Part of an ongoing series profiling Detroiters of color leading environmental justice work in the city.
In 2004, Detroiter Michelle Martinez was in Central America, riding a bus on the coastal route from Guatemala to Honduras. She had just graduated college. While traversing through small pueblos in the extreme heat and humidity of the tropics, Martinez first observed a world little-known to Americans — one where people cram into wildly painted refurbished American buses with chickens, pots of food, and bags of clothing, caring for one another’s children on long journeys.
There she met plataneros, daily workers on banana plantations, some with only a third-grade education. They worked six days a week in extreme heat, making less than 10 dollars a day, often without enough money to pay for a bus ride from the plantation to the nearest village.
Through these experiences, Martinez began to see firsthand how deep the structural inequities run in our global economy.
“People take simple privileges for granted and have no idea of the magnitude of labor and layers of sacrifice that people make for these very easy conveniences we have in the United States,” she says. “Whether it’s the clothes they’re wearing or the breakfast they’re eating, or the car they’re driving — these are things that we take for granted. But they are all a part of how we participate in the economy right here in the United States.”
Before traveling to Central America, Martinez had spent a semester teaching English as a second language in Chiapas, Mexico, home to roughly one million indigenous citizens. There, she spent time among the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, an indigenous armed political group that works for indigenous rights and independence from the Mexican government. They were celebrating the 10th anniversary of an indigenous armed uprising sparked by the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, where they demanded the Mexican government return the land to indigenous communities.
“The Zapatistas are revolutionaries in every aspect,” Martinez recalls. “From managing land to food distribution, to spiritual connectivity, to re-indigenizing governance where women lead.”
Being among the Zapatistas gave Martinez a model for how systemic structural transformation might look. She left Honduras for Michigan, determined to become a force for change.
Her experience in Latin America influenced her decision to apply for graduate school. She understood that for things to change, it had to be at a policy level, and it had to be led by the indigenous community and people of color.
“The experience left me inside out,” she recalls. “I realized that the systemic change needed to be structural. It needed to be big enough that it just wasn’t me changing my consumer behavior, but really pushing at the system that kept these oppressive practices in place for entire nations.”
In 2006, she entered graduate school at The University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability (UM-SEAS) to study environmental policy. In Ann Arbor, she was exposed to Black intellectuals and scholars.
“I had women of color teach me for the first time in my life about things and ideas and systems of oppression that I had never been aware of,” Martinez says. “For the first time, I had Black women, Latinx, and indigenous women teaching me about Black feminism.”
She learned about indigenous writers like Scott Momaday from Betty Bell. And about Vandana Shiva, an Indian scholar, and environmental activist. But it was professor Ivette Perfecto who she says shaped the way she thinks.
“Ivette taught me about what natural resource extraction, production, and transportation meant in the context of liberalism and globalization. She introduced me to this idea of the commodification of water, of the privatization of land, and how those systems function,” Martinez says. “I learned about how the exploitation of natural resources was at the end of every single equation.”
Martinez began making connections between the privatization of water in Detroit and resistance movements in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
“Suddenly, everything clicked for me,” she says. “Certain people were allowed to live rich, luxurious, amazing lives, exposed to majestic landscapes and freedom of thought and movement. Others were struggling to breathe, get a drink of water, be able to get access to food. And that all had to do with our access to the earth.”
While in graduate school, she met Adil Salmouni, the man who would become her husband.
“We worked at the same bookstore in Ann Arbor. We had met in undergrad and then reconnected in graduate school,” Martinez says. “I moved in with him almost immediately.”
Back to Detroit
With her degree in hand, Martinez and Salmouni moved back to Detroit in 2008, where she has deep roots. Martinez missed and wanted to be near her family. Her father, Toni Martinez, owned Diseños, a wrought-iron business on Bagley Street and her mom and sister lived in the Mexicantown footprint.
“At that time there was no comeback Detroit, there was no Detroit Future City or master plan. There was no big investment, no Quicken. There was no nothing,” Martinez says. “People were rubbing pennies together to try to make ends meet.”
