The COVID pandemic hit Detroit hard. So much more than just an annoyance or a sensational news story, the pandemic is deadly serious for thousands of families in the city. Businesses, income, and jobs have been lost. Educations knocked far off course. And lives lost. Some people may have the luxury of treating the pandemic as a political game mostly played out online, but not the people of Detroit.
As things started to get ugly back in the spring and it looked like summer would be even uglier, the question came up: What could Voices for Earth Justice do about it? What could a tiny nonprofit with an annual budget of less than $75,000 and one part-time employee really do in the face of the tragedy bearing down on the city?
A lot of people stepped up to answer the question: Quite a lot.
Dozens and dozens of donors, friends, and volunteers found a way to put a silver lining on the dark cloud hanging over us all.
Over the last few months, they donated thousands of dollars to Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry (through VEJ) and to VEJ's neighborhood garden at Hope House. These funds bought or grew food that people needed because of job or income losses.
A record number of volunteers masked up and went to work in the garden...and they're still coming as fall approaches. Most of them planted seeds, pulled weeds, and took up the harvest. Some of them took on bigger jobs like building a new ramp for Hope House, making a new home for two Bees in the D beehives, and putting up a deer and rodent barrier around the garden (so the food we grow would go to humans).
All of the donors and volunteers working together doubled the size of the old garden. And with at least two more months of growing and harvesting to go, the garden has already produced twelve times as much food as one year ago.
All of that fresh produce is going to Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry or door-to-door delivery on the streets around Hope House & Garden.
This year has been awful, but thank God for people who are doing their very best to make something good come from all of the bad. If you were part of that, thank you!
The Kresge Foundation recently announced that Voices for Earth Justice is part of its sixth cohort of Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit grantees.
VEJ received one of the largest grants in its 18-year history to fund a land use and neighborhood vision project with residents of the Hope Park neighborhood in Detroit. Working with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit Mercy and Michigan Community Resources, VEJ will equip and support Hope Park residents as they plan the future of their built and natural environment. A key part of the plan will be a new master plan for Hope House & Garden made by residents, for residents.
"The residents of this neighborhood love their neighborhood and the work hard to make it what they want it to be for their families," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "They know what their neighborhood has going for it and they know that the best ideas for their neighborhood will come from the residents themselves. This is one way that VEJ can be a good neighbor and contribute to what Hope Park residents want to do."
Irwin said the project is set up to honor, recognize, and reinforce that neighborhood residents are in control of their own built and natural environment.
"It's not uncommon for well-meaning organizations like VEJ to come in from the outside and tell residents 'we know what you should be doing here and we're going to show you,'" said Irwin. "People don't need that because they already know what they need and want to do. They already have good ideas. They already understand what they and their neighbors are all about. Being a good neighbor and a good resident means that we contribute what we can to what our neighbors are doing on their own."
For that reason, VEJ will act as a "home base" and steward of the project without controlling it. Most of the grant will fund the work of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, which specializing in working with grassroots neighborhood groups to help them design their own built and natural environment. The other major part of the grant will fund a contract with a local outreach manager, who will come from the neighborhood itself. This person will help the neighborhood form its own committee of representatives who will help bring more residents into contact with the project. While two members of the VEJ board will sit on this committee, the final approval of the neighborhood land use concept will be up to the committee. This includes the new master plan for Hope House & Garden.
"One of the most important questions the designers will be asking neighbors is: 'What do you need Hope House & Garden to be for you and your family? How could these buildings and this land best serve your real needs as a resident of this community?'" said Irwin.
Along with the concept for Hope House & Garden, the project will produce a concept or vision for vacant land around Hope Park. More than three out five lots on the blocks around the park are vacant and under the control of government land banks.
Starting preliminary work on the project will begin this fall and winter. That includes hiring the local project leader, starting background research with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, and forming the neighborhood steering committee. The public part of the project will launch in the spring of 2021 and run through the fall of that year. Irwin said the goal is to have the conceptual plan far enough along that fundraising can begin for it in the winter of 2021 - 2022. That would mean "shovel ready" projects in the neighborhood could get under way in 2022.
"This is one of those 'seed in the ground' things," said Irwin. "VEJ bought an abandoned and blighted property about ten years ago and it's taken that long to get it secure and stable and making a real contribution to the neighborhood."
