When Detroit environmental activist Charity Hicks passed away in 2014, the loss of her presence was palpable among the local environmental justice activist community. Hicks was counted on to set the tone of gatherings, often invoking the spirits of African ancestors.
At the inaugural meeting of the Great Lakes Commons in 2012, Hicks said, “I felt the tension of difference, but also felt the beauty of our shared humanity. The gathering gave me renewed insight into what it takes to really be present, be authentic, and make connections.”
Six years after her passing, a strong network of Black environmental activists remains in Detroit, dedicated to tackling environmental injustice. Planet Detroit reached out to four of them to discuss why they persist in the work and what they want other Detroiters to know.
Justin Onwenu, Environmental Justice Organizer, The Sierra Club
With an interest in medicine and wellness, native Detroiter Justin Onwenu attended Rice University in Houston, Texas, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in International Health and Policy and planned to go to medical school. But then came Hurricane Harvey.
“I wanted to be a doctor my entire life until a natural disaster hit where I was going to school,” Onwenu tells Planet Detroit. “That made me realize how connected health is to the environment, climate, and the neighborhood where you live.”
After graduating, Onwenu worked in community outreach for the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative at Rice, where he got firsthand experience of how that connection impacts people’s lives.
“I got into this work trying to uncover a lot of the health and housing issues that happened after Hurricane Harvey,” he says. “I moved back to Detroit because I wanted to use those skills to address health issues that are tied to a lack of access to clean air and water.”
Onwenu says his work these days is about making air and water safe, accessible and affordable. Focused on addressing the public health impact of industry on local communities, protecting the Detroit River, and empowering local residents, Onwenu has been quoted in the Detroit News, The Guardian and The New York Times on a number of topics.
“It’s about where people live, learn, eat, work and play that should be healthy no matter your background,” says Onwenu. “We deserve good jobs with dignity and a union, and we also deserve to live in a healthy environment once we leave work for home.”
Jerry Ann Hebron, Executive Director, North End Christian Community Development Corporation
For 20 years, North End Christian Community Development Corporation has serviced the residents and businesses of the historic North End through workforce and youth development projects. Jerry Ann Hebron has led the organization for 19 of those years.
Hebron’s organization also operates the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, a nonprofit, community-based organization that has planted trees, native plants, rain gardens, and pollinator gardens in the North End. The garden is a source of fresh fruit and vegetables, providing more than 2500 pounds of vegetables quarterly to the city, according to Hebron.
“We are also committed to teaching others ways they can become environmentally friendly,” says Hebron. “This is a big part of our sustainability plan for the future.”
Monica Lewis-Patrick, President & CEO, We The People of Detroit
A mother, educator, entrepreneur and human rights activist, and co-founder of We The People of Detroit, Monica Lewis-Patrick is an active member of the People’s Water Board Coalition, US Human Rights Network, is a Detroit Equity Action Lab fellow, and more.
She is actively engaged in the human and civil rights struggles of Detroiters, particularly as those struggles pertain to water shutoffs. Since 2014, more than 148,000 households have been shut off from water in the city, many of which have remained without water for months. Shutoffs continue today.
“The Geneva Convention will not allow the military to impede your enemy’s access to water in times of war, but domestically, American utilities are shutting off water to the elderly, the sick, the poor and children,” Lewis-Patrick says. “I felt as though I had no other option but to be deputized into the fight for the human right to water and sanitation.”
Lewis-Patrick has authored legislation, conducted research, and delivered services to tens of thousands of city residents. She recently presented before the United Nations Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation in New York City along with several other national and international leaders on the global water crisis.
“I am a mother and grandmother,” Lewis-Patrick says. “As Black women, we are the mothers of all mankind, so it is within my natural and spiritual DNA to care for the human family. I decided that this was not my fault, but it must become my fight. We must make water and sanitation access clean, safe and affordable for all!”
Rhonda Anderson, Regional Organizing Manager, The Sierra Club
Known as Mama Rhonda, Detroiter Rhonda Anderson has been a persistent voice for environmental change in the state of Michigan for nearly two decades. For the past 15 years, Anderson has worked as an environmental justice advocate through her Sierra Club national staff position where she has organized rallies, attended and hosted community meetings, negotiated with big industry including Marathon, and done the research and environmental reporting on community environmental conditions.
But perhaps most importantly, she has sat with and listened to community members.
“Our lives depend on the knowledge that we have about the environment. Almost everything we encounter from the time we get up in the morning until we go back to bed that night is impacted by the environment,” Anderson explains. “African Americans are not as involved in environmental justice as other groups, yet we are more disproportionately affected by injustice in that area.”
Anderson hopes to involve more Black Detroiters in preparing for the climate crisis that she says is “already here”. “We have to be involved, be active, and align with others to save ourselves and our children.”
There are many other Black activists doing environmental justice work in Detroit. A few examples: Dr. Tony Reames at the University of Michigan is doing in-depth work on how utility bills affect the poor. Baba Malik Yakini of D-Town Farms is doing agriculture and education work. The Hon. JoAnn Watson, a former Detroit City Councilwoman, has been instrumental in protests against water shutoffs and more. Other names include Theresa Landrum, Valerie Rurris, Will Copeland, Meeko Williams of Hydrate Detroit, and Linda Campbell of the Detroit People’s Platform. Many more names round out a growing list of environmental justice leaders in Detroit.
“These leaders embody environmental justice work that is rooted in African-centered values and process,” says Lewis-Patrick.