My name is Donele Wilkins and I am the founder and happen to be the CEO of the Green Door Initiative, lifelong Detroiter, resident, and lifelong advocate around environmental justice. Been doing that work for well over 25 years or so. Committed to ensuring that everyone lives a life that honors the environment, that honors who they are as human beings and have access to clean air, safe drinking water, and safe places to roam, educate, worship and all those things. That’s who I am.
Interviewer: Thank you. We’re going to be talking a little bit about water security today. Can you tell me a little bit about what that means to you?
Donele: First of all, I want to acknowledge that water is vital for every creature and human being. Without it, we’re not able to survive. It is an absolute necessity for life. That being said, when someone does not have access to something that requires them to take part in so that they can live and have a good quality of life, that represents insecurity, and that represents the dishonor for life.
Interviewer: In the Detroit context, what are some of the major issues that are around water that you’re focused on?
Donele: Well, I’m especially focused on having access to clean, healthy, drinkable water, usable water, number one. Also, very much interested in ensuring that residents in Detroit also have the privilege and the pleasure of accessing water for recreation, and all the things that just requires and helps us be whole human beings. I celebrate and support that and work towards that in my work life and everyday life. Water in Detroit is huge. It has been a major conversation piece.
It’s been a struggle particularly for the underserved population. Those that are struggling economically to afford water. In my opinion, I don’t think that that really should be an issue, a struggle. I think as a society, as a community, we need to work to figure out ways that people can have the very basic things to live out a decent life.
Interviewer: I want to take advantage of your long history of working on this area. Maybe I wonder if you know, over the next few minutes, we could go over how this entire situation unfolded because our problems related to water didn’t just materialize just like that. Could you maybe in your own words, starting from the beginning or from wherever that you think is best to start. Try to contextualize and put all of this in context for us.
Donele: Sure. I think the water crisis in Detroit really begins with an inhumane approach to public policy and access to resources. I think there is a huge gap between those who make decisions, whether elected or appointed, and those that have to live with the decisions that folks who are in decision making roles make. I want to start there because I think that’s the context.
I think that the way that our municipality has been set up around water, the decision makers at the Water Commission Board, and now the Great Lakes Authority. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but I believe that there was a mixture of corruption that was pretty much promoted by greed. The way that the system was set up, is separate from sort of the way that decisions typically are made at the city where the city council has a lot of authority, the mayor has authority, and those decisions take place.
Well, with the way that the decision-making process and policies around water have been set up in the city of Detroit, it removes accountability, if you will, particularly for people who’ve been elected by the voter, the residents in the city. When they’re not engaged in the decision-making process, there’s a failure to be accountable. That being said, I just believe that it got out of control and oversight just became a minimal process in the city of Detroit and ultimately, we are where we are today.
We have seen some folks who have been given the authority and responsibility around decision making, pay for it through the legal process and that’s helpful and hopeful. The reality is we’re so far away from what’s supposed to be, I don’t know, an appreciable norm for folks in our community around access and affordability where waters concern that finding our way to what’s considered humane has been a difficult process.
Then I need to also put in place this conversation around the battle over who controls Detroit Water Sewerage. You have more than 88 communities or beyond that exist and connect to the Detroit Water Sewerage. There’s always been division around authority and power when it comes to decision making. Detroit versus everyone else, Detroit versus the other communities. Not even county-wise, just Detroit versus everyone.
That’s always been a threat that Detroiters have acknowledged and recognized and always wanted to maintain their role in overseeing and providing the primary oversight when it comes to water usage. Now that that is not the case, given that we now have the Great Lakes Water Authority, I think that that diminishes even more the ability for Detroiters to benefit if you will, from a humane and righteous approach to access to quality water. It’s just a combination and real convoluted kind of process.
I really want to give credit to the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization with the people and other organizations who stepped up in this space of leadership to ensuring that the most vulnerable of our community has access to water, I mean the basics, the thriving. If not for them, we wouldn’t even be this far in terms of ensuring that the city and others have set aside certain resources that will be made available, though that’s not enough. That will be made available to the most vulnerable.
I think that’s key in terms of how to make certain that decision-makers really listen and adhere to. Regular citizens have to step up. They have to make certain that their voices are heard. They have to understand that they do have power, and they really need to work to make that happen.
Interviewer: What you said echoes a lot of the historical record because in so many ways, Detroit is unique, and the Waters Resources Department is almost like a crown jewel. Not a lot of cities have, municipal governments have. Dana Kornberg’s work, for instance, goes over the long history of this tussle between, like you said, Detroit versus everyone, the suburbs on the outside and Detroit for decades. Partly fueled by racism let’s be honest.
