While green education and action continued in 2020, priorities shifted to alleviating hunger, housing and job instability, utility burdens, and loss of childcare in environmental justice communities.
When the pandemic hit Detroit last spring, environmental organizations pivoted to respond. Many threw away their work plans, they joined in efforts of mutual aid to help their neighbors and they doubled down in the fights for environmental and energy justice as COVID-19 disproportionately ravaged the low-income and majority black and brown communities they serve.
“We asked, how can we relieve the suffering that’s coming to our neighborhood?” said Voices for Earth Justice (VEJ) executive director BT Irwin, who runs an interfaith environmental justice nonprofit on Detroit’s northwest side. “When people’s lives are at stake, our mission changes from what we normally do, to what we need to do for those who are in real trouble.”
In partnership with the nonprofit NEW LEAF Detroit, VEJ transformed their small demonstration garden to one that yielded 26 times as much produce as it had in 2019. They grew only what residents asked for, eggplant, fresh herbs, peas, salad greens, peppers, squash, and tomatoes. Weekly, they donated all of the harvest to Brightmoor Connection food pantry, along with contributions they received from an immediate ask of their supporters.
Asking donors to give in new ways is a challenge many Detroit environmental organizations are facing this year. While green research, education, and action must continue in order to create clean, healthy, and safe environments for residents, what’s come first for justice nonprofits, says Michelle Martinez, acting executive director and statewide coordinator at the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition (MEJC), is helping to alleviate needs of hunger, housing and job instability, utility burdens, loss of childcare and more.
Through the spring and summer, MEJC shifted from frontline climate justice work to address energy shut-offs that continue to plague out-of-work Michigan residents. They also joined the Southwest Detroit Mutual Aid Collaboration, helping to raise over $80,000 in direct cash assistance and food to residents of southwest Detroit who were hardest hit.
“It was an enormous undertaking by hundreds of people who gave their money, time, and resources to folks who were in such great need, and still are, that the stimulus funding was never going to be enough,” Martinez says. “Its absence, even still, is heartbreaking.”
As environmental nonprofits like these and many others in Detroit work to bolster their communities who are disproportionately affected by the pandemic while also working toward their safe and healthy future, financial support is needed more than ever.
“2020 was a big eye-opener.” Martinez says. “We have 10 years to figure out the complex problem of climate change before we start seeing runaway impacts that are irreversible.” Building a more just and equitable climate future for all is the goal, she says, and we can never do anything alone.
Here are the environmental nonprofits you should consider supporting (did we miss any? Let us know at [email protected]):
We the People of Detroit is committed to building community coalitions that address critical issues surrounding civil rights, land, water, education, and democracy. They provide resources that inform, educate, and mobilize Detroiters on these issues, while also supporting residents with emergency water, water shut off intervention, and advocacy for water justice and sustainability. https://www.wethepeopleofdetroit.com/
Sierra Club Detroit Environmental Justice Program explores the linkages between environmental quality and social justice, promoting dialogue, increased understanding and action. The program is a part of the Michigan Chapter that works with volunteer leaders, state agencies and the legislature for better environmental stewardship statewide. https://www.sierraclub.org/michigan/environmental-justice and on Facebook at @detroitej
Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition (MEJC) works to achieve a clean, healthy, and safe environment for Michigan’s most vulnerable residents through environmental research, community education on environmental health and environmental racism, and by meeting with federal, state and local governments to address environmental justice through policy. https://www.michiganej.org/
Friends of the Rouge was founded 34 years ago to raise awareness about the need to clean up the Rouge River in Southeast Michigan. Today it works through stewardship, education and community collaboration to further restore, protect and enhance the Rouge River watershed that extends over three counties, Oakland, Washtenaw, and Wayne. https://therouge.org/
Detroit Greenways Coalition works to promote and build a network of greenways, green spaces and Complete Streets (friendly to pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and public transit riders of all ages) that will connect people, places, and nature on a daily basis. https://detroitgreenways.org/
Green Living Science is an offshoot of Recycle Here!, Detroit’s drop-off recycling center and neighborhood recycling program. The nonprofit works with students, educators, workplaces, and local communities to inspire them to reduce, reuse, and recycle. The organization has reached more than 90,000 students since it first partnered with Detroit Public Schools in 2007. https://greenlivingscience.org/
Arts & Scraps serves as a community creation space, a public store selling low-cost recycled materials, and an educational facility, providing creative programming with an emphasis on STEM (Science, technology, engineering, math). Each year, the nonprofit helps supply 3300 classrooms and organizations with recycled materials, keeping those materials out of landfills. https://www.artsandscraps.org/
Soulardarity is working to shed light on Highland Park, a subset of the city where DTE Energy repossessed over 1000 streetlights in 2011, leaving residents in the dark. The grassroots organization is working to install community-owned and managed solar-powered street lights, collectively save the neighborhood money on energy bills and collaborate with nearby communities to build an equitable energy system for all. https://www.soulardarity.com/
