Whether physically, recreationally or culturally, the changing climate is a problem that affects Detroit residents across the board. Heavy rains, extreme heat and air quality issues continue to impact residents, disproportionately affecting the city’s Black and brown residents who are often left to deal with the problems on their own.

And as they’re finding, changing the effects of climate change in the city will take a lot of resident advocacy. For Earth Month, “American Black Journal” and BridgeDetroit have teamed up to examine the impact of climate change on people of color and low-income residents in Detroit.

Host Stephen Henderson leads a community-focused roundtable discussion with BridgeDetroit environmental reporter Jena Brooker, Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition Executive Director Jamesa Johnson Greer, and Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice Executive Director Laprisha Berry Daniels.  

The roundtable panelists discuss how climate change is impacting every aspect of life for Detroit residents, putting their health and safety at risk. Plus, they talk about the health issues arising from flooded homes and air pollution regulations, as well as the importance of residents speaking out on environmental issues in order to bring change. 

Full Transcript:

Stephen Henderson, American Black Journal, Host: From flooding to heat waves and air quality issues… Detroiters really face a lot of threats, their safety and their health. I sat down for a frank conversation about climate change with Brit’s Detroit Environmental Reporter Jena Brooker. Jamesha Johnson Greer from the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, and Laprisha Berry Daniels from Detroiters Working For Environmental Justice. 

So, Jamesha, I’m going to start with you. How do we know that the things that we’re experiencing here in Detroit? That Detroiters are experiencing in particular and that Black Detroiters are disproportionately affected by? How do we know this is about climate change? How do we know that there’s a connection between the way that, you know, the environment has altered and been altered and the hardship that we see in cities like Detroit? 

Jamesha Johnson Greer, Executive Director, Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition: Yeah, we can definitely see it. We see it every single year through the flooding events. We can see it through our health even. We know that from 2017 to 2019, 16.2% of Detroit adults and 11.11% of Michigan adults had asthma. And that means that the asthma rates in Detroit were 46% higher for, you know, for those Detroiters than Michigan residents as a whole. 

So the fact that that’s happening means that people are being impacted by air quality issues pretty, pretty predominantly in areas where Black and Brown folks are living. And that directly relates to climate change and how folks are impacted by air quality. Specifically, when we think about greenhouse gases that we’re trying to particularly get a handle on as we’re trying to mitigate those impacts. 

Stephen Henderson: Yeah. Jena, in a lot of your reporting at BridgeDetroit, there is this evidence of the things that we do and tolerate in Detroit that already make it difficult for people who live here. I mean, we create our own hardships with the amount of industry that we have, the lack of controls over air quality and things. But this idea that climate is kind of adding to that makes it even more urgent that we’re seeing more of the consequences than we even would see in a city that was already really dirty. 

Jena Brooker, Environmental Reporter, Bridge Detroit: Yeah, I think it’s hard because the industry has helped build Detroit and, you know, we’re the Motor City and Detroiters have a close connection to that legacy. And it’s that same legacy that, like you said, is polluting primarily Black neighborhoods in Detroit and exacerbating the climate crisis. 

Stephen Henderson: Yeah. Talk about some of the reporting that you’ve done, Jena, and what it shows and how this plays out in people’s lives. 

Jena Brooker: I think that my reporting has shown that climate change is impacting every aspect of Detroiter’s lives from worsening their allergies to, you know, increased asthma rates to basement flooding, extreme heat, average just increased temperatures, winter activities. Like ice fishing or skiing. You know, I think the first Black ski club was founded in the metro Detroit area or Detroit area. So it’s impacting every aspect of Detroiter’s lives from their health to their cultural experiences and their work. Just everything. 

Stephen Henderson: Laprisha, your group is dedicated to trying to make this better, to push back against the, you know, the dirty quality of air and water and things here, but also, of course, to account for climate change. Talk about what this looks like from your vantage point, the things you see and the opportunities you think we have to make it better. 

Laprisha Berry Daniels, Executive Director, Detroiters Working For Environmental Justice: So, Detroiters Working For Environmental Justice is specifically focusing on reducing environmental health disparities. And some of that Jamesha and Jena have already touched on. So specifically, we are focused on reducing asthma, other respiratory illness, lead poisoning, lead exposure, as well as cardiovascular disease. And so there’s a direct connection between for air quality, for soil quality, for water quality or access to water and those health disparities.

Jamesha started talking about the flooding events or the heavy rain events that we’ve had in Detroit. And there are specific ways that impacts the health and well-being of Detroiters for lots of reasons. One reason is because there’s not enough relief when there are emergencies like that in the city. We know that we have lots of renters and the relief is not available to renters. So there are ways that having these heavy flooding events exacerbate asthma because of mold now that can be present in the home from the water, being in the home, water intrusion in the home. But there are other ways that this impacts folks that we may not think about as much. 

