Voices for Earth Justice is now taking applications for its next executive director.
Current executive director BT Irwin will step down on December 31, 2021, after succeeding VEJ founder Patty Gillis in September 2017.
VEJ's board aims to fill the position this fall so that Irwin can spend six to eight weeks passing on the knowledge, operating systems, and relationships that will help the next executive director get off to a strong start on January 1, 2022.
To see the job description and to submit an application, click here.
Summer in the City completes another year of "painting, planting, and playing" at Hope House & Garden
Once again, Summer in the City sent groups of college and high school students to volunteer at Hope House & Garden each week this summer.
In July and August, they painted, tended the garden, and played with neighborhood kids who stopped by each week.
This summer, VEJ received two grants to support its efforts to feed people who are suffering the effects of the COVID crisis in Detroit.
Co.Act Detroit and United Way of Southeast Michigan each granted VEJ funds to improve its garden and provide food and jobs in northwest Detroit.
"We're always so thankful to community partners like Co.Act and United Way when they support our neighbors and neighborhood through their grants," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "We literally could not do what we are doing this year without this kind of generous support."
Irwin said the grants are funding the employment of local youth at the garden as well as improvements that will make the garden more accessible to the public.
"Since we started gardening at Greydale and Puritan back in 2015, we've always had a dream of the garden being a real resource that gets used by as many neighbors as possible," said Irwin. "These grants and the people and projects they fund will get us much closer to that dream coming true."
After more than three years of planning and preparation, VEJ's Kresge Foundation-funded Hope Park Neighborhood Land Use and Vision Project is finally under way.
The Hope Park Project invites residents of the neighborhood around Hope House & Garden to imagine and plan the future of their community. That includes designing a new Hope House & Garden that meets the desires and needs of neighbors. It also envisions how vacant buildings and land could be put to use for the good of the community.
In the spring, VEJ contracted Detroit community organizer Roslyn Ogburn to lead the project. VEJ also contracted the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit Mercy to provide community development and design expertise.
Over the summer, Ogburn met with dozens of community leaders to form a Hope Park Project steering committee. The steering committee will take on the task of engaging community residents in the process of designing and planning their neighborhood.
That steering committee, which will comprise 12 - 15 members, will soon be set. However, the members who already committed to serve started meeting in August and will start their outreach in September.
Outreach for the Hope Park Project will consist of community events like VEJ's Sunday Dinners in September and October. It will also consist of small group gatherings that steering committee members host in their own backyards or at Hope House & Garden.
"This process is really about asking the right questions and listening so that we understand the desires and needs of the people who are at home in the Hope Park neighborhood," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "Having residents gather small groups of their neighbors to talk with each other in comfortable places seems like the best way to honor and serve the community through this project."
Irwin said the first formal meeting of the steering committee on August 19 revealed that the Hope Park Project will have to dive into much deeper layers than just design.
"There could be a strong feeling among community leaders that they have seen all of this before," said Irwin. "Foundations, government, nonprofits, and other groups come along and say they are going to do something big for the community. Then, the reality does not meet the expectations that are set. When that happens, people feel angry, hurt, and resentful as any of us would. After a few times, they have a hard time trusting again."
Feelings like these came out in the first steering committee meeting.
So rather than just go straight into design work, Ogburn is creating a series of programs that will allow community members to express and process their feelings. Those programs will take place at Hope House & Garden under the direction of experts with training in helping communities deal with loss and trauma.
"The thing to remember is that the Hope Park Project is really not about the built environment or even about land," said Irwin. "It's about people. It's about how people relate to one another and how they relate to their built and natural environment."
Ogburn hopes that the steering committee will capture feedback and input from 100 to 200 residents by late fall. That would give the designers and steering committee enough information to create concepts for land use, including Hope House & Garden. Those concepts will go before the community for feedback and will eventually lead to the steering committee choosing the final concept and plan sometime in early 2022.
"We have until the end of 2022 to finish the project," said Irwin. "But our goal is to finish the concept and plan by next spring. We want to be able to start seeking funding as early as possible so residents can see us going to work on some of their ideas by next summer."
This year (2021) started in the worst possible way for Hope House & Garden.
A flood caused so much damage to the learning center building that it had to come down.
Then, the usual volunteer groups that get a lot of work done at Hope House & Garden each summer canceled their plans because of COVID.
"The first half of this year was a real downer," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "That extended into the summer, when we could not find enough volunteers to do all of the projects that we needed to get done."
But that is changing with the arrival of new grant funding that is helping VEJ hire local people to complete several improvement projects this fall.
Thanks to grants from Co.Act Detroit and the United Way of Southeast Michigan, VEJ will complete projects that will enhance the value of Hope House & Garden to the local community.
Those projects include:
Even the removal of the learning center will turn out for the better.
"We knew that the learning center was in such bad shape that we were probably going to have to replace it anyway," said Irwin. "Taking it down this year allowed us to clear the site and get it ready for whatever will go there next."
What goes there next will be part of the design and plans that come from the Hope Park Project now under way.
