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Issues Of The Environment: Making Environmental Justice A Policy Priority In Washtenaw County

Justin Hodge
Washtenaw County

For many in Washtenaw County, environmental justice is lacking. Low income residents and people of color often find themselves subjected to environmental hazards, while the more affluent do not. Washtenaw County Commissioner Justin Hodge has made environmental justice a priority and discusses the successes and challenges that remain with WEMU's David Fair. 


  • Justin D. Hodge, Washtenaw County Commissioner for District 5 and Chair, Ways & Means, has been helping marginalized communities in Washtenaw County receive help and attention with a variety of environmental problems related to quality of life, most recently working with neighborhoods that are disproportionately affected by rats. He sees community engagement and building “community capacity” as vital to creating more equitable lived experiences for residents of the county.

  • Hodge says, “This discussion on environmental justice and health equity is deeply connected to the social determinants of health, environment health being a key component.
    • The Opportunity Index is a useful tool that maps access to opportunity across the county, with health being one of the indicators: http://www.opportunitywashtenaw.org/
    • Within my first 100 days in office, I pushed for us to pass a resolution that commits the county to using this tool to guide our policy and programmatic decision-making. 
    • Our Health For All website provides data on a wide range of health indicators, including environmental health: http://www.healthforallwashtenaw.org/

  • One very important resource for residents is the county’s complaint process, and the health department aims to resolve issues through education, mediation, and collaboration with community partners. Justin would like to explain the process.

  • Hodge says marginalized residents are disproportionately affected by rodents, but Environmental Health also handles complaints about mold, cockroaches, bedbugs, garbage, water, and sanitation.

The Opportunity Index and Environmental Racism

We all want Washtenaw County to be a community where all residents have the opportunity to thrive.

Instead, Washtenaw County is the eighth-most economically segregated metro area in the U.S., and access to opportunity is often determined by race and place. Why? The county is divided by historical development patterns established through racist housing and lending policies designed to exclude people of color. The damaging effects of that historical segregation persist today and continue to impact who has access to power and opportunity.

Fortunately, we have the power to change those patterns and ensure a more equitable future with fair and just outcomes for all Washtenaw County residents. That work will require focus and long-term commitment to undo past systemic and institutional racist practices.

The Opportunity Index is an important tool for identifying which communities have access to structural privilege and which do not. The index can guide future decisions about where to invest our collective resources and how to consider policy changes to advance equity.

Opportunity is the ability to choose safe and affordable housing, quality education, gainful employment, and adequate transportation and health care. Structural privilege is defined as the access to opportunities available to certain people and communities.

The Opportunity Index measures access to opportunity by combining 16 indicators into five categories: health, job access, economic well-being, education and training, and community engagement and stability.

Census tracts receive an opportunity score for each category as well as an overall opportunity score, which is the average of the five category scores. An opportunity score of 4 is very high access to opportunity (dark blue on the map), 3 is high opportunity (light blue), 2 is low opportunity (light red), and 1 is very low opportunity (dark red).  

The opportunity score in each category is based on how outcomes for residents in that census tract compare to the county-wide average. Lower scores indicate room for improvement relative to the rest of the county and are not necessarily a sign of poor outcomes.

Privilege, Equity, and Opportunity

Privilege cuts across many lines: geography, race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, physical and cognitive ability, and socio-economic class. Privilege is a factor in all five categories of opportunity measured by the Opportunity Index. 

To illustrate how privilege influences opportunity, consider how students often end up in a given school.  Families with access to privilege are more likely to have enough income and/or wealth to buy a house in a neighborhood in the school district they want to be in. Or if they don’t live in a specific neighborhood, they have the access to transportation and time to get their student to take advantage of school of choice policies. This structural privilege comes from their own access to education, family wealth, race, or other related factors.

Similarly, access to quality child care, grocery stores, internet, financial institutions, and public amenities like museums and libraries also are indicative of privilege. While the community you live in impacts your structural privilege, oftentimes race is the driving factor. Wherever you live in the county, white people have some level of privilege not available to Black and brown people in similar situations.

More so than individual choices or lifestyles, access to structural privilege influences outcomes in people’s lives related to health, personal wealth, and their children’s chances of improving their economic status over the course of their lifetimes.