Donele: Yes. That was an assumption. Let’sclear about that.
Interviewer: You also mentioned corruption. Some of the people we’ve interviewed, for instance, also talked about how being behind on water bills was not necessarily new for a lot of people. But in the past, it was almost okay to be behind on your water bills. The DWST didn’t necessarily come after you. That changed. Could you talk a little bit about this change both in terms of thinking about the centrality of water and water bills and the way that DWST has also changed perhaps?
Because I can see arguments on both sides, for corruption and for better accountability, but again your insight will probably be very helpful.
Donele: I agree. I mean, water is– It’s not fair to consider water to be free. There’s an infrastructure that has to be maintained although many they argue that there hasn’t been a consistent approach. Even if we clean the water and make it suitable for consumption and use, that costs. Yes, everyone should have a way to pay for that resource getting into their homes and taking full advantage of that. No argument there.
When you have had a long-standing, maybe not written policy, but a long-standing policy you set a precedent for, and to cut that off without any warning, without any time for transitioning in a way that would allow folk to get a handle on it without being robbed of the benefit of use. I think there’s an issue of leadership and how one handles that kind of concern. Yes, the city needs the resources, absolutely.
How do you do that in a humane responsible way so that we can assure that everyone has access to something that we are, as human beings, depend on in terms of our life, the quality of life? I have no qualms with anyone that says, “Well, it’s not free, water isn’t free.” I do have problems with how you unravel the precedent set by decades of policies that allow for this and then cold turkey say, “That’s it. You’re done,” without consideration for what that may mean to a household or an individual.
Bankruptcy and Emergency Management
Interviewer: Can you talk us through– From my knowledge, most of the water shortage really started in earnest after those 2005 or so, maybe a little later. Could you talk us through your recollection of this entire process? Bankruptcy, emergency management, and then water shutoffs.
Donele: This idea that Detroit voters and residents no longer have the privilege of making decisions regarding who gets to manage or oversee the city and decision-making process is just a real threat to humanity, particularly when it comes to this access to water.
When this process of emergency managers popped up in designated black communities across the state, not just places where there may have appeared to be some struggle with managing city systems and resources because they’re predominantly white communities that also had the same kind of issues, but the decisions–
Interviewer: You were telling us about emergency management, and the idea that black communities cannot be trusted to take care of themselves.
Donele Wilkins: Yes. That was a lie from the PAL, basically, but it was a way, strategically, to take over resources in municipalities, and to even propagate this discourse that created even more distrust and gaps between the suburbs and the city, especially as the suburbs are receiving rate hikes and blaming Detroiters for those rate hikes. It was justifiable in their minds to be able to over, if you will, the decisions around water use in the city and in the region. It worked for them.
The problem with all of this is that we found our cities going deeper into debt. The city of Detroit was no different, with this proposed leadership, better form of emergency intervention around leadership at the municipality level. It didn’t work out to benefit the city. It just set up this falseness that it was time for a change. Even when emergency management was no longer in existence at the city of Detroit, it was time to actually relieve black folks of that responsibility.
Now we have leadership that looks very different from the majority population in the city. Systemic racism has deep roots in places like Detroit. This is a result of that systemic racism.
Interviewer: How did you first find out about the water shut offs occurring at the scale that it was? Can you think back and reflect about that?
Donele: I would give credit to people like Marian Kramer and — what’s her name? Her partner in crime, if you will — I can’t think of her name at the moment. It’ll come back.
Donele: Not even Charity. It was Marian Kramer and — I can’t believe I can’t think of this woman’s name. It’ll come back to me in a minute. They were the first. They headed up the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization.
Interviewer: Maureen Taylor?
Donele: Maureen Taylor. Forgive me, Maureen, if you ever see this piece. Maureen Taylor, the voice and the conscience for the poor and underserved in the city, began to really speak out loud about these issues, and the fact that there was this crisis when it comes to access to water and affordability. Others followed, and they’ve done great work. They’ve picked up the baton, and I know all of them; Lila, and I knew Charity, and everyone.
It’s a pleasure to know the We the People leadership and that kind of stuff, and the work that they’d taken on as a result of this, but it’s been a long time coming. It’s because of the righteous fight for folks who couldn’t necessarily fight for themselves or have access to decision makers in the way that Marian and Maureen have had as a result of their long standing in the community when it comes to justice and advocacy. Yes, that’s how I first heard about it.
