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!