"The residents of the Hope Park community will decide what function Hope House & Garden should have in their neighborhood," said Irwin. "We now have a 'blank canvas' available for whatever they plan."
Meanwhile, the neighborhood garden continues to grow.
"The most important thing is for us to grow and harvest as much food as we can between now and the end of the growing season," said Irwin. "That food is for local families that need it."
To that end, Irwin said that VEJ still needs volunteers to come work at Hope House & Garden through the end of the growing season (usually late October).
To find a time to come volunteer, click here.
VEJ's board will soon start the search for the organization's third executive director.
This comes after current executive director BT Irwin announced that he will step down at the end of this year.
"From Day One, I told our board that I would 'set the table' for someone far more capable and qualified than me to lead an Earth justice mission like this one," said Irwin. "After four years, I believe things are in place for that change of leadership to happen now."
Irwin joined VEJ in September 2017 and succeeded founder Patty Gillis, who served as executive director from 2002 until her retirement in 2017.
VEJ's next executive director will take the lead at a time of great change and opportunity.
VEJ has the biggest and still-growing community of donors, program participants, subscribers, and volunteers in its history.
"When you're on a mission like VEJ, it helps to have a growing community of friends and neighbors who come from all walks of life," said Irwin. "If we're going to make real progress for Earth justice, this community is the key."
While VEJ remains a very small nonprofit organization, it is stable and well-positioned for growth and sustained operations.
"We now have a base of loyal donors and volunteers, name recognition in the foundation community, regular programming that is growing in popularity, and an unusually strong financial position for a nonprofit our size," said Irwin. "By the end of 2021, we will also completed a lot of work on Hope House & Garden, getting it in the best shape that it's been since we bought it ten years ago."
Irwin added that a much larger, more active, more diverse board than VEJ had four years ago positions the organization to be more creative and responsive while also being stable and sustainable.
Finally, Irwin said the ongoing Hope Park Project will give VEJ a clear picture of its future, with greater focus on community development and education in northwest Detroit.
"The table is set for someone to apply her or his love for Detroit, Earth justice, and interfaith work to mobilize VEJ's community to do more than ever before," said Irwin. "I can't think of a better way for VEJ to mark its 20th year than by starting a new decade in which it will make its greatest impact."
VEJ's board will soon post the opening and will aim to make a hire by November.
"The plan is for the new executive director and I to overlap for two months," said Irwin. "This will give me a chance to transfer all of my knowledge and relationships to her or him. It will also give the VEJ community a chance to know the new person who will be leading and serving this mission."
Spring Campaign 2021 seeks donors to meet fundraising goal of $9,000 to keep VEJ "going and growing"
Voices for Earth Justice is launching a "short and sweet" spring fundraising campaign to meet the challenges and opportunities of the moment.
"The months ahead are overflowing with possibilities for 'prayer, education, and action for Earth,'" said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "The neighborhood garden is growing fast, the Hope Park Project is about to launch, and we have more than a dozen new programs coming up over the next six months."
Those possibilities, however, are meeting equal challenges.
"The pandemic and presidential election in 2020 took a big bite out of our year-end campaign last December," said Irwin. "Then the flood in January led to $15,000 in disaster recovery expenses that insurance would not cover. Both of those things set us back."
Irwin said that despite the challenges and setbacks, VEJ is close to setting records for the number of donors and total annual fund gifts in a fiscal year.
"We have about five times as many donors now as we had four years ago," said Irwin. "People are clearly finding VEJ to be a valuable Earth justice partner and resource. If those donors can help us get over this little speed bump at the start of the summer, the road ahead looks beautiful this summer and fall."
Since VEJ operates and programs on a "shoestring budget," donations--even small ones--do a lot more heavy lifting.
"Some organizations need to raise $90,000 in a single campaign. All we need is for our friends to donate $9,000 total before July 1," said Irwin. "That will be enough to get us over the hump and keep things moving forward through the fall."
To make a gift or pledge, click here.
You may also make out a check to Voices for Earth Justice and send it to 15894 Greydale Street, Detroit, Michigan 48223.
Voices for Earth Justice is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporation registered in the State of Michigan (ID 45-0480344). Donations and gifts are tax deductible.
Voices for Earth Justice recently hired Detroit community organizer Roslyn Ogburn to lead the Kresge Foundation-funded Hope Park Neighborhood Land Use and Vision Project.
Ogburn brings deep roots, a wide network, and years of community organizing experience to the job.
“The Hope Park Project is all about neighbors making their own neighborhood what they want it to be,” said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. “For that to happen, the project needs a West Side Detroiter who knows how to get West Side Detroiters together and organize them to make their voices heard. It would be hard to find anyone who does that better than Roslyn Ogburn.”
A mother of five, Ogburn is a 34-year resident of Detroit who traces her roots in the city back four generations. A product of Detroit Public Schools (Pershing High School), she earned a degree in business management and renewable energy implementation from Wayne County Community College District.
