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Issues Of The Environment: Finding EcoJustice In A Climate Of Politics

Rebecca Martusewicz
Eastern Michigan University

The Flint water crisis continues and Michigan residents are still feeling the effects, both physically and politically.  In this week's "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair speaks with Eastern Michigan University teacher education professor Rebecca Martusewicz about her "EcoJustice" program.


  *   The theme of the 5th Annual EcoJustice and Activism Conference at EMU is “EcoJustice and Activism: Reclaiming the Commons”. EcoJustice education is an approach that analyzes the deep cultural roots of intersecting social and ecological crises, focusing especially on the globalizing cultural, economic and political forces of Western consumer culture.

  *   Dr. Rebecca Martusewicz says that there are consequences of ecological inequality and exploitation in our local communities, and she cites the lack of access to healthy food for some Ypsilanti residents, long-time residents of Detroit being forced to move as part of the city’s recovery, water shutoffs in Detroit, and the Flint water crisis, as examples of economic gains being emphasized over equal access to the “commons."

  *   Dr. Rebecca Martusewicz, Professor of EcoJustice Education in the Department of Teacher Education at EMU, founded the EcoJustice Conference to bring together minds from many disciplines relating to ecological and social injustices within our communities, and she sees fostering a dialogue about these issues as part of the process in creating solutions.

EcoJustice Conference at EMU: EcoJustice and Activism: Reclaiming the Commons

  *EcoJustice and Activism Conference; March 17-19, 2016; College of Education, Porter Building, Eastern Michigan University

Theme: Reclaiming the Commons: Diverse Ways of Being and Knowing

The EcoJustice and Activism conference was started five years ago as a means of bringing together community activists, K-12 educators and their students, university scholars, teacher educators and students around issues related to social and ecological justice.  We wanted to offer folks a place to discuss and collaborate around common concerns that we see as having adverse affects on our communities.  The conference is hosted by the EcoJustice Masters degree within the Social Foundations of Education program in the Department of Teacher Education at EMU.  This year’s theme is Reclaiming the Commons: Diverse Ways of Being and Knowing. It has everything to do with the ongoing and recent crises in Flint and Detroit, which will be addressed in several key sessions.

Featured Speakers

March 17th: Dr. Peter Linebaugh, Professor Emeritus, University of Toledo - “Over the last two centuries the world has been turned upside down in a literal geological sense as the energy stored beneath the earth’s surface in coal was dug out, carried to the surface, burned to release its energy in steam-engines, and the CO2 which resulted as a by-product elevated into the atmosphere, thus contributing to global warming and the sixth extinction.”

March 18th: Dr. Ashley Glassburn Falzetti, Eastern Michigan University - Heteropatriarchy Through Land Dispossession: a Miami Feminist Perspective “Dr. Falzetti will show how land dispossession treaties reshaped Miami relations to place and kinship between 1816 and 1846.  These treaties forced the Miami to radically  reimagine their relationship to land, place, and each other.”

March 19th: Dr. Mary Poole, Prescott College - Ecojustice and Activism in Maasailand

Roundtable - A collection of Detroit eco-justice advocates will discuss “the expropriation of common resources in Detroit--from water and food, to housing and education--and local activists' struggles to reclaim equal access.” 

What is EcoJustice Education?

  *   EcoJustice Education is an approach that focuses on the intersections between diversity, democracy, and ecological sustainability.

  *   We work to identify those assumptions and practices that are contributing to the increasing destruction of the world’s diverse cultures and ecosystems by the globalizing forces of Western industrial cultures.

  *   We also support and teach about the ways that various cultures around the world actively resist these colonizing forces by protecting and revitalizing their “commons.”

  *   And, we work to strengthen the commons in our own local communities.

The Commons

Why are we interested in Revitalizing and Reclaiming the Commons?

  *   The Commons include both cultural practices and traditions and our relationship with the natural world.

  *   Examples of the environmental commons include the water, air, soil, plants, and animals without whom we could not survive.

  *   Examples of our cultural commons include those practices, traditions, policies, and relationships that we share as a means of protecting life and happiness within human communities and with the natural world.  Food cultivation and preparation, forestry practices, all sorts of building skills and trades, domestic skills or homemaking, childcare, eldercare, knowledge of water sources, knowledge of plants and animal life, educational practices, our Constitution, democratic decision-making, games, singing and other forms of shared leisure and entertainment are all examples of our cultural commons.

What is enclosure of the commons and why should we care?

