Community voices emerge loud and clear from recent EPA EJ Conferencence in Detroit

September 21, 2011

Lottie Spady and DeRaina Stinson present at the 2011
EPA EJ Conference at Wayne State University
DETROIT – In the midst of an all out assault against environmental and social justice protections through out the country, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) couldn’t have picked a more appropriate place or time to bring together citizens and community groups concerned about both environmental and social justice causes.  The EPA did just that on August 23-26 at the Detroit Renaissance Center and Wayne State University in the form of an Environmental Justice Conference, which if nothing else gave local citizens an opportunity to voice their concerns and strategies around these two critical issues facing the Detroit.

I would say at this point the portion that dealt with the "Detroit Story" was key,” said Rhonda Anderson, of the Detroit Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice Office and an organizer for the conference. “It was an opportunity for residents to speak to the issues of EJ from their perspective, to tell the story of EJ themselves, and lift their voice. This is the new age of media, social media, social justice and the people speaking their voice. It’s not someone else speaking for them.”

The theme for the conference was “One community. One environment.” It targeted community organizations, indigenous organizations, community members, community advocates, government officials, university level professionals, faith-based organizations, businesses and other stakeholders interested in learning about opportunities to work toward environmental justice in their respective communities.

Detroit Sierra Club EJ Officer Rhonda Anderson
gives an EJ Tour of Detroit
Topics of discussion during the conference were community capacity, strategies for addressing pollution sources, the Federal Interagency Working Group on EJ, environmental workforce development training and job creation, funding opportunities, Title VI Human Rights Delegation Agreements, an EJ Tour of the city, the role of youth and social media in EJ, and sharing tools and resources toward greater accountability. Still in a city like Detroit – disproportionately affected effected by EJ issues due to the combination of demographics and a worsening economy, EPA officials seemed caught off guard at times by the level of concern among local citizens and those from abroad.

“The first day with the EPA on the panel in the large open forum was highly charged with emotions,” said Maria Ryen, a graduate student at the University of Michigan who spent her summer interning with EMEAC’s ReMedia program. “There were a few hundred participants in the room with a few mixed panels that consisted of EPA staff and others. One of the initial speakers brought on some heavy criticism of EPA accountability, and from there it really became the topic raised by almost every person allowed to speak. Another man, representing indigenous communities in Alaska, came to publicly ask that they make cultural considerations in their actions with indigenous tribes in the state. Another woman representing Puerto Rico, questioned why the EPA was not involved in relief effort from floods of recent hurricanes, which were heavily contaminated with toxins and effecting largely poor and underserved communities.

“The second day, Grace Lee Boggs spoke to the very issue of government accountability when she said something along the lines of 'don't wait and don't rely on these government agencies and academics to help.’ She stressed that community organizers and local empowerment was really the key to battling successfully for environmental justice. After what I had seen the first day, I could really understand why.”

Anderson, who has been involved in community work for over a decade said she agreed that local activism and empowerment is the key to addressing local issues.

“I've attended many conferences over the course of my activist/work life.  While this one could have been better, it was rewarding simply because it dealt with the work I do around EJ,” she said. “Right now the EPA is faced with survival. With attacks from the Republicans and big industry, they are simply having to hold on.  I believe many of us will say that the EPA has been limited or restricted in the ways in which they assist EJ communities, but without the Clean Air Act, water and so on, what chance do we have to protect our communities?  
“As we strengthen our communication skills and media skills we will become more able of doing many of these things for our selves. Over the 11 years that I've worked here in the Detroit area, I've worked with a number of communities.  We created the E J Community Committee consisting of leaders in the communities where I've worked.  The purpose of the committee was to create a support system for the communities, to bring them together so that they do not stand alone.”

Panelist enjoy a break at the EPA EJ Conference
Anderson praised the work of local leaders like Jay Henderson, President of the Riverbend Community Association, Theresa Lewis, a leader in the Master Metal campaign, Vickie Burton of the Greendale/Drixdale Community Association, Rev. Sandra Simmons and Dr. Charles Simmons of Northwest Goldberg/Hush House. Anderson also cited the courageous work of Dr. Deloris Leonard, Theresa Landrum, Vincent Martin, Mr. & Mrs. Roland Wahl, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Lucille Campbell, and a host of other community leaders from the 48217 community, which was declared to be the third-most polluted area in the U.S. by a recent University of Michigan study.

The role of youth was not overlooked at the conference as EMEAC’s Associate Director Lottie Spady and ReMedia Environmental Justice Fellow DeRaina Stinson took part in a panel discussion on the role of youth and social media in the fight for environmental justice in Detroit.

“It was nerve wracking. I was kind of nervous; I have to admit,” said the 22-year old Stinson who also attends Wayne State. “We talked about social media and how the youth use media to do environmental justice work.
“We did a slide show and showed some of the movies that we’ve made with ReMedia. We talked about social justice in the context of the media and how youth use social media like twitter to connect. We just wanted to acknowledge what the youth are doing because that’s what is happening now.”

By the end of the conference, Ryen acknowledged that the informative panel discussions did provide significant benefits to attendees.

The following small panel discussions in the different tracks were really inspiring and it was clear that individual organizers, whether they had the EPA EJ or not, are extremely resourceful and amazing networkers,” she said. “Each panelist was able to give meaningful advice and even audience participants began small conversations on strategizing to solve obstacles that organizations were running into. If anything, I think the fact that the EPA provided a national forum where the government was present but allowed all these agencies to network was very meaningful in itself.”
Anderson added that she hopes that there were several positive lessons to be taken away from the conference. Not the least of which was that local organizations and community groups need to rally together now more so than ever.
“We could have worked more closely together. We could have approached the conference with a united front,” Anderson said.  “The only organization that went as a coalition was Zero Waste. What experience, skills, power can we pull together by working together?  Well, I see an awesome opportunity. EMEAC brings some awesome skills of media application, food justice, and youth.  The Ecology Center has Brad VanGuilder an expert with an awesome background and the skills of his co-workers. MEC and Sandra Turner Handy, have a strong background in politics, organizing and EJ. Southwest Environmental Vision, Detroiters Working for EJ, and the Green Door Initiative are faced with the same challenges along with the EPA. When we are shortsighted the community suffers, and that’s something I think we really should keep in mind going forward.”