‘Making a way out of no way’: Meet four Black ...

‘Making a way out of no way’: Meet four Black women who helped birth Detroit’s environmental justice movement

That Black women lead this work is not by accident.

Girls at Belle Isle. Credit: Amy Sacka

With intelligence, beauty and ferocity, the Dora Milaje protect the fictional kingdom of Wakanda. In our reality, for the benefit of collective society, stand Alice Jennings, Donele Wilkins, Theresa Landrum and Monica Lewis-Patrick in the relentless fight to secure environmental justice for the people of Detroit. 

That Black women lead this work is not by accident.

Perhaps the concept of environmental justice began in 1987, with the first-ever national report on environmental racism, which found that Black people were disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. A twenty-year follow-up to that study revealed that Detroit is among cities with the highest proportion of people of color hosting environmental hazards compared with communities that don’t host those hazards. Key environmental justice struggles in Detroit involve utility shutoffs, air pollution, incinerators, illegal dumping, lead and surface and drinking water pollution.

Planet Detroit spoke with four women who have led the movement since its inception. 

A simple invitation to engage

In 1991, Donele Wilkins was a twenty-something labor organizer devising new pathways for worker health and safety when Dr. Bunyan Bryant invited her to participate in the first-ever People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit to be held in Washington D.C.

The 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, a seminal document that continues to steer the environmental justice movement to this day, were adopted on October 27, 1991, at that Summit, held in Washington, D.C. 

Wilkins was one of its authors.

Wilkins was drawn to the emerging field of environmental justice when she connected the labor work she was doing to work that could have saved her stepfather’s life, who died due to hazardous working conditions in an automotive factory.

Donele Wilkins. Photo by Joe Parnell.

“I was doing worker health and safety, back in the late eighties and nineties. In this, I was doing a lot of non-traditional work as a woman and African American, and I had an epiphany moment during my work there because I realized that Black folks weren’t really involved in the occupational health arena,” she told Planet Detroit.

Then her connection with Bryant changed the trajectory of her career.

“You’ll hear a lot of people honored as the godmother of this, the godfather of that,” says Wilkins, “but [Bryant] really is the godfather of environmental justice…Somehow he learned about me—I don’t know how. But he invited me to participate in that event.”

Dr. Bryant, now a Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, began his career at Michigan as the first African American faculty member in the School of Natural Resources and Environment. He, and other organizers for the first People of Color Environmental Summit, invited 300 delegates to participate. As word spread about the event, more than 600 people showed up.

Wilkins recounts double rooms being turned into quads to accommodate the excess lodging needs of attendees. She remembers that the energy of participants was high, engaged and palpable. They were excited to make the choices that would define the rules of engagement to find environmental justice solutions.

“The organization of the summit was critical!” Wilkins said. “There were three levels of engagement—and it was very powerful and very brave of the organizers to do this: You were either a delegate, participant, or observer.”

Delegates could only be from the grassroots community and people of color. They had full rights to engage at all levels. Participants could only be people of color. But, if they worked for the government or a mainstream environmental organization, they could not vote. They were limited to participating in discussions. Observers were white people. Not only could observers not vote, they could not speak.

“You know sometimes when people are pressed,they act like when white people talk, they’re the ones who know better,” Wilkins noted. “The organizers at this meeting told delegates, ‘NO. YOU know better. You’ve been experiencing this stuff; your people are the ones dying. Your families are the ones with asthma. You are the ones who know.”

Having accepted Bryant’s invitation to be a delegate at the summit, Wilkins found herself working with other delegates present to write the seventeen principles that guide the environmental justice movement to this day.

“And at the end, I’m sitting in the audience as the last speaker declared that we did our job. They said these principles are ratified. Then they charged us, saying, “Now, you go back to your communities, and YOU start a movement,” Wilkins said. “I took it seriously.”

She and other delegates from Detroit returned home from D.C. and got to work, founding Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ) in 1994.

“We came up with the name, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice because we wanted to make it clear we weren’t victims, we weren’t put upon, that we had information and we had access to information and tools we could [use to] address these issues…no one else’s vision will be imposed on us, or rather, no longer imposed on us,” Wilkins told researcher Mary Hennessey in 2008. 

