Dear friend and neighbor,
Those who spent any amount of time around Voices for Earth Justice over the last few years know L'Oreal Hawkes-Williams.
L'Oreal first came to VEJ as a garden intern in 2016. Two years later, she became VEJ's contract garden program manager. Anyone who came to VEJ's Hope Garden since 2018 learned from L'Oreal and worked with her side-by-side. In 2019, L'Oreal started VEJ's Sunday Dinners program as a monthly community meal at Hope House & Garden. In 2020, L'Oreal started her own nonprofit, NEW LEAF Detroit, to teach Detroiters how to take control of their own healthy, sustainable lifestyles. VEJ contracted NEW LEAF to run its Hope Garden programs in 2020 and 2021.
L'Oreal is passionate about Earth justice, but in ways that are as practical as parenting her three children. In fact, it was her children who inspired her to start on the path that led to Voices for Earth Justice. L'Oreal was working as a Meijer cashier several years ago when she saw a news report on a national lettuce recall. That news report got her thinking about what she fed her kids. She didn't know what was in the food she gave them or where that food originated. L'Oreal resolved to learn to grow her family's food. She set out to lead her family toward self-sufficiency and sustainability.
That love for her family became L'Oreal's passion and purpose for life. She went back to school, eventually got a scholarship to get her degree at the University of Michigan, and finally led to Voices for Earth Justice and NEW LEAF Detroit.
L'Oreal's husband, Dennis, was with her every step of the way. Dennis not only worked to provide most of the financial support the family needed, he became L'Oreal's hardest-working and most loyal volunteer. Most people who ever worked at VEJ's Hope Garden would know Dennis because he often came to work alongside his wife. Whenever Dennis was at the garden with L'Oreal, their three kids, Corey, Taylor, and Dennis, Jr., were almost always working with them, too.
On December 13, 2021, Dennis suffered a massive stroke. This stroke paralyzed the left side of his body and affected his cognitive abilities.
Since Dennis is young, his doctors hope that he can make a strong recovery in time. However, the foreseeable future will be difficult in the extreme with no guarantees.
This family is living through a nightmare than any one of us would think of as our worst.
Dennis has been in the hospital since the stroke and L'Oreal has been at his side the entire time. His doctors hope to send him to a rehab facility in the near future. There is no timeline for how long he will be in rehab. However, once he goes home, he will need constant care and help for quite some time.
L'Oreal is taking on the role of Dennis's caregiver. In addition to her contract job with Voices for Earth Justice, L'Oreal also works other contract and part-time jobs to supplement the family's income. However, she is stopping work outside the home so that she can give Dennis the care he needs.
Dennis is the primary income-earner for the family and will not be able to work for a long time. L'Oreal reducing her hours or stopping some jobs altogether to care for Dennis puts the family in a very bad financial position for the foreseeable future. While Dennis recovers and L'Oreal cares for him (plus their kids!), money will not be coming in to pay for food, rent, school expenses, transportation, and utilities.
Since you know that L'Oreal teaches self-sufficiency, you may guess that she is not the kind of person to ask for help unless she really needs it.
One of L'Oreal's friends, Lakwiita Garbarini, started a GoFundMe page to raise funds to cover the Hawkes-Williams family living expenses for the next few months. L'Oreal agreed to let Lakwiita do this for her and she agreed to let me share it with you, the Voices for Earth Justice community.
So I am asking you to come alongside Dennis, L'Oreal, and their kids as they try to recover from this crisis in their lives. Out of your abilities and means, I hope you will share some of your plenty with them in their time of lesser abilities and lesser means.
Please make a generous contribution here and please spread the word.
If you have any questions or suggestions for other ways you may help, please reach out to me at (313) 355-6042 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Grace and peace,
BT Irwin, Voices for Earth Justice
Late in the summer of 2021, Voices for Earth Justice executive director BT Irwin announced his plan to step down at the end of the year. In October 2021, VEJ's board of directors began a search for Irwin's successor.
