Equitable building bus tour highlights bright spots in sustainable local development

The retreat aimed to foster connection, alignment, deepen mutual understanding, and refine strategies within the current economic, political, cultural landscapes and social contexts.
Juan Shannon shared his vision for Parker Village in Highland Park with attendees. Photo by Angela Lugo-Thomas.

Attendees at the Equitable Building Electrification Fund Learning Community Collaboratory Retreat in Detroit participated in a bus tour Tuesday morning to explore the city’s economic, social, and political landscape, as well as to witness the impressive work being done locally in workforce development, energy efficiency, and electrification housing implementation projects. They also shared success stories related to environmental justice. 

The tour included visits to three local organizations, each demonstrating how community-driven problem-solving and activism can lead to tangible change. Each of these organizations was at a different stage of development, showcasing diverse examples of grassroots solutions.

Attendees included representatives from grassroots community-based organizations, social impact networks, and funding partners. The retreat aimed to foster connection, and alignment, deepen mutual understanding, and refine strategies within the current economic, political, and cultural landscapes and social contexts.

The tour stopped first at Hope Village Revitalization, where Executive Director Jeff Jones spoke about residents uniting to enhance their community. 

He emphasized that high utility bills are a major challenge for many residents, leading to the exploration of cost-cutting measures like solar panels for reduced energy expenses. This approach allows people to stay in their community while alleviating financial stress. 

The organization’s eco-demonstration home, which doubles as its headquarters, is the first LEED Platinum-certified residential rehab home in Detroit.

The eco-demonstration home boasts remarkably low utility bills thanks to rooftop solar panels and a new heat pump. Visitors toured the renovated home that was previously a burnt-out shell, and HVR staff shared plans to acquire and develop three more vacant apartment buildings nearby. 

They aim to create affordable housing using a rental equity model and incorporate green infrastructure features found in their headquarters. HVR has also installed permeable pavers and two rain gardens at their facility to aid with stormwater runoff.

Jones explained that Hope Village has a history of heavy industry and has successfully fought against bringing a slaughterhouse and concrete crushing facility to the area. 

“We value development but want it to respect our community,” he said. “Too often, poor, Black, and brown communities face development associated with increased asthma rates, cancer cases, and air particulates. We must advocate for ourselves and our neighbors.”

A lifelong resident of the Hope Village neighborhood and current Deputy Director of HVR, Stephanie Johnson-Cobb, talked about growing up in the neighborhood and how wonderful it was. Sadly, her family dealt with many of Detroiters’ issues and challenges, including foreclosure. Although they lost their home, she could remain in the community by finding another home to live in.

Bridget Vial, the Energy Democracy Organizer at the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, shared an update on research conducted on home electrification costs. The study found that the expense of electrifying and providing basic weatherization for residential homes in Michigan, at the 200% federal poverty level, would amount to $74 billion. This figure is approximately equal to the state’s entire annual budget.

The next stop was Parker Village, envisioned by native Highland Park resident Juan Shannon, which aims to transform an abandoned school building into a thriving community resource center in Highland Park. The smart neighborhood will feature an outdoor cafe, aquaponics system, media lab, co-working space, maker space, and business incubator. 

The majority of the project will be powered by solar panels, thanks to a partnership with the local grassroots organization Soulardarity. They have installed five solar/Wi-Fi streetlights, ensuring that Parker Village residents can access light and free Wi-Fi during frequent power outages.

Across from the school building, Parker Village plans to construct net-zero homes and an electric vehicle service station down the street once they acquire the necessary parcels from the City of Highland Park. An eco-friendly parking lot with solar carports to power two vans will provide clean energy transportation within the 2.9-square-mile city.

Dream Builders will handle most of the construction work at Parker Village while also training community members in deconstruction, solar panel installation, and weatherization.

The tour bus also passed by Avalon Village, the future Detroit Food Commons, and the closed Detroit incinerator before heading to the final stop before lunch and the afternoon workshop. 

The last stop was the location of We Want Green, Too, on the east side of Detroit. Esteemed activist and community organizer Mama Gloria Jean Lowe, conveyed powerful words that deeply resonated with one attendee, who later embraced Lowe warmly. 

Mama Lowe, the founder and executive director of We Want Green, Too, mentioned that the organization lends an ear to the community’s voices to understand how to best serve them. She further stated that although the planet remains stable, humans are endangered, and if we fail to handle the situation properly, we won’t be here much longer.

The bungalow housing We Want Green, Too includes an upstairs residential space and a downstairs office area. Renovations are still underway. The house is a training center for veterans and community members to learn home-building skills like weatherization, and solar panels will be installed on the roof this summer. 

Across the street, a row of demolished homes will soon be replaced by new units specifically designed for veterans – particularly those battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. One unit is even set to offer therapy services for those in need.

Attendees concluded the bus tour feeling inspired by their experiences in Detroit and Highland Park. 

Queen Zakia Shabazz, founder of United Parents Against Lead and coordinator of the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative, expressed her gratitude to the Chisholm Project and Equity Building Electrification Fund.

“Thank you for finally recognizing how philanthropy and funding should be integrated into communities, as community-based organizations have advocated for some time. We appreciate being heard.”

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