I remember attending a meeting at — I think its Central United Methodist Church downtown under the leadership of Pastor Ed Rowe. That’s where the Michigan Welfare Rights folks were housed and would hold certain meetings and inform people what was going on.
Because I’ve been doing environmental justice work since the early 90’s, it was natural for me to be aligned with some of the things they were doing, to see what kind of technical ability, particularly when it comes to quality of water and that kind of thing, that would aid in the conversations, that would ultimately lend itself to coming up with some remedies, demanding remedies for people who were struggling. That was early on, I would say, predating 2005. Marian and Maureen have been around a long time. They really created the foundation that others are able to stand on.
Interviewer: Then in 2013 was when it went well beyond 15,000 households, and then since then the numbers have declined, because now we’re down to 5,000, is the expected; 5600, but they’re still thousands. Were you shocked, were you surprised? How did you react?
Donele: During the 2013 when things really escalated?
Donele: I really hate to say this, but I can’t say that I was shocked. I had been doing environmental justice work for many years, and this was to be expected, unfortunately. The unwillingness on the part of the city and decision makers to consider these huge impacts in the city, that may have been even more of a disappointment and a shock to me.
We’re all human beings. There are children, these are babies, there are the elderly, there’s the disabled, there’s poverty, there’s all these issues. Where are we as a city when it comes to our most vulnerable? What are our opportunities to meet the needs of those folks?
Then when you add this idea of a shrinking city, and that was the conversation taking place during that time is, “Well, this was the city at one point and its height in the ‘50s at nearly 2 million people. When this crisis hit, we’re now down to 900,000. Today, we’re under 600,000, if not less than that.”
The way that sometimes my mind works, I call it healthy paranoia, like, “Man, that worked to get people to leave the city.” What a nice way to cleanly say, “Well, we’re just going to be restrictive with whole natural resources and resources in a way that would allow you to live in a decent way. Let’s withhold those. Let’s shut down some of those pipes and access in certain parts of the city. Let’s see if we can get some people who we wouldn’t mind leaving the city leave, so we can start a fresh and look like we’ve saved — we come in as saviors and we’re ready now to make Detroit a world-class place.”
That means that those that have been traditionally indigenous to this community would not enjoy those benefits that will come along at some point in the city. Shocked? No. Disappointed? Yes.
I almost believe that remedies will begin to come forward because they won’t have to deal with the folks who they’ve had to deal with, the undesirable people they would like not to be in the city of Detroit, if they could help it.
Interviewer: You called it paranoia, but there were plans to actually, gradually move populations out of particular neighborhoods. There are plans. They’re getting a lot of pushback, and rightly so, but neighborhoods like Delray, for instance, not necessarily connected with water issues, but there are neighborhood plans to reshape neighborhoods to have that lower footprint.
Interviewer: Another theory that I’ve heard, I’m not sure if it’s a conspiracy theory or not, but it connects really what’s happening in Detroit, it’s also happening in Flint. The argument that I’ve been hearing is that part of the goal for removing Flint from the Detroit water supply, in the beginning, was to really make DWSD really financially unstable to move it towards emergency management. You’ve heard that.
Donele: Yes, I believe that. I certainly do. It was a good way, “Let’s starve Detroit.” Flint took care of their water bills. They were a large customer. I believe there was a quote during the investigation process, “Who’s responsible for what happened in Flint?” There is a quote from an official, who basically as they were considering the disconnect and learning about, as a result of that disconnect, the impacts of that disconnect, the statement was made. “Well, who would care about the risk and the fall-off that occurs in Flint? No one would care about that.”
The collateral damage around it, as far as they were concerned, wasn’t worth saving the 12,000 children and others who were impacted and disconnected from the city of Detroit’s, the Detroit River resource.
That being said, one of my biggest concerns around all of this has been, “Why wasn’t the Flint River and the resources near Flint usable?” No one is talking about industry’s role in making a resource like the Flint River unusable. No one’s talking about General Motors and the family under the umbrella of General Motors, and its contribution. Now we’re talking about it in terms of this connection to PFOS and that kind of thing, but no one has really raised.
The only time we heard about industry’s role in this, is when they noticed that the materials, they needed to build their automobiles and their vehicles were rusting, and that there was a real probability that that was a result of the disconnection process. They were able to win some kind of waiver with the state, with the governor, so they can reconnect in a way that will protect their resources. Now, that happened, but there was nothing to ensure, at that time, that the residents and the populations depending on that water source, would also be protected.
