” in July 2020.
  • Completed our interim report to the Foundation, securing a second phase of funding to help sustain our general operations.

The Detroit Environmental Agenda 

Through 2020, we were sure to keep our longstanding collaboration of nonprofits working to advance environmental justice active through the following activities:

  • A member retreat in January, which resulted in the publication of the DEA Strategic Planning Report by Renee Wallace, from Doers Consulting and FoodPlus Detroit.
  • The pursuit of virtual meetings starting in July after COVID-related disruptions. We are thankful to Catherine for stepping up to the plate and leading the effort of keeping our meetings going in the digital space.  
  • The creation of a set of priorities (Community, Energy, Jobs, Public Health, Recycling, Water) for the Collaboration to work on collectively and in smaller teams. 
  • The completion of our interim report to the Erb Family Foundation, in order to receive funding. 

 The Delray Neighborhood Framework Plan 

DWEJ wrapped up our portion of the Delray Plan’s community engagement component. Our work on that project began in 2019.

Completing a grant through the Americana Foundation

This past fall saw the completion of our grant work with D-Town Farm, an organic community farm in Rouge Park. In previous years, we had helped arrange for local students to volunteer at the farm during the summer and fall for harvest, cleanup and planting projects. Due to COVID restrictions, the students could not participate, so Program Manager Catherine Diggs and Communications Manager Brad Ashburn volunteered their time in the fall.

Getting support from the Kresge Foundation

We were able to secure additional funding for general operations from our friends at the Kresge Foundation.

Continuing our partnership with the University of Michigan

  • We continued our work on the Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments (CAPHE), a partnership launched by the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan to improve air quality in the Detroit Metro Region.
  • DWEJ contributed to the CAPHE Community Initiative Impact Report released in 2020 and is working with other partners to plan the final portion of the work needed to complete the grant that funds CAPHE.

Preparing the next generation through our commitment to education

We completed a collaborative project with students from two classes at Lawrence Technical University’s Detroit Center for Design and Technology. In the first part of the project, students worked in teams to develop DWEJ promotional pamphlets and donation cards.

In the second phase, teams created recycling and waste reduction pilot projects. Students learned how to work with a client, present their concepts and work, gather and incorporate feedback, as well as community outreach strategies. They acquired knowledge about waste reduction and recycling in Detroit and launched innovative projects. Catherine Diggs and Brad Ashburn were the main collaborators, along with Guy Williams and now-Board Director Sandra Turner-Handy.

Improving our digital reach

Since we could not get out to work with the community and our network in person, we made a concerted effort to communicate more effectively in other ways:

  • We worked with the Porter Family Foundation to completely reimagine our website and we secured funding to redesign and launch our new online home. This project, completed by Catherine Diggs and Brad Ashburn, working with designer Linette Lao from Invisible Engines, was an intensive 8-month project. We are pleased with the result and the feedback has been positive.
  • Our Communications Manager, Brad Ashburn, focused heavily on building up our social media platforms to increase followers and engagement. He also revamped and greatly expanded our YouTube Channel, which features new original content, videos from our archives, and lots of information on environmental justice in Detroit and around the country. You should check it out!
  • Speaking of original content on our YouTube channel, Catherine Diggs, who was the recipient of one of only three LISC AmeriCorps “Innovation Project” national pilot grants, set about creating the “Solar Stories of Detroit” video series, which will eventually contain 15 interviews featuring community leaders from across Detroit and their solar projects. The series is also featured on our Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Expanding Future Build, our social enterprise

Our goal is to make our Future Build a stand-alone enterprise in the near future. Work towards that goal has accelerated in 2020. Once the enterprise begins to operate on its own, a portion of the revenues it generates, will contribute to supporting DWEJ.

Here are a few examples of the projects Future Build is proud to have completed and/or began this year: 

  • Major construction projects at properties in Bel Air, at Hubbard Farm, and in Hope Village in Detroit.
  • A secured contract with the City of Detroit to work on 110 housing units, which entailed the submission of a $775,000 bid for work on a senior living complex.

 Our Energy Efficiency Assistance Program (EEAP) 

Our EEA program, contracted through DTE, continued to help reduce the energy burden experienced by Detroit families by expanding its efforts to improve household energy efficiency. The program’s services not only includes appliance retrofits, but also weatherization enhancements.

 ~ ~ ~ ~  ~

All this is to say, we are proud of our accomplishments and of the resiliency shown by our staff over the past year. In what could have easily been a “lost” year, they all bore down and kept us moving forward. That includes all the vital “behind the scenes” work by our Board and Strategy & Administration Director, Leslie Genest, to keep us going. Without their efforts, the year could have turned out very differently. They have our sincerest gratitude.

Our gratitude extends to you as well. The ongoing support from our networks and friends near and far, old and new, have meant the world to us. Your belief in our mission keeps us going and we look forward to sharing many more stories and accomplishments with you next year.

Thank you for all that you do for Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice and for the people and communities we serve.


Maureen Martin
Board Chair
Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice

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