EMEAC | Transformation in Detroit

Image Credit: Tory Byrne

Written & contributed by Adrienne Maree Brown


Over the past two years of living in Detroit I have fallen in love with, and made a deep commitment to, an organization I want the transformative change community to know about. The group is called East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC), a nearly 50-year-old environmental institution which in recent years has been growing into environmental justice. What I noticed through being in collaborative spaces with EMEAC was that something was different about this organization. At the time, I was the outgoing executive director of The Ruckus Society, and was feeling the depth of work we had done there, as well as our work with literally hundreds of groups around the country in a variety of ways through the US Social Forum, I was trying to figure out: What is the difference in transformative organizations?

After the forum I joined the EMEAC team, and have gotten to see the model from the inside. The first level of practices I noticed were ones they seemed to do so naturally they took it for granted–composting, recycling, centering the office around the kitchen space, eating at each meeting, and comprehensive healthcare. These were ways the organization was living its values. The more I work, the more transformative practice I see. From a deep commitment to spiritual and physical health, to shared practices such as principles and yoga and collaboration, to the continued belief that the change we seek is within us and within our communities, EMEAC is incredibly transformative.

I sat down with Executive Director Diana Copeland, Policy Coordinator Alisha Deen-Steindler, Associate Director Lottie Spady, and Stand Up Speak Out Youth Coordinator William Copeland to learn more about how they understand the transformative work of EMEAC:

Why is EMEAC a transformative organization, in your opinion?

Lottie Spady (LS), Associate Director: Because we want to make sure that the values that we talk about are evident in the way that we conduct ourselves.

Diana Copeland (DC), Executive Director: When I came to EMEAC almost 6 years ago, I started to shape the programming by holding a series of community and youth leadership workshops. In each workshop there was a vision session for what is the greatest challenge in Detroit and a session on what is your solution to that challenge. Education was on top of everyone’s list, then access to media skills, then environmental pollution–particularly air quality and its link to missed opportunities of all kinds for children (including missed school days). From that process we moved into our focus tracks–which included media, environmental education, and air quality. Because of the emphasis on the education crisis, we do approach all our work from an education standpoint. This is a start to letting the people first speak for themselves and then finding a way to let your organization support work that is already going on or support what is needed.

Alisha Deen-Steindler (AD), Policy Coordinator: The organization not only lives and breathes environmental justice principles and practices, but is in touch with the most cutting edge technology, communications systems, and movement building trainings in the country–on par with the incredible exposure I got living in the Bay Area. After living and working on social justice in Miami, Florida; Eugene, Oregon; Oakland, California; and Philadelphia, Pennslyvania, I never would have guessed that Detroit, Michigan was a destination for an EJ policy advocate [who was] looking for an amazing, progressive nonprofit to a be part of. I am so glad I was wrong.

DC: Even though I think we have been moving in an organic and transformative way in the past five years, I think EMEAC is a transformative organization now because of the way the organization is currently structured. I really began to feel that we were a truly transformative organization during the social forum (Note: EMEAC was one of the five local anchor organizations for the US Social Forum).  Through the stress of anchoring the organization we really tried to take care of each other and the volunteers–by offering yoga to our organization and members. We also really focused on the people of Detroit and the work already happening by coordinating the work projects to connect people coming in for the forum to projects around the city with community members so participants and the community could really see the impact of the forum.

To recover from the social forum, we had a discussion about what we needed as an organization to sustain [ourselves]. We talked about how we needed trust and autonomy in our programs, proper board support, and ways to easily take care of ourselves–like continuing the yoga program. And we were able to get a group discount at the ‘Y’ with the organization kicking in.

Image courtesy of EMEAC

What is EMEAC’s vision for change?

William Copeland, SUSO Youth Coordinator: I think that multicultural environmental education is at the center of EMEAC’s vision for change. Naomi Klein talks about how true environmentalism, that really looks to address climate change and its global impact, must critique and restructure global capitalism and rebuild local institutions. EMEAC’s vision is based in a deep multiculturalism that is not just about assimilating into the American power system. Its environmental education is based in developing personal relationships with nature and at the same time building up local institutions that can decrease our dependence on exploitative capitalist systems and build a more sustainable community.

AD: EMEAC speaks loudly against injustice. EMEAC has positive solutions to offer. EMEAC has an alternative vision and an alternative way of doing things–of engaging. EMEAC knows how to rebuild and regrow in vacant places. We grow community gardens, we do oral history with seniors to maintain traditions, we write recipe books so we don’t lose the tradition and rich history of Detroit culture as we move toward a secure and equitable food system. EMEAC has a strong voice as advocates at Detroit City Council, with our Detroit delegates in the Michigan state house and with our representatives in Washington D.C.–putting forth economic, environmental solutions by proposing just policies that also create new jobs.