That’s is something that I really want to raise in this conversation. I think, given the work that I’ve done around environmental justice and the accountability that industry has, corporations have to the quality of life when it comes to natural resources and access to the ability to drink healthy, safe, clean water, we have to talk about that.
Interviewer: To a lot of people outside Michigan, or even maybe outside certain circles in Detroit, this seems like conspiracy talk, but you believe it. I believe that you have strong reasons to believe this. Why do you believe it? Could you explain that?
Donele: I want to talk again, I’ll go back to policy, public policy. In Detroit alone, there are 400 corporations that have the legal authority to discharge into the Detroit River. The Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, the decisions, the delegated responsibilities at the state level allows that. There are industrial raising up, and it’s a hazardous waste. But when there is not enough enforcement and folks coming out checking on systems and what have you, who is to say that even hazardous materials are not also released into these systems?
We know that today, because we’re experiencing PFOS, we experienced Flint around the state and this country. Yes, there is some real substantial reasons and basis for my concerns and statement about culpability.
Until the Environmental Protection Agency, the new — I appreciate the new leadership of our current governor. I really hope that she continues on this process of just checking in on DEQ — or the new name EGLE, I’m sorry — that we can begin to protect these natural resources, which in the very initial stages of protecting natural resources, you’re protecting public health.
In order to do that, you have to hold folks accountable, and you have to do that by ensuring enforcement of laws that are already on the books, not new ones; laws that are already on the book, and placing the resources in the right places, so that there’s proper enforcement and assurance that those resources are protected, so that we’re not struggling also with the fact that we could be consuming some bad water.
For those of us who may think that what happened in Flint we can avoid, I think that’s the falsest of security, and I really do think even the current conversations around water quality and whatever, I think we need to be much more diligent in ensuring that the quality of water is what it should be.
Donele’s Advocacy Work
Interviewer: Thank you. I appreciate that, because a lot of people talk about lack of trust, but we don’t necessarily try to explain why a lack of trust is there. How does it translate, spring from these lived experiences? I appreciate you explaining that. Tell me a little bit about your long history of work. More than one person has told me, “Donele is the mother of the environmental justice group in Detroit.”
Donele: Don’t say that. That makes me feel really old.
Interviewer: Tell me a little bit about your work and how it’s evolved over the past few years.
Donele: Well, the work? It wasn’t necessarily something I set out to do, it found me. I like to say I was a born advocate. There’s just something really basic when it comes to just having our needs met as human beings, that I find deplorable when we’re not able to do that because of public policy, and racism, and this idea that some people are more valuable than others.
It found me, because in my background when it found me, I was doing work around worker health and safety. I had a special interest when it comes to black workers, because they typically work in the least-paid kind of jobs, most dangerous jobs, and rarely get to enjoy retirement. When they retire, they’re struck with all kinds of sicknesses and illnesses, and chronic disease, and really didn’t live too long after retirement. That was a motivator for me.
Doing the work that I was doing back in the late ’80s, someone learned about what I was doing. I was a real youngster then, and like young people, taking on something bigger than themselves. It was how I decided I wanted to live my life. Someone touched me out of the University of Michigan, to be honest. I would be remissive if I do not mention Dr. Bunyan Bryant, mentor and my hero; the real godfather for environmental justice in the nation, unsung hero in a lot of ways.
Anyway, he led his effort to pull together a national conference, summit if you will, on environmental justice, that was composed of people of color, underserved, and poor people across this country. They covered the first People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. He asked if I would participate in that conference in Washington, DC. I did it, and it changed my life.
While the work around workplace health safety is critical and important, I justified taking on the EJ Movement and leaving that a little bit behind, by the fact that the labor movement was there for the workforce. If I could get people of color, and black folks especially, get more involved in health and safety committees and that kind of stuff, that infrastructure would help to take care of that.
In the meantime, the same people that I was fighting for, with regard in advocating for in the workplace, really are the same people who are the underdog when it comes to environmental protection. At the time I got involved, it was very interesting. Working for an entity that was focused on workplace, and workers, and unions, that the conversation at that time was building the incinerator.
I had something right in my face that created an opportunity for really looking at my life and my role, and what I would be doing going forward. That moment passed me by, because I had very little information about environmental issues. My eyes were, when I attended the 1991 conference that the United Church of Christ commissioned for racial justice, led and spearheaded with folks like Dr. Bunyan Bryant, I get there and it’s too late.
By the time we return to get involved necessarily in the incinerator, until recently, we’ve been fighting that fight for decades to shut it down, to make it more accountable and all that. That comes with that.