  *   Enclosure of the commons includes all those ways that these sources of life and practices of mutual support get privatized, or accessible only through the exchange of money.

  *   When this happens, what we need to survive becomes available only to those who can pay.  Poverty and insecurities of all sorts are created and rationalized as business as usual.

EcoJustice Education

  *   An approach that analyzes the deep cultural roots of intersecting social and ecological crises, focusing especially on the globalizing cultural, economic and political forces of Western consumer culture.  EcoJustice scholars and educators also study, support, and teach about the ways that various cultures around the world actively resist these colonizing forces by protecting and revitalizing their commons—that is, the social practices and traditions, languages, and relationships with the land necessary to the healthy regeneration of their communities. By emphasizing the commons, especially its enclosure or privatization, EcoJustice educators and activists understand social justice to be inseparable from and even embedded in questions regarding ecological well-being.

Local Examples

Protecting the Water Commons

  *   The Flint water crisis and the water shutoffs in Detroit are both examples of the undermining of democracy and the water commons in ways that have severely impacted those communities.  The protests that we are seeing in Detroit and Ypsilanti and the coming together of local people to provide fresh water to the Flint residents as well as water experts from across the country to identify and address these problems are examples of organizing to protect the water commons.

Flint: Environmental Racism?

If Flint were rich and mostly white, would Michigan’s state government have responded more quickly and aggressively to complaints about its lead-polluted water?  The 274 pages of emails released by Governor Rick Snyder this week on Flint’s water crisis included no discussion of race.  Instead, they focused on costs relating to the city’s water supply, questions about scientific data showing lead contamination and uncertainty about the responsibilities of state and local health officials.

But it is indisputable that, in Flint, the majority of residents are black and many are poor.  So, whether or not race and class were factors in the state’s agonizingly slow and often antagonistic response, the result was the same: Thousands of Flint’s residents, black and white, have been exposed to lead in their drinking water.  And the long-term health effects of that poisoning may not be fully understood for years.

For civil rights advocates, the health crisis in Flint smacks of what has become known as environmental racism.  Coined in the 1980s, the term refers to the disproportionate exposure of blacks to polluted air, water and soil.  It is considered the result of poverty and segregation that has relegated many blacks and other racial minorities to some of the most industrialized or dilapidated environments.

Environmental decisions are often related to political power.  In some cities, garbage incinerators have been built in African-American neighborhoods that do not have the political clout to block them.  In Michigan, where blacks are 14% of the population and the state government is dominated by Republicans, Flint has little political power.

The water contamination in Flint was born out of a decision to switch the city’s water source to the Flint River in April 2014. The explicit goal was to save Flint, which was on the brink of financial collapse, millions of dollars.  At the time, an emergency manager appointed by Mr. Snyder, a Republican, was running Flint. And in a sign of how racial issues are often not simple, that manager, Darnell Earley, who supported the switch, is black.

Representative Dan Kildee, a Democrat who represents Flint, called race “the single greatest determinant of what happened in Flint.”  He added, “They treated it like it was a public-relations problem not a public problem for the people in Flint.” 

Access to the Food Commons

  *   Food Insecurity in Detroit, Flint and Ypsilanti: When communities are impoverished, one of the consequences is the relocating of major grocery chains.  Our dependency on such outlets for food has led to major problems like diabetes, obesity and other nutritionally based disease as communities are forced to rely on fast food chains or Party stores for food.  Local urban agriculture movements in Detroit and Ypsilanti are excellent examples of democratic responses to food insecurity.

Food Insecurity in Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County

Food insecurity refers to USDA’s measure of lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.  According to Map the Meal Gap, in 2013, 46,850 individuals were “food insecure” in Washtenaw County.  This is 13% of the county population.

Work is being done to increase consistent, direct access to healthy food among food insecure residents of Washtenaw County.  An investment in ensuring access to nutritious, high-quality foods is an investment in both individual and public health. Breaking the cycle of poverty and hunger requires long-term systemic solutions.  Strategic priorities have been designed to respond to the urgent need for food assistance now while investing in practices that maximize self-directed, easy access to affordable, healthy, high quality foods for low-income neighbors.  The goals of these efforts are to improve purchasing power and shift clientele from a donation based system to participating in the food economy.