Today, Wilkins is the founder and CEO of Detroit’s Green Door Initiative, a multifaceted nonprofit committed to workforce development in green jobs, improving environmental health, and empowering communities with information about climate change and environmental restoration, among other programs. 

On the front lines of the courtroom

There are multiple fronts on which environmental justice battles are fought, and Alice Jennings has put her decades of legal experience to use fighting them in the courtroom. Jennings’ philosophy and her years of work have shown her to be a lawyer for the people—one who uses her legal expertise to progress toward social justice and advance humanity.

When asked how she stays so encouraged in work that is both challenging and unceasing, Jennings said, “You just want to make the world a better place, to leave it better than what you found when you got here. And when you see things that are going to affect little babies being born today or five years from now, and then when you look at the fact that we have the existential threat of global warming facing us, it may all be lights out for everybody if we keep going down the road that we’re on. To not act, to me, would be unfathomable.”

Alice Jennings. Photo by Joe Parnell.

Jennings credits Dr. Grace Lee Boggs and Donele Wilkins with bringing her to the environmental justice movement.

“One of the first people to bring Detroit women of color together in environmental justice was Donele Wilkins,” says Jennings. “I met her when my mentor, Dr. Grace Lee Boggs, started taking me to meetings that were led by Donele.”

Soon enough, Jennings was not only a founding member of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, but she wrote up the 501(c)3 paperwork to legally form the nonprofit.

“I just began going to these meetings with Grace, and then we all got together and started working on issues of environmental justice,” Jennings recalled. “One of our first targets was the Henry Ford Hospital incinerator. It was burning blood products, body parts and all kinds of stuff—and letting it out into the community.”

After that, they moved to tackle the next fire, or more specifically, fires burning in the Detroit city incinerator.

“That was one of our big areas of concern,” says Jennings. “We worked on getting the community organized around knowing what their risk factors were living in the footprint of the incinerator. And from there, Donele and I worked on a case together concerning a community on the eastside called Krainz Woods. The first meeting for Krainz Woods was held seventeen years ago.”

In Krainz Woods, Jennings, Wilkins and other environmental justice organizers created a movement around a long-standing lead smelter dumping lead into the community. The smelter produced a Superfund site that was never cleaned up.

“DWEJ was involved in that, and my law firm filed a lawsuit, along with another law firm from Atlanta, Georgia,” Jennings says. “We fought to get that Superfund site cleaned up and to get some compensation to the community there.” That case led to a historic settlement on behalf of Krainz Woods residents against several corporations, including Honeywell, Inc., and National Lead Industries.

Everyday citizens fight for environmental justice

Theresa Landrum has spent her entire life in Detroit’s 48217 community. It is surrounded by dozens of industrial factories, including Zug Island, Marathon Asphalt, and Severstal (formerly Rouge Steel).

“Let me tell you something. Our parents came up here to get these factory jobs during the Great Migration, and all around us, we were just used to the air being orange and black soot,” Landrum said. “We were used to the silver fallout. We didn’t know that it was fallout and poison coming from the factories and industries around us. We just grew up watching our parents keep their water hoses on to wash their front porches, houses and driveways down.”

Theresa Landrum. Photo by Joe Parnell.

It didn’t take long for it to become clear that the environment was a significant issue.

“I was in elementary school when my mother first became ill, and by high school, she was diagnosed with throat cancer,” Landrum says. Her mother eventually battled and beat throat cancer and parotid gland cancer. But before long, she developed lung cancer. Lung cancer claimed both of Landrum’s parent’s lives.

“We lived over here around all these factories, but we didn’t realize that the EPA and regulatory agencies that existed weren’t protecting us,” says Landrum.

That all changed when a pair of sisters introduced Landrum and her neighbors to Rhonda Anderson of the Sierra Club. 

“This pair of Black women sisters brought the predominately white Sierra Club to our community in the face of a Black woman,” Landrum said. “And she taught us. Rhonda showed us that the air we’d been breathing all these years—air we’d been born into—could possibly be a factor in why we had so much cancer, kidney disease, COPD, emphysema, MS, lupus, diabetes, hypertension, sarcoidosis, just all kinds of stuff.”