I did realize that I needed to spend time, I needed to spend my life advocating for folks like myself. Here’s the real interesting deal. For every plant, and every factory that I was fighting with workers to improve, they were conspicuously located in communities that look like me, in neighborhoods that look like me.
The light bulb went on, and it was like, “Hey, wait a minute. Who’s speaking for the people who breathe, what comes out of the smokestacks, who fish and eat fish that’s filled with contaminants and toxins because of dirty water? Who’s speaking for the asthmatic child, and the lead-poison child, and the elderly and disabled folks?” Who’s doing that?
It was a real gap in terms of leadership, particularly from the ground up, and so my charge, my purpose, was to help lead an effort that would make environmental justice a household phrase, confront decision makers at every level. And I did, in that alone. At the local level, city council, mayor’s, the state level, governors and decision leaders, at the national federal level, the White House, and wherever we needed to bring a voice from the disadvantaged and what have you; that was my job.
I was pleased to do that. I started along with a couple people in my living room, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. I was the founding director of that organization and led it for 15 years. The job that we set out to do was done. We set out to make it a household phrase. Now everybody is talking about environmental justice in our city at every level in this state, everyone talks about environmental justice.
Irony, in our early days of doing this work, was that we took on a fight that emanated out of Flint, happened to be the birthplace and home of Dr. Bunyan Bryant. There was an issue where another incinerator was being built to manage leaded construction debris. Flint basically begin to recognize that that could be a problem if that facility was built, and the largest customer that they would have would be Detroit. It was how I cut my teeth on my first advocacy effort, working with the Flint Chapter of the NAACP, and whatever back then.
I found it really interesting that decades later, here we are, still talking about lead. Flint still challenge with it, from a different front. That’s how I got started. I’m happy to see the new leadership and folks that have really taken the baton, and really have taken this work to even a greater level.
Green Door Initiative
Interviewer: Can you tell me a little bit about Green Door Initiative, and how did this whole thing start, and some of the things that you guys are doing right now?
Donele: Sure. The Green Door Initiative was established in 2010, really following my exit from Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. July 2010, we decided that there was some additional work that remained to be done around environmental justice, particularly when it comes to workforce development, youth leadership development, and a continuation of public policy advocacy around environmental health, particularly when it comes to community-based participatory research. Those three areas.
The mission of the Green Door Initiative is to ensure that everyone has the ability to live out and promote a sustainable lifestyle. What does that mean? We look at workforce development as key. Somebody has to clean it up. Someone has to maintain. Someone has to rebuild. Someone has to ensure protection.
When it comes to the infrastructure in our communities, where environmental justice plays a role is that, the most vulnerable tend to bear the greatest burden of decisions around the environment and how to protect it, and rarely gets to enjoy benefits. Economic justice is just as important as environmental justice; they’re twins. When we talk about sustainability, we’re talking about environment, we’re talking about economics, social justice. There are three prongs to sustainability.
That was a deliberate approach that we do initiative to less work to ensure that people in our community have access to training in the environmental sector, and let’s mash them with employers and/or assist in any way possible, for them to become their own employers, become heroes in the community when it comes to environmental protection.
We launched our first job training program, environmental careers training program in 2011, with funding from the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences. At the time, the program was called the Minority Worker Training Program, and it created especially for those bearing the burden and are reaping the benefits of cleanup and rebuilding their communities. Too often, we’ve seen folks that are indigenous to communities like Detroit, sit on the sideline and watch others come in from other places, and have jobs and they’re doing their work that people in this community have not really had the privilege of doing. That’s how we set out to do the work around environmental human resources, if you will.
Our motto for that particular program is, we restore hope for people who are providing help to the planet. We intentionally go recruit folks who would have structural barriers to employment, because I’m really excited about disproving this discourse that people in our communities are not ready for work, they get work. I just think that’s not true. We’ve been–
Interviewer: You were talking about the work at Green Door?
Donele: Yes. I shared about our environmental careers training program and since our reception, we’ve trained over 200 individuals. We’ve received awards and recognition for our placement rate in the industry which is around 94%. We’re excited about even the number of individuals that have started their own companies and are now profits as a result of our training. They get certified and licensed in a variety of entities that helps them become even more competitive in the industries. We are excited about that. The other work that we do has to do with ensuring a healthy transition of leadership when it comes to environmental justice leadership in our community and brings us to this idea of deep leadership immersion and training among young people.