Why is EMEAC important in the context of Detroit?

LS: There is 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. Looking at our experience of 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.

WC: We’re important in the context of a professional organization that is building healthy and respectful relationships with elders and neighborhoods of Detroit. Too many professional organizations have a savior mentality or a gentrifying affect, or both. There are few examples of organizations that include, in their professionalism principles of community engagement, a deep respect for the grassroots institutions that already make up the city of Detroit.

DC: I have studied and organized around environmental racism and justice for 15 years. Detroit is an environmental justice community–but it is a community built around models of resistance. There is a need for organizing around environmental justice in Detroit and a real issue in the community to confronting injustices around the amount of pollution that so many residents are exposed to.

AD: When so many people have left Detroit, given up on Detroit, and let the bad economy beat them down, EMEAC has risen up during this time, seeing opportunity for reshaping areas like urban planning, city governing and the school system. Where there are voids, there is room to insert a fresh, new voice and an alternative way of doing things.

DC: There is a real need for healing and transformation in the city–and the residents are ready for it.

AD: At the USSF we found so many of the same social justice issues plaguing Detroit were also plaguing other cities and towns across the country. Detroit has been blasted the hardest by the economy, by job loss, by the high rate of foreclosures, by the major ramifications of the car industry.  It’s not just a headline for us; you can feel it in the streets when you look at all the vacant buildings and closed businesses. EMEAC has stepped up at a time when people need hope and a new vision. We have put our heads together, incorporating the voices of Detroit that most often get left out or pushed out, to offer a powerful voice full of innovative solutions and alternative approaches. The solutions we come up with here are powerful and can work in other cities and towns across the nation, facing similar problems on a smaller scale.

Image courtesy of EMEAC

What are EMEAC’s practices [anything that EMEAC does together which exemplify it’s values]?

AD: I could not have found a better match for this time of my life.  As a new mother, I attended many USSF workshops on childcare collectives and childcare as a form of activism. Now that I am an employee of EMEAC, I cannot get over the openness and flexibility of the organization and the general attitude of everyone I work with toward working mothers–and even toward my 3-year-old, who sometimes makes appearances in the office. EMEAC has a generous maternity leave policy in their employee manual and allows space for the mothers of young children to be part of the work and part of the movement without feeling excluded or critiqued.

DC: We practice collaboration, trust and accountability–but collaboration first. We have so much to learn from the creative people that are all around us. We lead collaborations around food justice and digital justice. With our collaborations we really think outside of the box–and expand our concept of “what is the environment”–and come at solutions from a very cross-issue orientation.

One collaboration I am very excited about right now is a program that addresses gender roles and climate change.  We are working with a bike collective called Fender Bender in schools to create safe space for women, while also promoting green and bike friendly lifestyles. We’re working with Fender Bender to deconstruct gender roles/stereotypes as they exist in the dominant culture so healthy relationships form that embrace a spectrum of gender/sexuality lifestyles and choices and allow people to define who they are instead of being defined by their perceived sex. We also work toward breaking down racial and class barriers and other forms of segregation that continue to hinder and profile our community with the belief we are not powerful, capable, and united people.

AD: EMEAC treats its employees respectfully and equitably–by offering comprehensive health insurance, life insurance, disability insurance, and a flexible spending account. There are opportunities to work from home, and we keep yoga mats in our office space.  There is a feeling of community when food is shared in our office kitchen, etc.

DC: We practice trust in the organization. Each program has its own level of autonomy so they are best able to respond to community need.

What role do principles play in the work EMEAC does?

DC: Principles are central to our collaborations and to being able to hold autonomy within the organization. Before we start working with any other organization, neighborhood group, or block club we go over the Environmental Justice Principles for working together and ask if they agree with the document and if they would feel comfortable holding themselves and us accountable to it while we work together.

AD: The principles can be found deep in every program. We do education and outreach on what Environmental Justice is within the school programs through Greener Schools, and to policymakers through Stand Up Speak Out. We work to lift up empowered communities in our movement building and community organizing work. We allow communities to tell their own environmental justice stories through our digital justice and ReMedia Program with their filmmaking projects. The principles can even be found in how we practice our lifestyles–through the food we cook, eat, and garden, and within our Food Justice Program.

The future is in Detroit, it is in every place. But for those of us who organize in the structure of organizations, we have to see the future in ourselves.

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