Health for All, Washtenaw - Community Health Dashboard and Tool

This website is supported by the Washtenaw County Health Department and partners. Health for All Washtenaw is meant to be a central location for information about health and factors that impact health in our community. Health For All Washtenaw provides:

  • Local data on a broad range of topics affecting health in our community
  • Promising practices from other local, state and national health departments
  • News articles highlighting the assets in our community
  • And information about community events.

Community groups, schools, health associations, chambers of commerce, tourism, and many other organizations can use this information to show the great benefits of living in Washtenaw County, as well as opportunities for improvement. Master planners and government can use this data to establish community goals on a variety of platforms. The data is updated whenever source data is updated, providing the most up-to-date information of its kind.
Learn how to use the Health for All Washtenaw website. (Source: http://www.healthforallwashtenaw.org/tiles/index/display?alias=AboutUs)

Community Health Improvement

The Washtenaw County Health Department's new community health improvement process is built on a national model for improving public health called MAPP (Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships). The Health Department chose to use MAPP because it emphasizes community engagement and health equity in all phases of the work so that action is focused on addressing unfair and unjust differences in health. The MAPP process is guided by the Health for All Steering Committee.

The Health for All Washtenaw website is home to the data, stories, and actions of the Health Department's new health improvement process, as well as additional data and information from partners in the community. We hope you find this site useful, as we work together to improve health for all Washtenaw community members. (Source: *directly quoted* http://www.healthforallwashtenaw.org/indicators/index/dashboard?alias=alldata)

Washtenaw County Health - Filing Complaints as a Renter

If you are a renter and are would like to file a complaint about your apartment or home, please talk to your landlord or apartment management company about the issue first. If the problem is not resolved in a reasonable amount of time, then contact our office to file a complaint.

What We Will Do

  • Washtenaw County Environmental Health staff will call you to discuss the complaint or incident and gather more information including whom you have reported the incident to, and what you and the responsible party have done to help resolve the situation.
  • We will then call the responsible party to see if they are aware of the issue, and what they are doing to remediate the situation.
  • Our role is often to serve as a mediator or communicator between the complainant and the responsible party, and clarify the roles and responsibilities of both parties. We also provide information to both parties regarding environmental issues.

What We Will Not Do

  • Washtenaw County Environmental Health does not have the equipment or resources to test for mold, detect odors or other harmful substances, spray for mosquitoes, etc. We can help you find companies that can provide these services for you.
  • In many cases, it is not necessary for us to make a site visit to verify the complaint. We have found that most incidents are resolved when we are able to get the two parties communicating, and when we can clarify the expectations of both parties. Some situations, however, will involve a site visit by our staff. We will also refer some complaints, as appropriate, to other local or state agencies.
  • We do not handle basic customer service complaints such as rude staff, lost reservations, or wrong food orders. Please report these incidents to the facility's management.
  • We cannot assist in breaking a lease agreement, receiving a security deposit refund, or suing responsible parties. Please seek legal counsel for assistance in these matters.
  • We cannot provide medical advice. If you have concerns about your health, please see your health care provider. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.washtenaw.org/1889/Filing-a-Housing-or-Sanitation-Complaint)

Zip codes should not predict health 

In the U.S., where someone lives is directly related to their health. The disparities related to COVID-19 have made this even more apparent. The environments where Black, Brown, and low-income communities reside are drastically different from their White counterparts. When you look at the intersection of race and class and place, the communities most impacted by this pandemic are the same communities that have largely been forgotten. Many low-income and communities of color have:

  • Limited food options (excessive fast-food restaurants and limited grocery stores) and inadequate neighborhood conditions (lack of safety) that contribute to the proliferation of hypertension, diabetes, and obesity;
  • Groundwater contamination and excessive lead toxicity resulting from outdated infrastructure (lead paint and old pipes) that result in higher rates of hypertension, kidney damage, and can impact birth and developmental outcomes; 
  • High rates of neighborhood degradation (illegal dumping) which results in increased pests, rodents, disease, infection, and distress;
  • Higher rates of particulate matter (PM2.5)/air pollution resulting from hazardous waste and other polluting sites (noxious facilities, incinerators, transportation thoroughfares nuclear plants, and Superfund sites) causing higher and more severe rates of asthma as well as elevated risks of leukemia and cancer.

These environmental inequities have permeated our country for decades. These injustices aren't mere happenstance—access to housing, community development, and healthful resources, or the lack thereof, is linked to a history of redlining in this country that continues today. While many understand redlining as a historic practice that exploited, under-resourced, and targeted low-income and African American neighborhoods, most don't realize that financial exploitation is still happening. 