It’s always been core to our work and our values that we make opportunities available for young people in our community. One to introduce them to the industry, you rarely see people of color. Young African Americans in particular employed in the industry and they’re rarely even introduced to it. We’ve had the privilege of being a host site over several years when it comes to summer employment and introduce the young people in our community to the industry.
In most recently, we’ve received direct resources from the department of natural resources through their summer youth employment program. We hire young people every summer about 20 to 25 of them, 16 and 19-year-olds and they have a pretty extensive summer doing environmental projects. They just do science work that includes water collection. We actually did a project in Flint with job course students and taught them how-to put-on filters and be a resource in their community when the whole issue hit around their water quality.
We do beach monitoring Detroit; Belle Isle Beach is one of those beaches you never hear about being shut down for any kind of issues which may lure someone into a false sense of security and think that things are well. While there are no laws that require that beaches are shut down because of E. Coli or anything else. The resources where you find suburban beaches being shut down is because citizens have really organized and made that a policy of great value in their communities. It’s not really the same in Detroit and so we train young people on how to actually take water samples, we work with entities to be able to review those samples, and teach young people how to do public service announcements and other things so that they can alert the public about the health and wellbeing of our only public access beach.
We also train them on a number of other things around air quality, Brown fill sites, and just give them a gamut they learn about invasive species. We’ve taken them on several adventures if you will, and several state parks and others where they’ve actually had the opportunities to remove phragmites and whatever from a particular place and or teach them some basic construction skills so they can make repairs on cabins and picnic tables, and things like that.
They also get trained on issues around hazmat and pollution and public policy. As a result of that work, we were able to go after some resources with the Michigan Humanities Council. They have a foundation that just started a project or call it the Third Coast Conversations. Through a partnership with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, we were encouraged to go after that resource, and we are fulfilling the commitment to that grant right now. The unique approach we’ve taken with the conversations is that we would invest in young people and teach them how to become facilitators so they can manage these conversations and practice these conversations across the city.
They function as co-facilitators with experts in the arena or the area. This is just like I said sort of a deep immersion into leadership development and providing some real content and structure that would help them better understand what they are up against. We also have a project- through that work, we call that our code green project champions on the Detroit’s environment project.
Under that umbrella, we have a little project around climate change called Cold C-O-L-D. That project– Oh, shoot. Climate organizers leading Detroit. That project really was developed- I had to give credit to my son who’s involved as a young person in climate change work internationally, as well as nationally. He thought it would be really cool to create something that would help young people in our community begin to engage in the international conversations around climate and bring an urban voice to that stage. We collaborated and came up with a process around Cold and the goal is to get young people to attend the conference or parties, meetings that happen all over the world.
There’s nothing new about young people being involved in the conversation. Young people have been involved for decades, but urban youth have not. We really want to make certain that we are added to that conversation. The Cold project is set up for that. Our first attempt to get a group of young people to attend a meeting was in Paris during the Paris accord, but because of the terrorist activities that took place, the parents who did give us permission to take their young people was like, “I don’t think so.” We regrouped and put that on hold, but that is something that we’re still, we consider very vital.
This whole water piece is critical to climate change, and one of the reasons that we even do the Cold Green- my opinion is that so that we can have a voice in the international joint commission work that takes place on the great lakes. It’s still kind of connected and I’m looking forward to that, that really growing and taking root. We do also public policy work. We train folks, we partnered with the University of Michigan, and happy to train citizens around policy and how it works. I’ve been doing that for a long time.
In a community based participatory research, that’s one reason I’m connected to Curist at their invitation. I’ve been a long-time contributor to the body of work when it comes to community-based participatory research. I’m one of those people who really believe that researchers and academicians should not be dictating when it comes to what kind of research takes place and that they’re really was core to mindset or values around this is that everyone gets to decide what the priorities are going to be around research, ensure efficacy that honors everyone’s health and wellbeing in the process. We don’t want any more Tuskegee’s and Baltimore’s or whatever. Community-based participatory research is really a value that I hold up high.
Now, there are new iterations of that, community-led research and others are really valued at processes of trying to stay current and relevant when it comes to that to ensure that people in our communities are not taken advantage of. Of course, finally, I think our co-work around public health in ensuring that folks of color and poor people have protection when it comes to exposure to environmental health issues like air pollution and work quality and that kind of thing. I do a lot of work. Locally, when I do my score, my work at the national level when it comes to that kind of work.
Interviewer: You mentioned your- especially your youth purpose works, and I wonder if the lead contamination in the public school’s tap system, water system is something that you are taking on.