But more than making the connections, Anderson equipped Landrum and others with the tools to fight back.

“Rhonda taught us that we had the ability to get up and ask for a hearing. We had the ability and the right to protest. She taught us how to take pictures, keep truck traffic logs, and showed us how to use our eyes, nose and ears to listen for things. She taught us about air pollution, noise pollution, water pollution and soil pollution.”

As soon as Landrum understood that things could be different and how to use her power to create change, she became directly engaged in environmental justice. “Rhonda Anderson, Mrs. Miller and Dr. Leonard—the two sisters who introduced me to Rhonda—paved the way for myself, Lucille Campbell, Jackie Smith and others.”

Operating ‘with a showering of love’

Monica Lewis-Patrick, is co-founder, president and CEO of We the People of Detroit. 

“I get the fortitude to step out and fight in a space that is still so male-dominated and white because powerful environmental justice warriors from Detroit–like Rhonda Anderson, the Honorable Rev. JoAnn Watson, Dr. Gloria House and the late Charity Hicks –  aren’t any different to me than my mother and my grandmother,” Lewis-Patrick told Planet Detroit.

Lewis-Patrick describes these women as ones “who operate with a showering of love.” Not only that, she says, but their work doesn’t begin and end in Detroit. These are women whose work and influence have spread across the nation and globe. One of their primary efforts has been to ensure that clean water is affordable and accessible to everyone.

Monica Lewis-Patrick. Photo by Joe Parnell.

“It’s Black women from Detroit, the women leading Michigan Welfare Rights and the Honorable Rev. Watson, along with Maryann Mahaffey (though she was not Black), who are the architects of the first water affordability policy in the nation,” Lewis-Patrick said. 

That water affordability policy was drafted in Detroit in 2005 and inspired cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore to follow suit. Philadelphia fully enacted such a policy before others, but the blueprint for that work came from Black women environmental justice advocates in Detroit, according to Lewis-Patrick.

Lewis-Patrick says Detroit’s Black women environmental justice warriors are human rights warriors, who helped her see environmental justice as a social justice issue. “I have to admit that I once saw environmental justice as a white-oriented issue,” she said. “I did not see my community as an active part of leading and defining that work until they positioned it as a social justice matter for me.”

The spirit force within the work

When asked how it is that Black women came to lead the struggle for environmental justice in Detroit, Landrum says, “I don’t know if it’s out of the innateness of racism and slavery, but people like to say we have a chip on our shoulders. No, it’s not a chip on our shoulder. We’re passionate. Black women were raped by slave masters and had to find ways to maneuver inside plantation houses and keep families together after our people were sold away. So, this fight is born in us. We even worked with white women who wanted to put us at the back in the fight for women’s suffrage. Now, look at other movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. Those were founded by Black women. This is in us. Black women are the protectors.”

For Lewis-Patrick, it’s about claiming space, “My grandmother called it making a way out of no way. That’s what I see happen. A lot of times, we come into this lane from a place of trauma and personal impact, trying to find a solution or remedy. And we find ourselves navigating white-oriented, male-dominated spaces that aren’t designed for us, where we have to direct people to include the communities we represent as they discuss ways to use our resources for their projects.”

And while she has built a legacy of accomplishments, she feels the fight everywhere she goes.

“As my mother said, nobody gives you equity and justice. You have to bring equity and justice on your two legs, in every room you enter,” Lewis-Patrick said. “And one thing is sure about Black women, we love all of our children, unapologetically and unconditionally. That means we love all of humanity enough to tell them the truth and enough to advocate that everyone has a pathway to clean, safe, affordable water, air and a world that considers their best interests.”

This piece was produced with the partnership and support of the Detroit Equity Action Lab Race and Justice Media Collaboration at Wayne State University to support Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) journalists freelance journalists from marginalized communities.

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter with a heart for people and their stories. A WDET Storymakers Fellow, she also writes for nonprofits and individuals through her small business Keen Composition.