Historical and present-day discrimination allows certain communities to have and others to struggle. And because affluence, and often whiteness, translate to greater economic power and subsequent political power, communities of color have less capacity for resistance. But as researchers, we can help change that. 

Building community capacity

These health disparities are a result of economics, issues related to equity and equality, and power dynamics that affect the distribution of resources and policy decisions. This is a phenomenon that has been studied by experts for more than 50 years under the umbrella of environmental justice. All communities are entitled to the protections that foster a healthy environment, and all community members have a right to participate in decisions that affect their community, their health, and their livelihoods. Active community engagement in problem-solving and decision-making is one means of addressing environmental racism. The ability to demand policy, social, and structural change requires community power. For this reason, building capacity in communities is vital for redressing environmental injustice.

Building community capacity requires strengthening characteristics that enable a community to mobilize and address concerns. These characteristics include:

  • Skill-building and leadership development such as advocacy training, conflict resolution and communication skills, problem-solving, and strategic planning; 
  • Enhancing community power by elevating lived experiences and enabling access to scientific data, as well as creating opportunities to be involved in decision-making processes; 
  • Creating partnerships and developing strategies that are in alignment with community needs, values, and goals. Three decades of studies related to pollution concerns and found that most research focused on the 'low hanging fruit" of capacity building. Researchers often engaged minimally with communities through recruitment, offering incentives, educating residents through forums, and helping to create or extend partnerships and networks. 

These 'low hanging fruit' activities are not enough because they are often extractive, taking from the community more than they give. Many studies did not emphasize community values and the needs of the community, provide opportunities where their research could be used to leverage and understand root causes, identify historical challenges and move to address those underlying issues, or build leadership in a meaningful way. And further, most studies did not succeed in achieving any policy or environmental change.

[There is a] misalignment of academic research with the needs of the community. After participating in the Academy, community leaders implemented a specific project in their respective neighborhoods to address an environmental justice concern. Most of these projects focused on skills building and training, aligning projects with community values, leveraging existing resources, critical reflection, and leadership development.

One project in particular was able to implement a small policy win in the installation of a couple stop signs. While this isn't necessarily a big deal for the average person, these stop signs were located in a community that semi-trucks were using as a shortcut, leading to high levels of diesel pollution. These polluting sources significantly impacted the neighborhood elementary school with high rates of children experiencing asthma. The stop signs became a deterrent for the trucks, reducing traffic and pollution. As a result of leveraging learnings from the EJ Academy with respect to community mobilization and partnership development, this small win for a small neighborhood has had great impacts on the health of many in the community.

Not only did they achieve desired environmental change and advance efforts toward policy change, but these projects uplifted, empowered, and most importantly invested in community renewal efforts, not extractive ones. Lessons can surely be gleaned from successful EJ Academy community projects and applied to the academic realm, as greater alignment with community needs and values can ultimately lead to greater impacts.

There is a misalignment in environmental justice research

Unfortunately, academia has a history of helicopter science, where researchers collect data with little or no engagement with the community or local researchers. The focus needs to be shifted beyond mere engagement for data collection to real partnership that emphasizes sustainability, uplifts the community, and creates an opportunity for policy, systems, and environmental change. Enhancing a community's capacity is not easy, but in order to promote solidarity we must strive toward genuine collaboration.

Granted not all research studies have intentions of making policy, systems, or environmental change. And, the relatively short-term funding cycles of research makes long-term change more challenging. However, research should always be mutually beneficial and in alignment with the values and needs of the community that is being studied.

Shift to a focus on communities

So, where do we start and how do we get there? First, a reorientation of how we interact with communities, what is elevated as best practice, and what is prioritized in the realm of research must be addressed. We know that racism is toxic, but helicopter science and extractive science that pokes and prods impacted communities is equally toxic.

Second, at its core, environmental justice is about relationships. We must truly be vested in the community to build trust; create solutions that are practical, effective, and sustainable; ensure that those who are impacted share and lead in the decision-making process; and elevate the research to maintain a primary focus of equity and justice.