Donele: Well, it’s funny because in my walk with the previous organization, that was an issue then. With Detroit Public Schools, absolutely. It has been an issue, a long history. If you Google the issue of water drinking fountain issues in the city of Detroit, that will pop up in the ’90s. Doing by the name of Randall Raymond who was an educator with Detroit Public Schools, superior head at a research project around what he believed was an issue of neglect and abuse when it came to the children in Detroit particularly those who were attending Detroit Public Schools and the buildings that they had to be educated in. His peer headed this lead research, the lead exposure research. If you Google his name that project should come up. As a result of that-
It happens sometimes. As a result of his work, he got fired. He was an educator at Cass Tech. People ignored the results of that study. Thousands of children– He believed lead poison just by coming at school. I remember working on a project at Cass Tech, the old Cass Tech building, the, I think, Mackenzie High School, several old buildings that are no longer in existence where water drinking fountains were compromised. Working with young people at that time to get them to take on some of the leadership role in policy making their issues known to policymakers, the board of education, and that kind of thing.
That being said, I’m glad to see that Vitti, the new and the current superintendent, has taken initiative to at least shut the system down, although I think it’s deplorable that children have to- they can’t rely on that resource coming into their buildings healthily. I think something needs to be done. Have we taken it on? Not. Now, we just don’t have the capacity to take it on, but I certainly support anybody that’s taken it on.
The young people in our program, we try to inform them and provide them with the basic data and information that helps them articulate some of those concerns and create ultimately some leadership within the school buildings that relate our young people.
Interviewer: What is going on that front? Now, that I think about it, other than knowing that they shut the water down, I can’t recall anything.
Donele: I’m not sure if anything else. I was talking to one of our students, so you do not get to meet, he’s been having some challenges, health challenges. He happened to be a student at Cass Tech. We were talking about; he really wants to take on some leadership role around Bella beach clean-ups project. We were really talking about that, but then he said, “You know, Ms. Donele, we have a lot going on in our school building.” The biggest one is the fact that we can’t drink out of the water fountain.” That’s a relatively new building. This is not an old building.
That being said, this goes back to our infrastructure, the municipality infrastructures and whatever, I will suspect that they’re under the wire or just under the radar when it comes to how to work this situation out because this is bigger than the school district. At least he took a bold step and at least acknowledging it upfront, making it known once he presumably learned about the situation and providing cleaner water, but that’s something we need to follow-up on I believe. Maybe with this water conversation piece and an assignment that we can make available to our team of young people.
Interviewer: When you’re talking about affordabilities, security, contamination, where do you see this headed toward?
Donele: I see that the whole water issue will be the number one social equity issue in our time in the coming years. Complicated by a climate and crisis around a really fragile infrastructure and the legal inappropriate access that industry have to the cleanest resource in the world when it comes to water, the great lakes, there’s going to be a convergence. I can’t recall the name of this poem that speaks to the fact that when they messed with this certain population, people ignored it and said, “Well, that’s them and it’s not me.”
I think that where we are. A lot of people were thinking, “Those lowly Detroit, black folks or whatever, those lowly fluent black people. That’s not us.” I think in a lot of ways we’re seen as the canary in the mine andwe’re not the only ones. If we don’t get in front of those, we’re going to see a huge problem in our region, in our state, and even in the mid-West. It’s not an issue as only experience by folks in our communities and in this area. This is an international crisis. Water is the number one topic that we have to get, wrestle within, and address.
Where is it going? I’m a hopeful person that’s why I’m in this industry and this work, anyway. You had to be crazy. You had to be filled with hope like you know what is worth fighting for. I simply believe there a lot of folks that think like me, that I have the privilege of working with, they can be connected to, who also believe it’s worth fighting for. On our watch, we’re going to do that. For myself, I can imagine this critical issue not being something I tackle on my watch.
Interviewer: What gives you that best hope?
Donele: Well, I have to tell you that I am a believer of Jesus Christ, first and foremost. How I worship and what I believe that be born to do, that’s my hope. I have an assignment and I’m on this assignment and I’m going to maintain the assignment and do my best. I happened to believe that I serve an all-knowing God, our powerful God and in His imminent wisdom He decided that I should be a part of this work and if he did, he have to have some incline on what the future looks like because His assigns is best [laughs] to do it. That is what gives me hope. And as I look into my little four-year-old granddaughter space, she deserves for me to be doing what I was born to do. As she observes me and her dad who’s observed me as he grew up, then she has some inkling of what she may be required to do in her lifetime as well.
