Environment Picture

Unfinished business: Environmental Justice in Michigan

Coalition convenes statewide summit to organize for action
Achieving a clean, healthy and safe environment for Michiganders, by working with all residents to hold public and private institutions accountable to the communities for whom they serve and in which they operate, is the mission of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. This mission was put into practice on September 12 and 13 in Lansing at the well-attended first statewide summit on environmental justice in Michigan.

Over 250 people participated in the day-long conference held on Friday, September 12, at the Union Baptist Missionary Church. On Saturday, 80 people participated in the planning session at the Kellogg Center on the campus of Michigan State University.

Those working in the environmental justice (EJ) struggle came from as far away as the Upper Peninsula and as near as Lansing to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Executive Order 12898 (the federal regulation to address EJ) and the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. They also came prepared to work on the theme of the summit, “Unfinished Business: Environmental Justice in Michigan.”

Diverse voices share struggles

As a welcoming song from Native Americans rang out throughout the room, many reflected on why they were at this place and how it would help to improve the lives of many living within the boundaries of environmental hazards throughout the state. The summit’s Friday session provided perspectives and stories from the mouths of our Native Americans, Latino communities, and African Americans about EJ organizing around issues in Michigan.

The camaraderie in the room was evident as we listened to how those on the ground put a name to the struggle in the early 1990s around polluting facilities and a lack of policy to address the issues that burden our low-income communities of color. The diversity in the room gave evidence to the fact that EJ affects us all. Bunyan Bryant, an EJ pioneer and recipient of the Michigan Environmental Council Helen & William Milliken Distinguished Service Award, provided an opening message to be read that energized everyone for the work yet to be done.

Author of landmark report gives EPA history

Charles Lee of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took participants through his struggles to get the federal EPA to recognize EJ as a reality. Lee is the principal author of the landmark 1987 report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, which showed that toxic waste facilities in the U.S. were primarily located in communities of color.

Lee spearheaded the emergence of a national EJ movement and federal action, including Executive Order 12898, the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice.

Attendees engage MDEQ on state policy

Friday afternoon gave attendees the opportunity to listen to and dialogue with staff members of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Many members of MDEQ have worked with the MEJC to develop metrics around EJ. They know MEJC’s intent is to have the EJ Directive (signed by then Governor Granholm) recognized as a viable policy tool for working to solve the environmental injustices in the state.

The day ended with a poster session where many organizations told their stories through imagery. The networking extended beyond the end of the day as many participants met with old friends and made new ones.

Future action plans formed

Saturday morning, participants convened to plan future actions for the coalition. With encouraging words from Charles Lee, the group began a discussion on Shaping Our Common Future. The discussion led to smaller breakout sessions:
  • Building outside of state structures;
  • Reforming the state and its policies; and
  • Organizing within the state’s existing structure.
Many strategies came out of the breakout sessions, and they are now being categorized for action. Facilitator Adrienne Marie Brown kept everyone engaged and energized throughout the planning process.

During the final session of the summit—the “Fishbowl Discussion”—attendees jumped in and out of the fishbowl as they discussed the power and possibility of working together.

Participants left the summit knowing that MEJC is working on the action items:
  • Supporting local EJ campaigns throughout the state;
  • Building capacity to work within the state on EJ policy; and
  • Beginning work on next year’s summit.
The take away from the two-day summit is that EJ is real, and many hardworking Michiganders are in the trenches working to create economic, social and environmental equity in Michigan.

For more information

For news about environmental justice in Michigan and opportunities to get involved, visit the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition website, www.michiganejcoalition.org and Facebook page, www.facebook.com/MichiganEnvironmentalJusticeCoalition or contact Sandra Turner-Handy at Sandra@environmentaljustice.org.

Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition Members

Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice
East Michigan Environmental Action Council
Ecology Center
Green Door Initiative
Michigan Environmental Council
NAACP of Southeastern Michigan
National Wildlife Federation
Sierra Club Environmental Justice Program
Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition
Urban Regeneration LLC
Zero Waste Detroit
Rosedale Recycles

Individual Members
Vincent Martin
Michelle Martinez

Member Academic Institutions
University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment
University of Michigan Law School Sustainable Michigan Endowed Project
Michigan State University
Great Lakes Environmental Law Center
University of Michigan Dearborn
Wayne State University

Summit planning organizations include member organizations of MEJC
Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice
East Michigan Environmental Action Council
Ecology Center
Green Door Initiative
Michigan Environmental Council
NAACP of Southeastern Michigan
National Wildlife Federation
Sierra Club Environmental Justice Program
Michigan State University
Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition
Urban Regeneration LLC
Zero Waste Detroit
in collaboration with
Sustainable Michigan Endowed Project
University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
The University of Michigan Provost’s Office
Idle No More Michigan
West Michigan Environmental Action Council
-Sandra Turner-Handy, MEC
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