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."
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