One example is increase in lead poisoning among children. When we find that there’s not relief from these flooding events, then folks are left to their own devices to figure out how to dry out their homes. One of those ways is beyond having neighbors and friends help to come and clean up. You also are opening and closing your windows to try to air out your home. And so that is introducing more lead dust into the air. Eighty percent of our homes in Detroit are pre 1978. And so there’s a lot of lead paint still existing in a lot of our homes. And so it’s not just what happens from the rain, right? It’s also what happens from residents being left to their own devices to try to solve the problems that come along with climate change. 

Stephen Henderson: The kind of cascading effect of one thing leading to lots of other things that make everything much harder, much harder to manage. Jena, I want to come back to you for a second. You worked on a story recently that talked about the truck traffic near the Stellantis plant and then in the neighborhood over on the east side of Detroit. 

And one of the things that was really interesting about that story was the lack of response from the responsible agencies for regulating that traffic, the nuisance, the noise, the air pollution. Talk about the ways in which we see government and government authority kind of failing to help out where it actually can. 

Jena Brooker: Yeah, I think that that instance is tricky because trucks… to my understanding, is sort of this gray area where the state regulates air pollution and, you know, trucks cause air pollution, but aren’t, I guess, like a factory emitting air pollution. But I think overall we do see the federal, state and city government sort of punting the responsibility of addressing the climate crisis to other people or even putting it on individuals like reduce your carbon footprint, when really we need all areas of our governments to work together to, you know, pass policy, you know, like the state could pass the state or city could create a tax credit for electric bikes to incentivize people to, you know, get out of their cars, which transportation and trucks is one of the leading contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. 

They could incentivize a tax credit for electric bicycles or the trigger code for buildings to reduce their emissions. So I think that we see all areas of our government punting the responsibility off. And it’s unfortunate because that’s probably where we need the solution. A lot of the widespread solutions and policy changes to come from. 

Stephen Henderson: Jamesha, talk about how your organization is kind of focused on, you know, increasing response to these kind of things. And then talk about the Jemez principles for Democratic organizing. I think that’s an important part of this. Yeah, we need the government to do its job, but part of that is about us as citizens figuring out how to get the government to be more responsive. 

Jamesha Johnson Greer: Yeah, absolutely. You know, part of this is also recognizing that there are more actors here than just government. There are also corporate actors as well that are involved in this process. And part of the work that we do with Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition is corporate accountability work. 

And so recognizing that, you know, the floods that happened in 2021, that happened in 2022, that the frequency and intensity of storms that we’re experiencing are not going away. But it does require all of us, including our utilities, to step up to the occasion. And that means that, you know, asking and requesting of them to invest in the infrastructure. 

So that doesn’t cause further damage to potentially life-threatening flood events like the one that Laprisha was just mentioning. And so, you know, that is the kind of work that we’re doing is seeking out ways that we can hold our corporate actors accountable, even as we’re asking our government entities to see to it that they’re, you know, extending as much of their authority as possible to protect us.

And making sure that they’re doing things like making sure that there aren’t more power outages and downed power lines and flooded substations, things that we know put our communities at risk and are only, you know, set to exacerbate the climate crisis as we know it. And we’ve already experienced it as Detroiters the last few summers. 

Stephen Henderson: Talk quickly about the Jemez principles, this idea of Democratic organizing and how that plays into environmental justice. 

Jamesha Johnson Greer: Absolutely. And so the Jemez principles are really, really central to the way that we have chosen to organize our goal for the critical decade really, is to take on this issue of climate justice with broad alliances and bold and unapologetic vision for justice. And it really requires us to understand how we can reclaim and take on our own power. Right. 

And so what does it look like for us to seek our own representation? So that’s looking for us to be able to speak for ourselves, to be able to speak directly to our government about the things that we want to see in our communities as it relates to climate and our health, and how do we work with other organizations as well in order to do that other entities in order to do that. So working in mutuality, for example. So those are just a few of those Jemez principles, but those are the ways that we at MEJC would like to see our work done and our guiding principles for the way that we’d like to do the work. 

Stephen Henderson: Yeah. And it’s really wonder. It’s a really wonderful tool for what we’re talking about. Laprisha I want to give you a chance. We’ve got a couple of minutes left to talk about just some things that you think we can be doing that make us safer in Detroit. That makes the environment better for us, that protects us from these things that are changing, that so many of them we don’t have a lot of control over. 

Laprisha Berry Daniels: So thank you for this opportunity. I would love to talk about what we do have control over and what we have had a recent win with. So Core City, a low financial resource community in Detroit, was being threatened with having open air, concrete pressure in their community and they fought back and they organized. I’m using some of the principles that Jamisha just talked about and have had a huge win. So the first thing they did is they spoke out against the permit that was going to be proposed.

That permit was denied to the developer, and the next step for them was to ask that the concrete debris that was already in that location be cleaned up. And so after blight tickets by the city and a low level of enforcement by the city… community members kept pushing back. And we just found out today that the developer will be sued by the city for the nuisance that’s in that community. We just found out today that the mayor spoke out against this. 

And so having that type of support from local government, having that type of support from local enforcement is really important. But the way that that happened was through amplifying the voice of the community, the community showing up and saying that we will not allow this in our community. And so it sort of ties together everything that we’ve all been talking about in terms of enforcement and policy and community mobilizing in order to get this work done. 


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