During this time, Martinez rekindled her connection to the land. She had learned to love open space by regularly going to Belle Isle as a child, and as a six-year-old, the family moved to a home on large acreage in Howell, Michigan for a time. For Martinez, toiling around on those 18 acres was a magical part of her childhood.
“It was gardening, it was putting out carrots for deer, not to hunt them, but to feed them, it was bird feeders and our pets, just caring for animals. And every spring, we had a new carpentry project,” she remembers.
The Martinez children were taught by their parents to be advocates and stewards of the earth.
“Our parents tore down the liquor store next to our shop [Diseños] and put up a gazebo just for the sake of the neighborhood having more natural elements in it for the community to enjoy,” recalls Martinez’ sister, Marcela Martinez.
One of Martinez’s first jobs after moving back to Detroit was managing vacant land at Oakland Avenue Farms in Detroit’s North End. She worked with Jerry Ann Hebron, a respected community leader working for racial and economic justice through food and farming.
“We were planting food and reclaiming lots,” Martinez recalled. She worked with Hebron to start a community garden and with residents to think about what the North End could be in the future.
But soon, she was called back to work in her own neighborhood.
Fighting for the people
The same year Martinez and Salmouni moved back to Southwest Detroit, Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Maroun decided he was going to build a second span. The bridge was already the busiest international border crossing in North America, and Martinez understood the devastating impact a second span would have on her neighborhood.
She knew that trucks cause hazardous air pollution that can exacerbate asthma, bronchitis, and cause cancer. For her, the fight wasn’t just against pollution caused by trucks — it was for the members of her community who deserved better. And for her family, who had lived in Southwest Detroit since 1915.
Martinez attended a meeting at Earhart Middle School in 2009, where members of the community had the opportunity to give testimony in support of or against the second span. The room was full and packed with tension, she recalls. About half were people who lived in the footprint of the bridge, there to protest the second span. The other half were there in support of span and the jobs it would create.
One by one, people gave testimony. Martinez stood in front of the mic and was confronted with angry protestors and a pastor from a prominent church yelling in her face.
“I was astounded,” Martinez says. “I didn’t understand why people would argue that their health didn’t matter, or that some phantom economic interests could outweigh a person’s health.”
“This was a real-life sacrifice that people are making,” Martinez adds. “If you ask somebody, ‘would you trade 15 years of your life, your golden years, your best years with your grandkids, for $60,000,’ most people would say no.”
More than ten years after that contentious evening at Earhart Middle School, the second span has yet to be built and sits in legal limbo.
Martinez says something shifted in her that night. She drew a line and decided she would protect the environment at all costs. She doubled down on activism and made a commitment to creating a Black-and-brown alliance. She started working with longtime activist and Sierra Club regional manager Rhonda Anderson to make it happen.
“You’re going to have to get proof”
When Martinez arrived as an intern at the Sierra Club, Anderson had been organizing in the 48217 zip code where petrol giant Marathon Oil was about to expand. Anderson knew the community had a high number of people sick with cancer. She, along with her community partners, Mrs. Miller, an elder in the Black community, and her sister, Dr. Dolores Leonard, suspected that the cancer was caused in part by the massive oil refinery that loomed above the neighborhood.
Martinez and Anderson asked the state’s Department of Environmental Quality — now the Michigan Department of Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) — what it would take for the state of Michigan to acknowledge high rates of cancer in 48217 and do a cancer cluster analysis. But instead of helping the community, the department responded that “there is no indication that there are high levels of cancer, and you’re going to have to get proof,” Martinez says. “Putting the onus on us to go out and do the study itself.”
Martinez had trained to do these kinds of studies and knew precisely how to put together a questionnaire. She also used her contacts at the University of Michigan, including statistician Elaine Hochman, to look at the survey and vet questions for any biases.
Once the questionnaire was complete, “we started going out there knocking on doors and interviewing neighbors, canceling out factors like smoking because they always want to blame us for smoking,” Martinez recalls.
They found 17 cases of cancer on one block alone.