Likewise, work on the Kresge Foundation grant started in 2018 and took a full two years to get the funds.
"Just imagine how this work over the next year is planting seeds that will lead to things we can't even imagine," said Irwin. "The most exciting part is the people we'll get to meet and how all of us will be working together to make something that is so much more than any one of us could make on our own."
Voices for Earth Justice is a non-political organization. We don't campaign for candidates or lobby legislators. We would lose our 501c3 status with the IRS if we tried.
But, we can tell you to vote. And we can tell you to tell everyone you know to vote.
Do you care about Earth justice? Find out which candidates have a proven record for supporting Earth justice laws and vote for them.
Ask your family and friends if they are planning to vote. If they say "yes," ask them if they registered. If they say they haven't registered, send them to this website right now.
If they say they don't plan to vote, remind them of this fact: The 2016 presidential election was decided by less than 80,000 votes. That's .0005 percent of 153 million eligible voters. Remind them of that fact and tell them that their vote counts big. If they didn't like how that election turned out, tell them to imagine how it could have been different if just a relative few people in the whole country had bothered to vote instead of staying home. Tell them not to be one of those people, then send them here to register now.
I know sometimes it's really hard to know what to do for Earth justice because there are so many things that need to be done! I feel like a deer in the headlights most of the time.
But right now, it is easy. There is simply nothing that is easier to do or more important and urgent than educating yourself and voting on November 3.
For the love of Earth justice: Vote!
At VEJ's monthly Sunday Dinner that took place on July 12, guest speaker Deborah Stewart Anderson led a lively conversation about composting (among other things).
The dinner guests asked Deborah for more resources and she sent along a few to share with the VEJ community. Thank you to Deborah for her presentation and for sharing these composting and waste management resources!
Voices for Earth Justice is a faith-based environmental justice organization. We are on a mission to help more people of faith make more good change for Creation.
What does that have to do with George Floyd?
It is easy to think of racism as a personal problem. And it is.
But so much more than that, racism is a spirit, a system, a "way things are" in the world.
My fingers started to type that racism is hidden in the system.
But that is not so.
For those who get the most good out of the system, racism is indeed hidden from them. When the system is working for you, you cannot, or will not, see the racism in the system.
I am an affluent white evangelical male. People who look like me built our system over hundreds of years with one goal: Make sure that people like us always get the "long end of the stick." Even if the "stick" itself gets longer, the system makes sure that people like me get the longest part of that longer stick.
As a son of the people who built the system, I inherited the benefits that system set up for people like me. And since I inherited them, I take them as givens. And, since I take them as givens, I assume they are givens for everyone else, too.
But to people of color, most of all black males, racism is not hidden in the system; it is in their faces and on their backs all day, every day.
Sometimes, the racism in the system comes at them with bars, billy clubs, and bullets.
Or knees on their necks.
This week, those of us who are blind to the racism in the system saw a flash so bright that it opened our eyes and showed us what we could not (or would not) see.
Now, we have to two choices to make:
As the leader of Voices for Earth Justice, I'm asking you to say "yes" to both questions. Commit yourself to seek understanding and to take action with us.
But you may wonder: What does any of this have to do with environmental justice?
If VEJ's mission is "prayer, education, and action for Earth," isn't it "mission creep" to talk about racism?
Environmental in-justice is another form of racism in the system.
Who lives closest to air, soil, and water pollution? In the United States, it is most often people of color.
First, people of color bear the burden of chronic poverty that is the legacy of laws set up to keep them poor and powerless. The system is set up to keep people of color from building the personal assets and generational wealth that many white people enjoy. While many white people are able to overcome setbacks through access to capital, education, family wealth, or professional networks, people of color often have no such safety net. This is the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, mandatory sentencing, redlining, subprime lending, disinvestment in public schools, and other legal forms of racism.
So people of color often have to work harder than white people. Even then, they earn less money. The setbacks of life that merely slow upward mobility for whites often keep people of color in the hole for a generation or more.
This is why people of color struggle with chronic poverty more than white people do.
One of the biggest problems that people of color face every day is finding safe, decent, affordable housing. If you think that is an easy problem to solve, you are probably white.
