During Michigan’s first Environmental Justice Conference, hosted by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate on the summer solstice, in June, activists, advocates, and professionals convened at the University of Detroit Mercy to advance environmental justice (EJ) and foster connections that will ideally drive real change in our communities. While the conference boasted an array of blossoms, offering buds of hope and inspiration, it also presented some unfortunate thorns. Among the highlights were dedicated representatives working toward passing environmental justice legislation for the state and insightful tips for initiatives that engage youth with environmental justice and creating a green future. However, discussions surrounding the private sector’s role in environmental justice lacked depth and actionable steps toward progress.
Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome, the Senior Director for Environmental Justice for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, delivered impactful remarks at the conference’s opening. She introduced MiEJScreen, a new interactive mapping tool, and acknowledged that environmental injustice stems from systemic racism, emphasizing the urgent need to take action to “make our country EJ strong.” Dr. White-Newsome emphasized the importance of building relationships and fostering collaboration to ensure environmental justice within our systems.
Governor Whitmer conveyed her commitment to creating resilient and environmentally just communities through a video message to the attendees.
Regina Strong, Michigan’s Environmental Justice Public Advocate, provided a comprehensive definition of environmental justice, emphasizing “equitable treatment and meaningful involvement of all individuals, regardless of race, color, national origin, ability, or income.” This inclusive approach is crucial in developing and applying “laws, regulations, and policies that affect the environment, as well as the places where people live, work, play, worship, and learn.”
One of the most impactful sessions on the first day explored the legislative role in advancing environmental justice. State Representatives Donavan McKinney and Abraham Aiyash joined remotely from Lansing, in between budget and committee meetings. The representatives spoke passionately about the need for eEnvironmental jJustice policies in the legislature and stated their own experiences with issues such as dirty water due to aging infrastructure and the need to protect overburdened communities from public health impacts when issuing pollution permits. Representative Aiyash eloquently concluded that, “Every single issue is linked to climate—housing, jobs, public health, etc.” Their dedication to addressing environmental justice concerns underscored the urgency of the matter.
Another inspiring session, titled “Engaging Youth in Environmental Justice through the Arts and Careers,” was led by Brian Lewis, a Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice (MAC-EJ) member and previous director of the Youth Energy Squad. He emphasized the importance of youth and adult partnerships and promotes youth participation using Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation. Jordan Irving, the Program Manager of Youth Programming at the Green Door Initiative spoke of his organization’s aim to enhance environmental literacy and prepare young people for a sustainable future through STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics) education.
The Thriving Together initiative by the Detroit Zoo, which focuses on inquiry-based environmental education and experiences that inspire poetry and other creative expression, had two youth representatives on the panel. This initiative encourages young people to become stewards of the environment and take action in their own communities. An upcoming event called “If the River Could Sing 2023” highlights the importance of youth as architects of the future and the need for a healthy environment to prosper. The initiative promotes equity of resources and values community members as experts, allowing for interactive and hands-on learning tailored to students’ interests and meeting students where they are.
This session provided a wealth of practical information for supporting youth-led initiatives and facilitating effective communication across different age groups. At the end of the session, the youth panelists asked for immediate climate action from decision-makers—after all, youth will be most impacted by the climate crisis in the future and by the solutions we choose to implement today.
The conference, however, was not without its thorns. The session titled “Environmental Justice and the Private Sector” lacked sincerity. Panelists from Huntington Bank and DTE Energy discussed their companies’ commitments to addressing Environmental Justice but failed to provide concrete actions or mechanisms for accountability. Attendees were left questioning who holds these private sector entities accountable for their pledges. Despite DTE’s contribution to structural racism, like outdated infrastructure still causing energy reliability disparities and frequent power outages in communities of color, DTE Energy was given a platform without acknowledging the scope of its past injustices. The state must intentionally invest time and resources to improve environmental justice actions within the private sector—and it’s our job as citizens to convince the state to step up and make a difference for frontline communities across the state, sooner rather than later..
Ultimately, the Michigan Environmental Justice Conference proved engaging and informative. I made connections with folks from across the state working to advance environmental justice in their communities. While real progress was highlighted in certain areas, systemic challenges faced by overburdened communities must still be addressed, and support for youth advocacy and initiatives is crucial. By fostering strategic collaborations, sharing success stories, and including today’s youth in decision-making processes, we can build a robust and vibrant society rooted in environmental justice—a vision that resonates with communities across the state.
Liv Rollinger is Groundwork’s Climate & Clean Energy Specialist.