That’s when Dr. Leonard came up with the idea to put white crosses in front of the homes of those who had cancer as a symbol to the world of what was happening in their community.
“We nailed shims together and spray painted them white, and then we’d drop them off at Fanny’s floral, a flower shop in Southwest Detroit where the community would go in, pick them up and put them on their front lawn,” Martinez recalls.
Block after block showed the chilling site of white crosses erected in front of homes — a visual reminder of how Black people and people of color in 48217 are burdened with environmental pollution, toxic waste, garbage dumps, and other sources of foul odors that lower one’s quality of life.
“We called the state of Michigan, telling them that “we now have evidence that there’s a high level of cancer in this community. You can’t dispute that. Seventeen cases on one block? That’s not normal.”
The 48217 zip code gained a reputation as the most polluted zip code in the state of Michigan, catalyzing a tremendous amount of activism and awareness about what was happening to a Black community in Southwest Detroit.
“We are not accepting more pollution, when there’s already two, three generations-deep of life stolen by toxic contamination,” Martinez says.
The media has started to catch on too. The Metro Times called what was happening “environmental racism,” and wrote that “residents suffer from high rates of asthma, cancer, brain damage, heart disease, respiratory problems, miscarriages, birth defects, and cognitive impairments, all of which are tied to air pollution.” Environmental News called the sulfur dioxide, benzene, and chromium that spews in the air a “toxic cocktail,” and stated that the lack of “federal and state regulations fail communities of color like 48217.”
A green future
Martinez, her husband, and two children have settled in Detroit’s Virginia Park neighborhood, in a historic house that “needs tons of work.” She often uses the house to bring residents, advocates, academics, and people from diverse backgrounds together to work towards justice collectively.
One example is when Detroit activist Siwatu Salman Ra was arrested for felonious assault and felony firearm charges for brandishing a gun at another woman during an argument in 2018. Ra said she pointed the gun in defense of herself but was nonetheless found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison. The sentence sent shock waves through the community.
“The day she was incarcerated I said, ‘okay, y’all come to my house, we’re gonna have to have a conversation about what we can do.’ We began meeting every weekend for the ‘Free Siwatu’ meetings, and people would come with food and fruit and bagels and bread, and we would eat around the table and just be with each other, Martinez says.
Her home became a hive of activity that garnered local and national media attention in every major outlet in Detroit, as well as the New Yorker, Vox, and USA Today. Siwatu is now free after an appeal.
In 2017, Martinez took over as the director of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, a role she says she didn’t plan for. MEJC was fledgling and could only pay her part-time. Her goal was to bring more energy to a coalition that had lost momentum. She set out to enliven the political environment, emphasizing leadership by people of color.
Since she was hired, MEJC now has four employees and has developed three campaigns. “We’re on the front lines in fighting for energy, democracy, and energy justice,” Martinez says.
To others in the activist community, Martinez has made a name for herself as an authority with strong leadership skills.
“She has a particular gift,” says Gloria Lowe, Martinez’ friend of ten years and CEO of the activist group We Want Green Too!. She says the two often talk about “the spiritual value of Martinez doing what she was born to do in the world.”
“For her, environmental justice is more profound, it is the core of how we, as human beings, are supposed to live on this planet,” Lowe says. “And she takes that extremely seriously.”
Nick Schroeck, environmental lawyer and director of the environmental law clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy, says that for the past 50 years, the environmental movement has been dominated by wealthy white people.
“Martinez knows that political momentum and innovative policy ideas come from communities of color,” Schroeck says.
“People of color are not value-added,” says Martinez. They are central to resolving and solving the disparities that we’re seeing.
Right now Martinez has a bigger goal in mind. She’s going to bring different voices together to talk about how to create a new economy in which people control their own energy and have access to clean energy jobs in Detroit. “We can overcome the largest existential threat to humanity,” Martinez says.
“Worst-case scenario, the fossil fuel industry will get bailouts, and the climate crisis will rage on. In the best-case scenario, we can create the kind of economy that will put people to work to restore our ecosystems. And that’s my hope.”