Voices for Earth Justice (VEJ )is an interfaith network of people committed to caring for the Earth and its inhabitants through prayer, education, and action. VEJ’s Hope House & Gardens serves the Brightmoor and Old Redford communities as a neighborhood food producer, gathering place, job center, art camp, and class venue, and a large demonstration garden where people learn how to grow their own food. https://www.voices4earth.org/
NEW LEAF Detroit sprouted this year from the life work of VEJ’s former garden intern and garden program leader L’Oreal Hawkes-Williams. The seedling nonprofit aims to help communities, specifically Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), learn about ecology, sustainability, food systems, and food justice through gardening/farming, classes/demos, community dinner discussions, and educational talks. https://www.newleafdetroit.org/
Greening of Detroit works to enhance the lives of Detroiters by planting trees (130,000 since 1989), investing in green spaces, providing job training specifically to unemployed residents, and engaging youth in environmental education and paid urban forestry opportunities. www.greeningofdetroit.com
Ecoworks works at the intersection of sustainability and justice, creating opportunities to learn and practice the sustainable use of energy and natural resources through education, job training, consulting, and advocacy. In addition to environmental justice, the nonprofit also helps residents lower their utility costs and supports neighborhoods with projects like green stormwater, lot clean ups, community gardens, and more. https://www.ecoworksdetroit.org/
Keep Growing Detroit exists to promote a food sovereign Detroit where the majority of fruits and vegetables consumed by Detroiters are grown by residents within the city limits. The nonprofit’s Garden Resource Program supports 1600 urban gardens and farms in the city. Their Grown in Detroit program provides urban growers with low-barrier opportunities to sell the produce they grow at local markets. http://detroitagriculture.net
Manistique Community Treehouse works to connect the Jefferson Chalmers community to opportunities for sustainable wellness and job opportunities. Their mission is to promote the diversity of individuals in the community, the mental and physical well-being of youth, and the inclusion of people of all ages and abilities using holistic interventions. The Manistique Treehouse project will be a 400 square foot ADA wheelchair accessible six-sided building with over 120 feet of ramps and platforms leading from the sidewalk up to the structure and surrounding decks. Nestled between a beautiful Maple tree and a stellar Cottonwood, and will be totally powered by solar energy. https://www.manistiquetreehouse.org/
Detroit Audubon Society has, for over 80 years, fostered an appreciation for birds, working to protect them and their natural habitats by engaging people, communities and policymakers in conservation through education, research, and advocacy. https://www.detroitaudubon.org/
Detroit Riverfront Conservancy is the nonprofit responsible for operating, improving, expanding, and providing programming along the city’s international waterfront and associated green spaces. The nonprofit has created miles of access for Detroiters to walk, run, bike, fish, and play. https://detroitriverfront.org/
Next Energy works with innovators to transform technologies into smarter, cleaner, and more accessible solutions for cities and communities. The Detroit-based nonprofit strives to become a national leader in alternative and renewable energy. https://nextenergy.org/
Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision is a community-based coalition working to improve the environment and strengthen the economy of Southwest Detroit. What began as a two-year project in 1991 continues as a nonprofit today addressing issues of neighborhood air quality, land use, contamination, blight and illegal dumping, food security, and conservation. https://www.sdevweb.org/
Recycle Here! is Detroit’s drop-off recycling center and neighborhood recycling program. What began in 2007 as a grassroots response to the lack of both, has recycled over 16 million pounds of material from nearly 400,000 visits from residents. The nonprofit has partnered with Detroit Public Schools Community District to expand environmental education and launch a district-wide recycling program. http://Recyclehere.net/
People for Palmer Park works to preserve, revitalize and foster recreational activity and environmental education throughout this northwest Detroit gem. The nearly 300-acre urban greenspace holds lawns, a historical log cabin and woodlands, tennis courts, a splash park and hiking and biking trails as well as Lake Frances, its lighthouse, and the Detroit Mounted Police. https://www.peopleforpalmerpark.org/
The Green Door Initiative is committed to ensuring that every person is capable of practicing and promoting sustainability as a lifestyle, regardless of their racial background, zip code, or income bracket. The nonprofit’s programming focuses on environmental justice, environmental career training particularly for underrepresented and minority communities, and raising youth voices while inspiring them to become “environmental heroes.” https://greendoorinitiative.org/
Bees in the D creates cooperative efforts between residents, schools, organizations, and businesses in the city of Detroit and Southeast Michigan to improve the health of honey bee colonies and native pollinators and to build awareness of their importance to our environment. The nonprofit has introduced over 10 million bees and manages more than 170 beehives at over 50 Michigan locations. https://beesinthed.com/
Detroit Hives transforms vacant city lots into urban bee farms and gardens to provide safe homes for bee colonies to live, feed, and grow. Once pollinated, the fresh vegetables harvested in the gardens are enjoyed by neighborhood residents. Through farm tours and school visits, the nonprofit builds awareness of the dangerous decline in bee populations and the necessity of bees to a healthy food ecosystem. https://detroithives.org/
Friends of the Detroit River works to enhance the environmental, educational, economic, cultural, and recreational opportunities associated with the Detroit River. Through grassroots advocacy and staffed programs, the group watches and protects the river, as well as its marshes and shoreline, while working to strengthen and restore fish and wildlife habitats and improving river water quality. https://detroitriver.org/