Educate yourself: Go to the National Low Income Housing Coalition website and click on the "Housing Needs by State" tab, then scroll down to Michigan. You will see that here in our state, we have a shortage of 189,905 affordable rental units available to low income households (which, in our state, are disproportionately black).
What does that mean? People who are low-income (which, in our state, usually means people of color), cannot find affordable housing because there is not enough of it!
In many cases, the only affordable housing that people of color can find is housing that is next to environmental hazards (like an oil refinery) or housing that is itself an environmental hazard (think lead paint and pipes).
The lack of affordable housing and the lack of economic opportunities and resources force poor people of color to live close to environmental hazards.
Sometimes, however, the environmental hazard moves closer to people of color.
What happens when someone wants to build something that will be an environmental hazard and a risk to the people who live nearby?
Communities that have the most influence, money, and power use those things to keep it out. Those communities are almost always white.
Meanwhile communities of color often don't have the influence, money, and power to keep environmental hazards out. White money and power from the outside can force the environmental hazard into the community of color.
So, then, injustice against the environment often involves injustice against people of color.
Pollution harms air, soil, and water, but also harms the people who have to live with it.
COVID-19 is a case study. You can see the correlation between the disproportionately high death rate among black Americans and the level of air pollution in areas where black Americans live.
So, what does all of this teach us?
It teaches us that when we abuse, exploit, and pollute the environment, we abuse, exploit, and pollute people, too.
If we are willing to be so careless, and even cruel, toward Earth (our one and only home), then being careless and cruel toward human beings is not out of the question. One feeds the other.
So, then, suffocating people of color with air pollution and suffocating them under a police officer's knee are two sides of the same coin. They are both part of the same system. A system that is racist.
And that is why George Floyd's death is an environmental justice issue.
When we speak and take action for environmental justice, we are going after the same system that led to George Floyd's murder.
We are voices for Earth justice.
Let us keep praying, learning, and taking action together to change the system for the good of Earth...for the good of all.
Let us work with all our might to make sure nobody will ever again say: "I can't breathe."
Grace and peace,
BT Irwin, primus inter pares
Voices for Earth Justice
Wonder Walks, one of the popular new programs VEJ launched in 2019, will return this summer (as soon as it is safe for groups of 12 - 24 to gather outdoors).
The program takes participants to some of southeast Michigan's natural wonders and blends the experience of going on a guided nature walk with the experience of a guided spiritual retreat.
"Wonder Walks are a beautiful mix of the first two parts of our mission: Prayer and education," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "They get something for their bodies, hearts, and minds all at the same time. Plus, they explore a lot of new places and make a lot of new friends."
Irwin said VEJ is waiting for the State of Michigan to release new guidelines for groups of more than ten to gather in outdoor spaces. Once those guidelines are set and VEJ finalizes plans for the safety of its guests, Wonder Walks will start up quickly.
"We expect to be hosting Wonder Walks this summer," said Irwin. "And I think people will be ready for them."
The 2020 Wonder Walks calendar that was not released (because of COVID-19), included the following locations:
"We'll likely visit most of the locations we planned to visit this year," said Irwin. "We have to work with our guides to make the new schedule. We're hoping to have that no later than the start of June."
In 2019, Community Dinners at Hope House & Gardens were one of VEJ's most popular programs. On the first Sunday of each month, guests gathered in the backyard to enjoy food made by a local chef and a presentation by an Earth justice expert.
The program was set to return in 2020 until COVID-19 make it unwise to host groups of people in close contact for the foreseeable future.
But using technology, VEJ is launching Sunday Dinners, a virtual dinner party program similar to Community Dinners, this June.
"COVID-19 is not an excuse to stop our work," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "In fact, it's a challenge to us to find ways to do more. After all, the pandemic only makes it more clear that Earth justice is the issue of our time and we can't put it off. We have to rise to whatever challenges come at us because everything is at stake."
Sunday Dinners will work a lot like Community Dinners at Hope House & Gardens.
Guests will sign up in advance (joining the dinner is free) to receive an invitation to join the event in a private group meeting on Zoom. The private feature is for security.
The dinners will take place on the first Sunday evening of each month starting in June. An Earth justice expert will present for about 20 minutes on a topic of interest, then take questions from the guests. Using one of Zoom's special features, guests will be able to participate in "table discussions" (small group discussions about the topic).
