EMEAC staff holds "Emerging Issues" conversation

April 4, 2011

DETROIT -- The staff of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council held their first quarterly Emerging Issues Conversation on January 21 at the EMEAC Offices. Members of each EMEAC program and collaboration: Greener Schools, Stand Up Speak Out, Remedia and the Detroit Food Justice Task Force engaged in a four hour intensive where the organization discussed its formation and foundation upon the principles of environmental justice.

“I think we need to get out to the public what our beliefs are,” said EMEAC Executive Director Diana Copeland. “Even though we are in flux, we still want to let people know what we stand for. That's one thing to be able to say this is what we believe, and this is where we are coming from, but also I think there is a responsibility to be out in the environmental dialogue and the whole global discourse about environmental justice.”

Over the past year or so the EMEAC affiliated staff and programs have more than doubled. Meanwhile, the organization has come to the forefront of the local environmental justice activist community by helping to host events like the United States Social Forum in June of 2010. In addition to EMEAC’s three core programs, the organization has deepened its long-standing relationships in the justice movement through collaborations with other social and environmental justice organizations in Detroit by taking part in the formation of the Detroit Food Justice Task Force and the Digital Justice Coalition. EMEAC closed out 2010 with a community debriefing around its participation in the United Nations World Climate Conference in Cancun, Mexico, and EMEAC is kicking off 2011 by joining with the Senegalese Association of Michigan to send a delegation of 10 activists to the World Social Forum beginning February 6 in Dakar, Senegal. 

“The organization has grown by leaps and bounds of the past year. We went from being a six person staff to what is soon to be a 15 person staff,” said EMEAC Associate Director Lottie Spady. “I think we were all having trouble figuring out how all these different pieces fit together -- not only understanding exactly what each person does but knowing each other on a personal level. 
“In theory everybody agrees with the environmental justice principles, but it gives them an opportunity to work with folks who are doing environmental justice work. It works for a better collaboration between all the programs to be able to see ways we can fit together and work together. It's about how all of our work can really support one another.”

During the Emerging Issues Conversation, staff members first unpacked where "Environmental Justice" came from, where it is now and where it is going by attempting to answer questions around understanding the history of environmental justice. The staff also focused on understanding the people associated with different movements and how to delve deeper to increase that understanding. In looking at the existing timelines of the environmental justice movement, there is a need to critically analyze the current narrative that has shaped this movement and a need for community to tell its own stories. Through a collective defining session, members broke into small groups and created their own visions of environmental justice. They examined what EJ is and is not, and looked at the steps for achieving those visions. After synthesizing these collective definitions, the next step is to assess how EMEAC's work and mission reflect this shared vision.

In one exercise, staff members engaged in a speed-dating type dialogue where they shared personal examples of environmental justice experiences. 

“It was like you had all of these amazing people in the city that you didn't know about,” Copeland said. “Now, you are so aligned and you are ready for the next big thing to build on together. Just like the social forum one of the things that came out of it was it put the whole city in a big shaker. I think that was what it felt like. We have this group that is coming together and after the big shake you feel like, 'This is why we are together.'  You realize that everybody is working toward the same goal. 
“Building that community gives us a better understanding of what environmental justice is. It's important to start having those conversations and I would hope that different groups and different people will find each other. I think it was a good introduction conversation. People just need to know where we are coming from and who we are working with.”

Following the meeting the group elected to meet on a quarterly basis to discuss future emerging issues with an option to meet monthly or bi-monthly should the need arise. Future meetings will focus on issues such as the connections between environmental justice and other justice movements, eco-feminism, and right sizing. The goal is to strengthen the organization's work and contribution to the environmental justice movement by expanding EMEAC’s activist tool kit, creating informational zines, and authoring individual blogs for the various programs. 

“I think it will help everybody,” said EMEAC Associate Director Ahima Maxey. “We are all at the point where for a long time we have all been on the same plane, but as we grow bigger, we now need to articulate EJ principles to the community. Of course, we get it but we need to make sure that everyone coming in will see that this is what we are all about. We have naturally kind of progressed from this place where we all started.”

“Because there are such a convergence of issues happening right now in Detroit around right sizing, around large-scale urban agriculture, around just questioning the influx of foundation dollars that come in to support the city and looking at our experience with having hosted the U.S. Social Forum, that whole experience of figuring out how to come together and collaborate has really made us on the forefront of all these issues,” Spady added. “It's put EMEAC in the public eye. There have been a number of instances where the organization is working not only to shape the local narrative pertaining to issues around Detroit, but on a national and international level. 
“The more we are put in the public eye the more it is important that we as an organization really understand the stance of EMEAC. We want to make sure that the values that we talk about are evident in the way that we conduct ourselves. It's about putting out an reminder to all of the organizations that we work with of the principles that we are supposed to be working in support of.”