Interviewer: What can we do go forward? We started this conversation today. We talked about responsibility. We talked about accountability. We talked about the clout that a lot of corrupt regulators as well as corporations have. When faced with these odds, a lot of people get intimidated, confused. What can we do? Whether it’s ordinary people or whether it’s community organizers or community members, how can we hold all these different entities accountable?
Donele: I think the project that you’ve undertaken is a good way to begin a conversation with folks who may not see themselves in the work or responsible for moving this work along. Everyone is all hands-on deck kind of urgency that everyone needs to take hold of. In their own way, understand what they can bring to it to bring some kind of remedy to this problem.
As human beings, we basically, we all need to be able to drink clean and healthy water. There’s an urgency for everyone. That being said, there I believe, key folks absent from the movement. I think there’s a greater role the academics can play. I think there’s a greater role that folks that are not African American or Latino and Asian can get in and have their voices heard, to support an agenda that uplifts us all. It’s one thing to hear from me. In fact, people would expect it.
It’s another thing to hear from folks who you don’t expect to promote this idea that everyone is entitled to enjoy a healthy environment, a healthy Earth. I know this sounds corny, but I believe that is all of our problem. I often I’m grateful that of late, the healthcare industry has been a little bit more involved in environmental justice work. They’ve been a missing element in public health, as an industry has been a missing voice and a missing element in this topic and in this conversation.
The more we become knowledgeable about how exposures and appropriate environmental exposures impact health outcome, that it gets beyond behavior, and population behavior, and becomes one that acknowledges that or something beyond the ability to make a decision. There’s something going on, someone else is making decisions. If we don’t add a certain voice, like the healthcare community or health providers, or whatever you want to call them, people listen to them They’re credible voice. That’s an example of, in my opinion of being missing in action.
How do we align researchers’ stuff in a way that aids in informing public policy for instance, and not just a notch on a researcher, sort of was so that they can get tenure or something? How do we or published? How can we make these leaps to connect with the real world outside of the walls of academia and other places? That’s the key. I think concepts like cures at Wayne State University or the Urban Research Center at the University of Michigan and similar project across institutions, have to model something as possible helps to inform policy in a way that we all need to embrace.
Everyone has a role whether you’re grassroots, grass tops, organizers, wherever you are, you have a role in and step into the role. You have a voice, you have power, step into it. Don’t miss the opportunity to be a change agent. We all have that ability.
Interviewer: Actually, I have one last question though. The question was really about the– I asked you to think about a story of a person or an experience who has moved you or inspired you or maybe shocked you in some ways related to water?
Donele: Related to water?
Interviewer: Or environmental injustice in general.
Donele: Well, I made two observations. In the general, environmental justice general. There was a 10-year-old by the name of Xavier Joe who died in his mother’s arms because he could not breathe. The story at the time in the early 2000s, in Detroit was that, “Hey, the EMS trucks or whatever, didn’t make it to their house.” She didn’t have access to transportation. She could not get her child to a hospital in time. He came to his mom and said, “I can’t breathe.” That’s what she said in her driveway, holding him, hoping that somebody would help her get her baby to the hospital.
It was too late for Xavier. Xavier Joe’s life is so inspirational to me because I think it’s a shame that children have to die because they can’t breathe. Well, everybody was if they should outdo by the fact that EMT couldn’t get out there. I was outdone for the fact why is this child not able to breathe? That’s a conversation that rarely gets had, that really takes place.
The second piece and it has to do with children as well. There were 12,000 children poisoned in Flint. I have the image of this little boy that do not know his name, and his mom. That is a little PowerPoint slide that I have. She’s trying to wipe what appears to be a rash off of his face and he was clearly very uncomfortable. They believe it was a result of using the water in Flint. His body was covered in this rash.
I said, “Think about these two little ones.” I’m motivated to help make that a different kind of story for others because children didn’t decide what zip code two people wanted to. Children didn’t decide what ethnicity to be born into. Children didn’t decide what neighborhood to be born into. They didn’t make any of those kinds of decisions, but they suffer greatly. They don’t get to vote. They don’t have a say, but they certainly bear the burdens.
I’m motivated to make certain that there is a voice for them. There’s someone’s speaking on their behalf. There’s someone standing up for what we believe is right. Every child deserves to breathe clean air. Every child deserves to drink clean and healthy water, play on playground free from contamination soil and land, it takes on playground equipment. Every child deserves to go to a school building free from pollution and contaminants that hinder their ability to learn. These are the basics and I’m motivated by that.
Interviewer: Thank you.