Of course, guests will be responsible for their own food at home, but VEJ is working on a way to help with that, too.
"We're looking to set up some special discounts or promotions from local farmers, food stores, or restaurants so dinner guests can enjoy something special together," said Irwin.
The first Sunday Dinner will take place on Sunday, June 7, at 6 p.m. and will feature Deborah Anderson of Zero Waste Detroit as the guest speaker.
The full calendar of guest speakers will be arrive in the May VEJ News (sign up here).
When 2020 began, VEJ planned a calendar full of in-person gatherings.
COVID-19 changed all that.
As it becomes less likely that people will feel safe in gatherings of more than a few people, the question is: How does VEJ keep doing its work of "prayer, education, and action for Earth?"
One answer: Start a podcast.
This summer, VEJ will launch the Voices for Earth Justice Podcast, a weekly conversation with Earth justice experts and practitioners.
"Almost one in five Americans listen to a podcast every week," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "That's almost 70 million people for whom podcasting is a normal way to expand their worldview and learn about new things."
Irwin added that podcasting tools cost little, are easier than ever to use, and make it possible to interview guests from anywhere in the world.
"The most important thing we can do at VEJ is give more and more people information and inspiration to go work for Earth justice," said Irwin. "Podcasting allows us to reach and serve more people in more places by exposing them to some of the best ideas and most effective leaders in Earth justice work. There is a lot of value in this."
Podcasting also just makes sense in the age of COVID-19.
"Up until now, we depended on getting people together at a physical location," said Irwin. "Don't get me wrong; there is a lot of value to that and we'll do it again as soon as we are able. But physical gatherings are limited in who you can bring to speak and who can come to participate. Online programs and podcasts open up so many new possibilities."
The Voices for Earth Justice podcast will launch this summer and be available on all major podcasting services. Watch for more details, including guest schedule, in VEJ's monthly newsletter (sign up here).
The 50th Earth Day (April 22, 2020) will be like no other.
While many environmental justice organizations like VEJ started 2020 with plans for big public celebrations, COVID-19 put those plans to rest.
But that does not mean Earth Day is canceled.
In fact, VEJ is planning to do more for Earth Day, inviting friends to be part of three online and virtual events on Wednesday, April 22.
"If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic makes Earth Day even more important this year than we imagined when we were just planning a big 50th anniversary celebration" said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "The pandemic is an environmental justice catastrophe that is quickly turning into tragedy. If there was ever a backdrop that makes Earth Day stand out as critical to our world, this one is it."
On Earth Day, VEJ will host and organize three online or virtual events:
24-hour "virtual prayer vigil" for Earth
VEJ is inviting friends to sign up to pray for Earth in 48 30-minute blocks from midnight to 11:59 p.m. on Earth Day, Wednesday, April 22.
"On this 50th Earth Day, we are looking for 50 friends to keep 'virtual vigil' for all 24 hours of April 22," said Irwin. "This reflects that prayer is actually the most important work we do."
Friends can sign up to be part of the "virtual vigil" here.
Livestream music and prayer service
At 9 a.m. on Earth Day, VEJ will host a livestream music and prayer service on its Facebook and YouTube pages. This service will feature friends from several faiths leading prayers and singing songs for Earth.
"We couldn't have our interfaith prayer breakfast, so we're bringing interfaith prayer to our friends' breakfast tables," said Irwin. "We couldn't think of a better way to help our community start Earth Day."
To watch the livestream, simply go to VEJ's Facebook or YouTube page at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, April 22.
Livestream panel of environmental nonprofit leaders in Detroit
At noon on Earth Day, VEJ will host a livestream panel discussion on its Facebook and YouTube pages. The panel will feature leaders from several of Detroit's environmental justice nonprofits: EcoWorks Detroit, Green Living Science, Michigan Interfaith Power & Light, and Sierra Club Great Lakes.
"The state of things with environmental justice was already at a critical point in Detroit and southeast Michigan," said Irwin. "COVID-19 takes it to the boiling point. Our panelists will talk about what Earth Day calls us to do in the age of COVID-19 and its aftermath."
To watch the livestream panel, simply go to VEJ's Facebook page or YouTube channel at noon on Wednesday, April 22.