Detroiters reclaim Earth Day for environmental justice

Earth Day was first celebrated more than 50 years ago, but even today, the environmental movement remains white-led. This year, as several city organizations plan inaugural Earth Day celebrations, they are aiming to reclaim the day for Black and brown Detroiters. 
Photo by Nick Hagen.

This story originally appeared in BridgeDetroit.

Earth Day was first celebrated more than 50 years ago, heralding an era that saw the first federal laws and agencies to enforce pollution regulations and protect the environment.

But it was a white-led movement, with decades of green activism coming from major environmental organizations founded by white men, including the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Greenpeace, and groups like the anti-immigration organization the Federation for American Immigration Reform leading Earth Day events. The event itself was also founded by a white man, former United States Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. 

Even today, the environmental movement remains white-led. Across 43 environmental foundations and nongovernmental organizations, there was an average of four times more white staff than people of color in 2020, according to Green 2.0, an independent advocacy organization that releases an annual gender and race report card for the environmental movement, while organizations like Oceana and the BlueGreen Alliance didn’t have a single person of color in a senior position. 

The trend tracks in journalism, too. The biggest racial disparity across 11 reporting beats is in environment and energy reporting with 84% of those reporters being white, compared to 2% Black, 6% Hispanic, and 3% Asian, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey

The disparities persist despite the fact that environmental issues, from climate change to pollution, disproportionately impact Black people.

This year, as several city organizations plan inaugural Earth Day celebrations, they are aiming to reclaim the day for Black and brown Detroiters. 

Black Detroiters have long been at the forefront of the environmental movement here, going back to Donele Wilkins, who was at the table in 1991 when the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice was created—the foundational document for the national environmental justice movement. 

Black labor organizers who formed the League of Revolutionary Black Workers were also instrumental in the movement. 

Today, Wilkins is CEO and president of the Green Door Initiative, an environmental justice nonprofit in Detroit that is training residents for the next wave of clean energy jobs. 

Black Detroiters continue to lead the environmental movement in Detroit, and beyond. Detroit native Jalonne White-Newsome is President Joe Biden’s top environmental justice advisor. A group of Detroit entrepreneurs recently formed the Blacks in EVs trade association to ensure the national transition to electric vehicles is equitable. And many of Detroit’s leading environmental advocacy, justice, and education nonprofits are led by Black Detroiters as well, like EcoWorks, Detroiters Working For Environmental Justice, and Soulardarity in Highland Park.

“A lot of those perspectives [through] greenwashing or whitewashing don’t really get put into the forefront when we’re talking about sustainability and conservation,” said Erin Preston Johnson, who is on the board of Black to Land Coalition and a founding member of the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund, an organization that helps Black farmers purchase land to farm on. 

On April 19, the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition will host a “Reclaiming Earth Day” event at Two Birds in West Village, the organization’s first Earth Day event. The event will offer an opportunity to meet people in environmental justice work and get involved. 

Anne Marie Hertl, a director at the coalition, said this Earth Day would be different than any other.

“Building the movement and being available to both celebrate and be in community with each other is really important to prepare us for the fight that we have ahead with climate injustice,” she said.

“The biggest difference is the audience and who we’re honoring: Primarily Black Detroiters, and our elders from the movement, especially as that’s compared to environmental efforts that are more traditionally focused around old, racist white men from the conservation era that have problematic histories with them,” Hertl said. 

The reframing of Earth Day to recognize the role of Black and brown leaders comes at a time when conservation groups are increasingly reckoning with the racist past of their organizations and founders.

One example is the bird conservation nonprofit National Audubon Society, which has been in the spotlight for its namesake. John James Audubon, who owned enslaved people, was against abolition and sold human skulls for eugenics research, Planet Detroit reported. The organization is one of the biggest environmental leaders in the country with more than 2.5 million members. The board of the national organization recently voted to retain the name Audubon, forcing local chapters like Detroit Audubon to grapple with making a decision about whether to drop the name or keep it. 

Detroit organizations have been working year-round, not just on Earth Day, to disrupt the narrative of white environmentalism and provide more opportunities for Detroiters of color to connect with nature, like Black to the Land Coalition, “a liberated coalition of black and brown futurists who are self-determined, purpose-filled and invested in our natural world,” according to the group’s website. 

In conjunction with other groups, Black to the Land Coalition will hold an Earth Day festival on April 22 at Rescue MI Nature Now, an urban farm in Detroit’s Nolan neighborhood. The event will kick off with an opening ceremony and, from there, attendees can volunteer at one of a few nearby farms. The festival will have a DJ, food trucks, information booths from environmental organizations, and African drumming and dancing. 

“It’s just supposed to be a really exciting time to get together and gather in honor of Mother Earth, and for some of us, putting our hands in the soil and doing volunteer work for the first time this season,” said Johnson. 

Black to the Land Coalition hosts outdoor events designed for Detroiters of color, including a bird-watching tour, an Indigenous maple sugar ceremony at Rouge Park, sledding at Hines Drive, and kayaking at the Metroparks and Belle Isle.

“Our organizations have been founded to facilitate Black and brown people having this kind of unique relationship with nature,” Johnson said. 

A number of other Earth Day events are happening this month around the city. 

On Friday, April 21, and Sunday, April 23, Arboretum Detroit is hosting volunteers to plant trees in Circle Forest. The same weekend, the Michigan People’s Campaign is hosting a rally against General Motors’ greenhouse gas emissions and human rights infringements, followed by a march to the DTE Energy headquarters to protest profits over people. The City of Detroit’s Green Task Force is hosting an Earth Day Awards Celebration at the Union Carpenters And Millwrights Skilled Training Center that weekend as well. 

On Saturday, April 29, the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood will hold an Earth Fest with a neighborhood cleanup, solar party, and the opportunity to properly dispose of expired medications and hazardous materials. 

Johnson said that environmental justice solutions often come from Indigenous, African, and ancestral ideas and technologies, which have insight into ways to live in connection with the Earth in a way that is mutually beneficial.

“A big part of it [environmental justice] is re-indigenizing, looking to the ancestral technologies that have worked for time immemorial and kind of rebirthing those, replanting those – those seeds have already been planted, but the field hasn’t been watered,” she said. 

Johnson said that Earth Day in Detroit represents a time to reclaim not only the day for people of color but the land that has been harmed through decades of pollution and disinvestment.

“Black to the Earth Day is about coming together as Black and Brown Detroiters to say, ‘These are parts of our neighborhoods that were blighted, that were burned out, and we are continuing to transform those spaces into farms, into therapy for us, into healing space, into gardens,’” she said.

“These are some of the ways that we’re going to be able to really preserve the land and the earth for the next generation. In African traditions we always remember that seven generations ago someone was thinking about us. This is how we lay the foundation for the next seven generations.” 

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