After years of church, community, and school volunteer work, Ogburn co-founded Nexus Detroit, one of the largest food assistance programs in the city, in 2011. After leaving her leadership role at Nexus Detroit in 2016, she launched and led a citywide campaign to stop illegal and unfair foreclosures that put residents out of their homes. In 2020, Ogburn ran to represent the 9th district in the Michigan State Legislature.
She is a Detroit Citizens liaison, a member of the Warrendale Community Organization and Warrendale Warriors Radio Patrol, president of the Warwick Block Club, and a volunteer with the Sierra Club. Ogburn is a member at Greater Burnette Missionary Baptist Church, where she serves as a minister, Sunday school teacher, and youth leader.
“My hope for the Hope Park Project is that we successfully engage as many residents and stakeholders as possible, having their voices at the table throughout the entire process of envisioning, creating, and implementing,” said Ogburn. “Hope Park residents should know that this project belongs to them. Its creation and all ideas will be cultivated from their input, their vision, their culture, and their leaders.”
Ogburn said her first month on the job would involve connecting with as many Hope Park neighbors as she can by inviting them to VEJ events, knocking on doors, and signing them up to be part of planning meetings.
The Hope Park Neighborhood Land Use and Vision Project traces its start to the summer of 2018. At that time, VEJ asked architects and builders to assess Hope House. Finding that the building had serious structural issues that would be difficult and expensive to repair, VEJ’s board began discussing demolishing the building and starting over as the architects and builders recommended. That raised the question of what kind of building or land use should replace Hope House. The board decided then that the community should decide.
That board decision led VEJ to apply for a Kresge Innovation Projects: Detroit (KIP:D) grant later that year. The Kresge Foundation declined that application, but accepted the next one that VEJ submitted in 2020.
The Kresge grant is funding Ogburn’s position and a contract with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC) at University of Detroit Mercy. DCDC and Ogburn will form a Hope Park neighborhood steering committee that will engage residents in designing built and natural features that Hope Park residents want in their neighborhood. The process will lead to designs and plans for buildings and land around Hope Park, including VEJ’s Hope House & Garden.
Along with the Hope Park Project, VEJ’s board will continue its efforts to transition most of its leadership positions to Detroit and/or Hope Park residents.
“I believe one of the most effective ways for an Earth justice organization to accomplish its mission is to recognize and respond to the capabilities and power of people who most often suffer most of the effects of Earth in-justice,” said Irwin. “That means falling in behind, and following, community leaders who know from experience what Earth justice work needs to be done and how to do it. That’s what the Hope Park Project is all about and that’s why we are glad to have Roslyn Ogburn leading it.”
“The Hope Park Project will be a dynamic, impactful success due to longtime Detroiters, who never left, talking and dreaming,” said Ogburn. “I’m excited to be involved.”
To learn more about the Hope Park Project or to get involved, contact Roslyn Ogburn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (313) 409-8329.
On Wednesday, March 13, a crew from Motor City Blight Busters began taking down VEJ's Hope House on the south end of Hope Park in Detroit.
By the end of the month, most of the building will be gone and the site made ready for a new Hope House to rise in the future.
In January, a water line broke and flooded the building. Mold did the most severe damage. Almost everything inside was a total loss. Insurance would not cover the $50,000 it would take to remediate the mold. Not only that, the insurance company said it would drop coverage of VEJ's other buildings if Hope House did not come down by March 22. On February 28, VEJ's board voted to remove the building right away.
"We knew that the foundation was rotten and that the building was likely to come down sometime in the future," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "So, we're really getting a head start on the permanent building that will go there."
Irwin said that replacing Hope House first came up in 2018 after inspections revealed that the 100-year old building did not have the "bones" for a renovation.
"Back in 2018, we started talking about the function of Hope House & Garden in the Hope Park neighborhood and what form a building should take to best serve the needs of the community and VEJ," said Irwin. "That is what led to the Kresge Foundation grant we got in 2020. That grant will help us work together with neighborhood residents to design and plan for what needs to be here next."
That Kresge-funded Hope Park Neighborhood Land Use and Vision Project kicks off this year and will lead to a new conceptual design and master plan for Hope House & Garden.
The board felt that removing Hope House could be like starting the Hope Park Project with a "blank canvass."
"It's a lot easier for people to imagine the possibilities for the site when they are looking at more open space there instead of a building," said Irwin.
Even without the building, programming will go on at Hope House & Garden in 2021.
"We will be working with Bees in the D, Keep Growing Detroit, NEW LEAF Detroit, and Summer in the City to grow lots of fresh food for and with our Hope Park neighbors," said Irwin. "We might even be able to bring our Sunday Dinners back to in-person gatherings by July or August."
While removing Hope House is a good first step toward building what the neighborhood says it needs and wants there, the circumstances and timing do hit VEJ hard.
"We are looking on the bright side and this will work out in the end, but it still hits hard, it still hurts, and the timing is still really bad," said Irwin. "The loss of everything in the building hurts. The cost of the flood and then taking down the building was not something we planned for our budget. We are taking a really big financial hit right at the start of our 2021 programming season. We just have to roll with the punches."
Friends and neighbors of VEJ can help in three ways: