The last week of June, about two-dozen Catholic teens came from places like Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin to learn and serve at VEJ's Hope House & Gardens.
The teens came as participants in two annual Catholic youth service weeks in Detroit: Catholic Heart Work Camp and Young Neighbors in Action.
"Hosting these teens for a week each summer at Hope House & Gardens is one of the highlights of our year," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "It is really special to get to see how they grow as people over the course of the week."
Irwin said it is also a big blessing to VEJ and the Hope Park neighborhood. The teen volunteers get a lot of important work done at Hope House & Gardens while spending a lot of time with neighbors on Greydale Street.
Projects the Catholic Heart and Young Neighbors volunteers got done at Hope House & Gardens this year, included:
Irwin said his favorite part of the week was watching how the teen volunteers included the children who live around Hope House.
"You could see how the neighbor kids and the teens were bonding as they worked together. It was a beautiful thing to witness," said Irwin. "The neighbor kids were learning that love is there for them even from total strangers and the teens were learning how much love they have to give and what a difference it makes."
In addition to working with their hands, the teens also put their hearts and minds to work. VEJ garden leader L'Oreal Hawkes-Williams added classes, demonstrations, meditations, and reflections to the daily schedule.
At the end of the week, teens filled out anonymous surveys about their experience. Comments included things like:
Irwin said that if there was one drawback to the experience, it was that none of the teens who volunteered is likely to return any time soon.
"We can do this with local groups just as well as we can do it with groups from out of state," said Irwin. "We can do this with groups of any age, any education level, any faith background. When we host groups from metro Detroit, it creates opportunities for lasting learning and relationships that can build over time with repetition."
If you would like to come learn and serve at Hope House & Gardens--either on your own or with a group from your club, company, house of worship, or school--please call (313) 355-6052 or email BT Irwin at email@example.com.
Community Dinners at Hope House & Gardens, a new VEJ program for 2019, are proving to be popular with both neighbors and visitors to the neighborhood.
Both Community Dinners on the 2019 calendar so far (May and June) filled up to capacity.
"People seem to really like the Community Dinner program, from the food to the guests to the setting to the speakers," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "That's really exciting because it means people are finding something that helps them make Earth justice a little more part of their lives, relationships, and work."
VEJ garden program leader L'Oreal Hawkes-Williams came up with the idea for Community Dinners and manages the program.
Each Community Dinner takes place at VEJ's Hope House & Gardens at James T. Hope Park in northwest Detroit. A local chef prepares a meal using as many ingredients as he or she can from VEJ's neighborhood garden and other neighborhood sources. A speaker brings a discussion topic that relates to VEJ's Earth justice mission, usually relating it to the people who live in the Hope Park neighborhood itself.
At the first Community Dinner in May, Tommie Obioha of Detroit Sustainability Partners gave a talk on the City of Detroit's sustainability program for residents.
In June, Shakara Tyler of Michigan State University's Regional Food Policy center led a discussion on African American agriculture in urban centers like Detroit.
"We are blessed to have a donor who made this entire program possible, from the hours L'Oreal and our staff put into to organizing it, down to the honorarium we give the presenter and what we pay the local chefs to prepare the meal," said Irwin.
Along with Eco-Eating Tours, hosting the neighborhood First Fridays Film Series, the Organic Sustainable Gardening program, Wonder Walks, and other programs, Community Dinners are an important part of how VEJ is growing a community around its mission of "prayer, education, and action for Earth."
"We hope people can see what we're up to here," said Irwin. "Our most important work at VEJ is growing a community of people who are from different backgrounds, but who come together to pray, learn, and take action for Earth justice. And nothing is more important to forming a community than breaking bread together. That's what this is all about."
The next Community Dinner takes place on Sunday, July 7, and will feature a discussion on the "interfaith table." Sign up here.
After a year of full-time volunteer service at VEJ, Julia Hall is moving on to her next adventure in life.
Hall, a member of Christ the King Service Corps, recently finished one year of placement at VEJ, spanning from June 2018 to the end of May 2019. She came to VEJ just weeks after graduating from the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio.
"Julia is and was a gift straight from God," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "Along with [garden program leader] L'Oreal [Hawkes-Williams], Julia was the heart and soul of VEJ's presence in the Hope House neighborhood and VEJ's programs across the region."
As part of the Christ the King Service Corps, Hall lived in a common house with other service corps members at Christ the King Catholic Church, just a short walk from Hope House & Gardens. As a service corps member, Julia volunteered 40 hours (and sometimes more) each week at VEJ.
"Julia was our only full-time person on staff and our only staff person who lived in the Hope House neighborhood itself," said Irwin. "What showed to everyone is that her greatest joy was in relating to her neighbors here. She really loved them!"
In addition to helping VEJ connect to its neighbors in Detroit's Brightmoor and Old Redford neighborhoods, Hall helped create and run other programs as well, including Eco-Eating Tours and Wonder Walks. She was a big part of helping Hawkes-Williams design and lead VEJ's Organic Sustainable Gardening program.
This summer, Hall will move to Oregon, where she will attend graduate school at Oregon State University in Corvallis. She will study women, gender, and sexuality on full scholarship as a teaching assistant.
"This year has been one of fun, excitement, and learning," said Hall about her placement at VEJ. "My growth, professionally and personally, through working at Voices for Earth Justice has meant so very much to me."
A going-away party is in the works and details will be announced soon.
If you're reading this, I bet you also read up a lot on things like climate change.
I mean, come on: You're reading a blog post on a website with the address "voices4earth.org." Unless you're my mom (Hi, Mom!), what other reason do you have to be here if you're not someone who cares deeply about Earth justice?
So...do I win that bet? Do you keep track of things like climate change?
At the risk of sounding like I have a gambling problem, here's another bet I'm sure I can win: Most everyone cares about the environment. Some more than others, but I'm pretty sure that most everyone--Democrat and Republican, old and young, rural and urban, rich and poor, religious and non-religious--care about the health of Earth.
Yes, yes. Some are passionate while others are just passive.
Some make Earth justice their full-time hobby or profession. More make do with buying Seventh Generation brand products at Meijer and rolling their blue container to the curb once a week.
I think most people, though, settle for saying they'll get around to Earth justice.
If you're the kind of person who puts energy, money, and time into Earth justice every day, those people who "make do" or settle for "someday" may drive you crazy.
Alarm bells are clanging in your head as you look up from the latest climate change headlines in this morning's New York Times.
"We're almost out of time!" you say. "People need to wake up and get with it!"
And you're right. You're right.
"Yes! I'm right! Damn right!" you say. "Why can't people see that Earth is in our hands?"
Huh. Now there's a question.
"Why can't people see that Earth is in our hands?"
Yes. Why can't they?
First of all, I will say again that I think they can.
But one little word in your question makes a big difference to what happens next:
There is a big difference between "Earth is in our hands" and "Earth is in my hands."
Do you agree?
It is true that Earth is in our hands. Few will disagree with that.
But just who is part of that word "our"?
If you're an American consumer or voter, you could take that "our" to mean the 327 million people who live in this country. The fact is, among the nations of the world, only China pollutes more than the United States. So, indeed, Earth is in "our" American hands.
Or, you could take "our" to mean the 7.53 billion people who live on Earth. Nobody can deny that that many human beings makes a huge impact on the planet.
But the word "our," while accurate, is neither encouraging nor inspiring. And it is unclear. The word does nothing to nudge people to take action. In fact, I think the word does the opposite.
Here's what I mean:
First of all, being part of an "our"--especially an "our" as big as the population of the United States or the world--allows individuals to make excuses:
"Somebody else will do it."
"What's the point? I'm just one of 327 million or 7.53 billion. What difference can I make?"
You see, as long as Earth is in our hands, I don't have to get around to saying that it is in my hands. As long as Earth is in our hands, I can always say that it is somebody else's problem to solve: The government, multinational corporations, nonprofit organizations, scientists...whoever!
And so the size of the problem (world destruction!) and the fact that the solution is in our 7.53 billion pairs of hands makes me feel like little old me is helpless! I am dis-couraged from even thinking about it let alone doing something about it. I settle for making myself believe that someone else will do something.
Now, here I want to say that Earth justice has to be our problem to solve. Something as big as Earth justice demands all of us working together. We have to find a way to change big things like economies and public policy. There is simply no way around it.
But big things like economies and public policy are made up of many, many little things.
Or, to put it better: Many, many individuals.
Want to go smaller?
Just multiply those many, many individuals by the many, many choices each one of them makes each day.
When you think about it that way, Earth justice is really what happens (or doesn't happen) as the entire human race makes trillions of choices on a daily basis.
So, then, Earth really is in my hands. It just takes what we call faith to see it.
Here's my point: The only way I will ever give energy, money, and time to "Earth in our hands" is if I first hold Earth is in my hands.
"Our" is so big it excuses personal responsibility.
But if I start with personal responsibility, if I hold Earth in my hands, it is much easier to join the collective "our."
And that is exactly what we are trying to do at VEJ right now.
Instead of overwhelming people with planet-sized problems that they feel helpless to solve, we are inviting them to hold--literally hold--Earth in the hands!
I thought about this a couple of weeks ago as I helped plant flowers at VEJ's neighborhood garden in Detroit. I looked down and there it was: I was holding earth in my hands. I was holding life in my hands. In that moment, one average, ordinary guy was in a partnership, a relationship with Earth.
I wasn't alone. Others were down on their hands and knees alongside me in the garden. We were having a moment of fellowship with each other and with Earth.
It may sound weird to some, but the moment changed me a little. Gave me a little nudge and pat on the back as I turned a little more toward Earth justice.
That's what we're doing at VEJ: Inviting people to join others in putting their hands into the soil, breathing the air, listening to the wind in the trees, looking carefully at the miracles all around them, tasting the fruit of the Earth.
"Everything is an experiment."
For the last 20 months, board members, donors, team members, and volunteers have heard me say these words over and over like a broken record.
You know it's true: Life is an experiment! We're all just making it up as we go.
Mission organizations like VEJ are in the experimentation business. Think about it: We are trying to solve some of the world's biggest, most "wicked problems" on shoestring budgets and working with unskilled volunteers.
And "wicked problems" don't stand still. They keep changing and so we have to keep changing, too.
Yes, experimentation is what we have to do at VEJ.
From the first time the board interviewed me for the leadership role at VEJ, I knew we would have to do two things to have a chance at making a difference:
So, we made a program plan for 2019 that we thought would help us do those two things. We didn't know what would happen, so we called it an experiment and jumped in.
As with any experiment, some things are working well and some things are not working.
When things don't work, we ask why and try something a little different.
One thing that is not working the way we planned is our Eco-Eating Tours and Wonder Walks. We created these to see what would happen when we mashed up fundraising, mission work, and public outreach into one dish. Some very successful nonprofits in southeast Michigan raise funds by charging $25, $35, $55, or even $75 for tours at points of interest around the region. I thought we could do this, too.
It hasn't worked and I have to ask myself why.
Two things come to mind right away:
The more I thought about that, the more I felt like asking people to pay $20 to come to one of our nature hikes or tours was just wrong for us. It works for other organizations, but maybe not for VEJ.
The main reason being: The Wonder Walks are supposed to be interfaith prayer events. Am I really going to charge someone $20 to come pray in nature? I hadn't thought of it that way before.
So...we are dropping the $20 fee to attend Eco-Eating Tours and Wonder Walks. It will now be "donate what you can" or nothing at all. We are a faith-based organization, so I am going to have faith that God will take care of VEJ's financial needs through the kindness of our many friends new and old.
I am sorry this experiment didn't work out the way I thought it would. Not because it didn't raise a lot of money for VEJ, but for those who felt like they were not wanted because of the fee we put on the programs. While we never meant to exclude anyone, I should have seen that the fee would make some people feel excluded.
If you were one of them, I'm sorry.
The experiment goes on.
We are trying to find the best way to help people of faith do Earth justice.
We are trying to find the best way to run a small organization to support that mission.
We make mistakes, compost them, and grow something new. This is what it's all about.
If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions to share with us, please call or send an email. After all, you are the real voice for Earth justice.
Grace and peace,
BT Irwin, primus inter pares
Voices for Earth Justice
The Adrian Dominican Sisters recently announced their selection of VEJ as a recipient of a Ministry Trust grant for 2019 - 2020. The funds will support VEJ's programs that focus on hunger in Detroit's Brightmoor and Old Redford neighborhoods.
"It's always good news when someone is kind enough to give to the work we do, but this grant is really special," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "Two Adrian Dominicans started VEJ back in 2002 and the Sisters have contributed tens of thousands of hours, over a hundred-thousand dollars, and a million prayers to VEJ over the years. This is very special relationship that is such a blessing to those VEJ works to bless. It is so gratifying to have a strong partner who sees us fit to keep going with us. Everyone this touches is very, very grateful."
In particular, the Adrian Dominican funds will support VEJ's programs that address hunger, nutrition, and self-sufficiency in Detroit's Brightmoor and Old Redford. VEJ's Hope House & Gardens stands on the border between those two neighborhoods.
"The Adrian Dominican grant will expand and improve our Community Meals and Organic Sustainable Gardening programs at Hope House & Gardens," said Irwin. "Through those programs, we are trying to take on hunger by helping people become 'food sovereign' and self-sufficient in terms of what they eat and what they feed their families. It just so happens that the 'food sovereignty' we teach is also good for the environment and personal health."
The Adrian Dominican Sisters are a congregation of more than 600 vowed women and 200 associates ministering in 22 states and four countries. The Sisters their ministries on education, health care, pastoral and retreat ministry, the arts, social work, ecology, and peace and justice advocacy. Their vision is to "seek truth, make peace, reverence life."
Learn more about the Adrian Dominican Sisters here.
Lydia Hsu will join the Voices for Earth Justice team for the summer of 2019 as an intern through The University of Michigan Community-Based Research Program (DCBRP). Hsu has recently completed her third year of undergraduate studies in Movement Science with a minor in Food and the Environment.
For the past year, Hsu has engaged in work at the U of M Campus Farm. Starting as a volunteer herself, she quickly fell in love with the work and became more engaged as a crew member. She currently works as the Student Engagement Manager, coordinating and leading volunteer groups.
“It never felt like work. I was basically playing with plants, and getting paid for it,” Hsu stated about her time working at the Campus Farm.
U of M’s campus farm has been recently GAP Certified (Good Agricultural Practices), and now sell 99% of the food produced back to the dining halls to be consumed by students. With her experience on the Campus Farm, she will bring much joy & assistance to the staff at VEJ.
While Hsu has been engaged her in growing food, her experience with food culture is rooted in her childhood experiences.
“I grew up with very traditional Chinese food, and it was just such a big part of my childhood. Our holidays were centered around what food we’d eat during them. So, just thinking that people don’t have that is incredibly sad to me. And, how do we bring that back, like that culture?,” Hsu evoked.
Hsu’s own story with food, her personal connection to what she grows and eats, exemplifies the connectivity and complexity of what we eat that we want to spark in others. VEJ cannot wait to swap stories of food with Lydia as we work together towards a more just and sustainable food system.
While we will definitely be getting work done in the garden & engaging with our neighbors, Hsu will also have the opportunity to explore Detroit, learn about its history, and engage in several events. Hsu grew up in Grosse Ile, just South of Detroit, however, she is excited to get to know Detroit up close and personal for herself.
“When we moved to Michigan, we moved pretty close to Detroit. You hear all these stories of Detroit, the stereotypes, but I never really got to be in the city, live in the city, or know the city. And I just feel like it is so rich with history that I want to be able to experience it for myself and see it with my own eyes, not through anybody else’s,” Hsu stated.
VEJ staff looks forward to welcoming Lydia Hsu to Detroit, and sharing what we do and learning alongside her in the garden and in the city.
It is a well-known fact that one of the most important factors in the health and impact of any nonprofit organization is the health and strength of an active board.
For that reason, board development is a top priority at VEJ.
"The board is crucial and that is especially true at VEJ," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "A founder normally does the work of about ten people. So, when a founder retires as Patty Gillis did in 2017, you have to find ten people to take her place. That's where building a board and professional staff comes in."
Irwin believes that board development may be VEJ's most important accomplishment over the last year.
"One year ago, we were down to three board members and all three of them had been on the board for seven years or more at that point," said Irwin. "Obviously, it's hard to have a diverse board with a lot of depth and range when it is that small. You need a constant flow of new board members to keep accountability strong and thinking fresh."
Irwin and board president Sister Janet Stankowski (who co-founded VEJ with Patty Gillis in 2002) worked hard to recruit and orient new board members over the last year.
"Board composition, recruitment, and training is something that few nonprofits actually do well," said Irwin. "Some organizations go for the 'big names' or people they think will bring them big bucks. Some organizations go for 'warm bodies' to just fill seats. Neither one of those approaches work well for a small nonprofit like VEJ. We need people with passion and skill who are ready to go to work to build something for the future."
Irwin said that when looking for new board members, VEJ focused on depth of board and nonprofit management experience and diversity of backgrounds.
"VEJ is going through a major change from a founder-based organization to a mission-based organization run by professionals under a board's guidance," said Irwin. "That makes board composition critical. We need people who understand how to build an effective board and run an effective nonprofit organization. Equally important is representation from the diverse communities we serve. If it seems hard, it is! But it's coming together now and picking up steam."
Since June 2018, VEJ's board has grown by seven members. As of today, VEJ's board is:
Irwin said one of his favorite things about VEJ's board is how many of its new members are putting their years of board experience elsewhere to work for VEJ.
"A year ago, we were on the front end of the 'forming' phase," said Irwin. "We actually needed to form a board. This year, we're well into a 'norming' phase. That is, we're seeing new board members use their experience to design a board culture and board habits that will grow VEJ's capacity to accomplish its mission. This is really exciting because it means VEJ is about to turn a corner and enter a growth phase."
What comes next?
Irwin said that good boards never stop cultivating and recruiting new members.
"As long as you're being intentional about who you're bringing on board and you're honoring your term limit plan, there is no cut-off number," said Irwin. "If you don't have a pipeline of future board candidates and you're not constantly bringing a few of them up to the board each year, you're already backsliding. A good, healthy board is a dynamic board. It's always changing, always getting stronger."
Irwin said he sees VEJ's board adopting new bylaws, electing new officers, and getting new committees up and running over the rest of 2019.
From there, big opportunities await.
"The biggest opportunity for any board--including VEJ's board--is grappling with questions of missional and strategic importance and imagining the possibilities for the future," said Irwin. "When a board is healthy and strong and when it is handling its 'day to day business' well, it opens up a lot of space to take on the 'fun' stuff: Exploring the world, imagining the future, working with the professionals on the staff to lay out a strategy for growth and impact."
About 60 friends gathered for food, inspiration, and prayer at VEJ's first Interfaith Prayer Breakfast on May 2.
Hosted by the Congregational Church of Birmingham in Bloomfield Hills, the breakfast featured food by Chef Annabel Cohen and prayers by clergy from four faiths (Baha'i, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim). Rev. Faith Fowler of Cass Community Social Services delivered keynote remarks.
"Of all the things VEJ can do, I think bringing people together for prayer is the most important," said BT Irwin, VEJ's executive director. "When we pray together and share our lives with each other, we become an answer to our own prayers for the world."
The event also served as the starting point for "RISE UP for Justice," a 30-day statewide interfaith prayer initiative led by The Poor People's Campaign.
Rev. Fowler's talk mixed humor and a prophetic voice that challenged, entertained, and inspired the audience at points along the way. The gist of her message was that we cannot hope to care for the planet if we don't first learn how to care for each other.
The main work of the morning was the work of interfaith prayer for people and planet. Clergy who offered prayers were:
Chef Annabel Cohen's food won rave reviews in surveys sent to guests after the event. Edward Jones financial advisor Darrel Quinn sponsored the food.
"One of the main things we set out to do this year was increase the opportunities for people to come together to pray, reflect, and share across faith traditions and walks of life," said Irwin. "That's another way of saying that we want to practice what Rev. Fowler preached. The first step toward VEJ helping people care for the planet is helping people care for each other. This event was a good start."
VEJ will seek to build on what it started at the Interfaith Prayer Breakfast by hosting a series of five Community Meals at Hope House & Gardens through the end of summer. Other interfaith prayer events will be on the calendar later in the year (including the return of a Winter Solstice service in December).