As the year comes to a close, the timeline for VEJ's leadership change is changing due to a lack of applicants for the executive director position. As the search for VEJ's next leader continues, Irwin agreed to stay on as executive director for a short while longer.
"We're doing a hard thing during hard times," said Irwin. "It's hard to find someone who fits all of the qualifications for the job, but who is able and willing to do the job part-time for part-time pay."
Irwin pointed out that both executive directors who served VEJ during its 20-year history were able to do so because of special personal circumstances.
"Patty Gillis, our founder, served for more than 15 years mostly as a volunteer," said Irwin. "She had special circumstances in her life that allowed her to do that."
When Irwin succeeded Gillis in September 2017, he was a full-time consultant and project manager for government and nonprofit agencies. He took the VEJ job "on the side" so that he could get his "skin in the game" again with a mission and organization that he believed to be of great importance. Since his primary income came from other sources and his self-employment gave him flexibility, Irwin was able to take on the VEJ job.
In August 2020, Irwin decided to close his consulting and project management business. That decision made it necessary for him to think about full-time employment (to provide for his family), something that is not an option at VEJ because of its small annual revenue and operating budget.
"I told the board in late 2020 that I would need to seek full-time employment elsewhere, but that I would stay with VEJ through the end of 2021," said Irwin. "None of us counted on things being so weird in the world more than one year later!"
Irwin said that his work with VEJ showed him that changing culture, policies, and systems are critical and crucial to the environmental justice movement. For that reason, he is seeking to change careers, moving out of local nonprofit management and into foundation, government, or university work. That change in career plans is making it harder to find opportunities, since it means moving into a whole new field.
"There are plenty of jobs like the ones that I held over the last 20 years," said Irwin. "But I'm trying to get into something where a lot of other people are ahead of me in line. It's just going to take a little longer for the right door to open."
The delay in his own job search plus the delay in finding enough candidates for the VEJ job means that Irwin and VEJ will continue to work together for a while longer.
"The plan for leadership transition at VEJ is still in place," said Irwin. "It's just moving at a slower pace and on a different timeline than we imagined last summer."
Irwin said that, for the right person, the VEJ leadership role is an excellent opportunity.
"Voices for Earth Justice is, to my knowledge, the only environmental justice nonprofit in Michigan that focuses on building an interfaith community through prayer, education, and action," said Irwin. "You cannot hope to achieve much for environmental justice if you don't have access to a fellowship of people who come from all walks of life, but who share a passion for Earth justice that comes from the common elements of their different faiths. VEJ is growing that fellowship."
Irwin said that VEJ first appealed to him because of its potential to draw leaders together from southeast Michigan's diverse faith communities.
"In my four years at VEJ, we have not even come close to realizing the potential for building alliances among faith groups in southeast Michigan," said Irwin. "The programming we started over the last four years pointed us in that direction and began to assemble a core group of people from several faith backgrounds, but there is so much opportunity to do ten times more in the years ahead. My goal was to just lay a solid foundation on which the next executive director will build."
Irwin added that in addition to strong programming, the next executive director will get to lead the first phase of construction for the Hope Park Neighborhood Land Use and Vision, including Hope House & Garden.
"Buildings and grounds can be assets or liabilities," said Irwin. "I think we have Hope House & Garden closer than it's ever been to being a true asset for the community and for the organization. We did a lot of work to activate and stabilize Hope House & Garden and work with the community to make a master plan for its development and programming in the years ahead. We have a fund that is set aside just for programs and projects at that location, so the Hope Park Project vision can start to become a reality right away."
Irwin said his goal from Day One (September 11, 2017) was always to "set the table" for his successor.
"I'd like to think that the person who does this job after me will find that he or she has the resources and the room to get straight to work making things happen," said Irwin. "And by that I mean making things happen that I was never able to do because I either didn't have the organizational stability, the resources, or I didn't have the gifts and the vision. For the person who has the gifts and the vision that I didn't have, I'd like to think that VEJ will be an amazing opportunity for her or him to call together a community that moves mountains that stand in the way of Earth justice."
Those who wish to apply or inquire may email email@example.com.
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.