The community’s food access issues are also compounded by the absence of adequate food stores and/or grocery providers within the City of Ypsilanti as well as lack of transportation for low-income individuals to healthy food sources.  According to a 2005 Ypsilanti Health Coalition study, of the 37 “food stores” in Ypsilanti, 31 are party/convenience stores, gas stations, and pharmacies selling primarily snack food.  Of the remaining 6, only one is a full-service grocer and is located across a major highway (with little option for non-motorized or public transportation), functionally making it outside of the City.  In focus groups conducted by the Ypsilanti Healthy Food Access Initiative in 2006 (in which Growing Hope was a partner), community members reported traveling as far as Detroit to find affordable and quality food products.

County-led studies show a very low rate of consumption of fruits and vegetables among Ypsilanti residents.  According to the 2005 Health Improvement Plan (HIP) survey produced by Washtenaw County Public Health Department, one resident said, “It is difficult to find fruits, vegetables, yogurts... You can’t really get those things at a gas station, except bananas sometimes.”  More recently, Food Gatherers’ Washtenaw Food Security Study & Plan further found that cost continues to be a barrier to eating, and eating healthfully, and emphasizes improving direct food access through gardening and farmers markets as a key strategy to combat food insecurity and its compounded challenges.

Furthermore, Ypsilanti is a federally designated Medically Underserved Population.  The combination of poor nutrition and declining physical activity puts Ypsilanti area residents at greater risk of chronic diseases. Poor health and health care costs directly impact the ability to work, and the need to work more jobs to pay medical bills and meet other basic needs. Among our participants/volunteers, unemployment, and underemployment has increased in line with our state and region’s trends, though we do not keep formal data about this organization-wide. A majority of the 80 households in Growing Hope’s home vegetable garden program in 2009 faced unemployment or underemployment, and 75% participated in food stamps. Additionally, among new Growing Hope volunteer applications received just since March 2010, 28% participate in public assistance programs and know from those applications that many of our volunteers are seeking employment. 

Reclaiming the Commons Through Activism

  *   Housing crises:  The move to create a “new Detroit” is leading to illegal foreclosures as the city partners with banks and mortgage companies to systematically move people out of neighborhoods where they have lived for generations.  Local activists are bringing to light the ways illegal processes are being used to move residents out of their homes.  That is an example of the way activism is used to reclaim the commons.

Many Detroit residents are celebrating a new era of revitalization, as the city’s thriving Midtown is now dotted with upscale shops, restaurants and new construction. But Motor City, blighted with 83,000 abandoned homes, is also seeing the forced relocation of low-income seniors, most of them African American. “There’s a national trope about Detroit, the idea that it’s empty in a lot of ways,” said Tam E. Perry, a researcher at the Michigan Center for Urban African American Aging Research and assistant professor at Wayne State University, where she ​heads The Relocation Lab.

Phrases like, “Detroit is on the move” have taken hold, she said, promoting the notion that anything can happen there, that you can start a new business, be an artist--see the city as a “blank slate” just waiting for you to make your mark on it. “But when you think a community is a blank slate,” she said, “you’re also overlooking very vulnerable populations that have been part of the fabric of Detroit and want to remain part of that fabric. As development is occurring in various parts of the city, senior relocation—or I would say forced relocation--is an unintended consequence.”

Senior Advocates Form Coalition

Detroit, Perry noted, is a city of about 700,000 people, 82.7 percent of them black.  More than one in 10 residents (11.5 percent) are 65 or older.  As one recent Associated Press story declared, “Whites Moving to Detroit, City That Epitomized White Flight: Residents are taking advantage of cheaper housing.  Perry said she became so engaged in her research that she joined the Senior Housing Displacement-Preservation Coalitiona community advocacy group that is working to preserve senior housing, and to ease the transition for those who become displaced. This transition can have additional health consequences for seniors. For instance, a displaced senior with kidney failure not only lost her apartment, but access to her dialysis clinic around the corner.

The coalition has identified at least a dozen federally subsidized buildings in Detroit's now-thriving Midtown and downtown areas that might be converted to market-rate apartments in the coming decade, displacing another 2,000 elders in Midtown, Perry said.

Perry added, “We are trying to ask: How can Detroit remain a city for all ages? And what do we need to do to ensure that whole cohorts are not leaving the city because of these issues?” 

Quality Education and the Commons

  *   Education:  In Detroit and other urban centers decades of defunding schools has led to major budgetary crises that then rationalize the installment of Emergency Managers who take control away from democratically elected school boards and the people of the city whose children are the victims of school closings, mismanagement, and more.   The work done by local Detroit activists with the faculty and students of EMU to critique, protest and ultimately shut down our participation in the EAA is one example of how we can reclaim the education commons.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at

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