The structure of the EJ Academy provides a great model for how to shift the orientation to community. The framework uses 7 core components: issue identification, leadership development, consensus building, partnership, constructive engagement, management, and evaluation. By focusing on these, the Academy teaches us how to center the work on community priorities and cultivate a shared vision in addressing community concerns. These teachings can help reorient university researchers to infuse their research with inclusion, equity, community-driven practices, and relationships. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.ehn.org/environmental-justice-movement-2653280025/there-is-a-misalignment-in-environmental-justice-research)


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and, today, we want to talk about environmental justice efforts in Washtenaw County and how injustice more dramatically impacts marginalized communities. I'm David Fair and welcome to our weekly feature Issues of the Environment. Our guest this morning has made environmental justice a cornerstone of his professional and political life. Justin Hodge serves as Fifth District Washtenaw County commissioner and is chair of the Board's Ways and Means Committee. Thank you so much for the time today, Commissioner Hodge.

Justin Hodge: Oh, thank you for having me. I'm really excited to be on the show.

David Fair: What made environmental justice so important to you?

Justin Hodge: With my background is in social work, I used to be a clinical social worker providing child with family therapy and case management for kids and adults with developmental disabilities and working on the ground and seeing that, you know, the impact environment has on people's day- to-day lives has always been something that's resonated with me. A lot of that comes from my training as a social worker where we're trained to not just look at factors that affect a person's day-to-day, but also the environment which they're in. And now, I'm a professor of social work at the University of Michigan, and I try to incorporate as often as I can all the different varieties of social justice into my teaching, including environmental justice.

David Fair: So, I want to follow down each of those paths for a moment as a social worker. Obviously, there are physical ramifications to environmental injustices, but did you also find there were adverse emotional impacts on those who were living in high-risk environmental areas?

Justin Hodge: Well, absolutely. I mean, we see the health components to environmental injustices, and that has an emotional impact on people as well. And frequently, people aren't thinking about how the environment may or may not be affecting their lives. And that leaves them in a position about wondering where some of these concerns are coming from. I mean, for example, we see higher rates of asthma and people that are in higher polluted areas and those tend to be optimum communities of color.

David Fair: Now, as a professor of social work at the University of Michigan, what from those interpersonal experiences do you find it important to share specifically with the students who will comprise the next generation of social workers and therapists?

Justin Hodge: Yeah, when I'm working with my students and me, the classes that I teach focus on getting students to think about how they can engage in policy and political work after they graduate. I ask students to be conscious of this in their work in community and with individuals and to always think about what are the policy ramifications both at the state, local and national level,

David Fair: 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment conversation continues with 5th District Washtenaw County Commissioner Justin Hodge. And let's move into the environmental justice conversation as it pertains to your position as an elected official. We know that, statistically speaking, Washtenaw County is eighth most economically segregated in all of the United States. Now, with Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan at the county center and much of the outside perception of Washtenaw County as just that, that figure has to be a shock to some. But I know it's not to you. What is your take on the statewide and national perspective versus the reality for a good percentage of Washtenaw County?

Justin Hodge: Yeah, I mean, it's a great question, and addressing some of these serious economic inequities in our county and the economic segregation in our county has been something I've been working on for quite a while, even before I became commissioner. And it's something that we have to draw attention to. People tend not, as you mentioned, we have University of Michigan here, and we have a lot of wealth in Washtenaw County, and people tend not to think about how that wealth is dispersed. And that's why I'm really excited that we have tools like the Opportunity Index that was recently relaunched that we can use to drive our decision making to try to create better opportunities for our people--our residents.

David Fair: And I want to make very clear. The segregation historically in Washtenaw County was created willfully development patterns: racially motivated housing and lending policies that made segregation in the county inevitable. As we look for solutions and more equitable quality of life for people of color and those in marginalized communities, that's where that Opportunity Index you referred to comes into play. It highlights the social determinants of environmental and public health. What stands out to you as you look at that index map?

Justin Hodge: Yeah, I mean, the Opportunity Index is a fantastic tool that I would love for your listeners to go and mess around with, and you can do that at Opportunity Washtenaw dot org. So, in that, the opportunity across the county, looking at a variety of different factors ranging from health, socioeconomic status, and so on. And just a few of the points that jump out at me, you know, that people of color make up a majority of, what, eight out of 11 of the census tracts that are majority of people of color make up some of our lowest access opportunity tracks in the county. And even within, if we look at things specifically from a health perspective, we can look at life expectancy. Even in the same municipalities, for example, average life expectancy of residents in the majority Black parts of eastern Ypsilanti Township is 18 years or less compared to the residents and majority white parts of western Ypsilanti Township. So that's both an environmental and racial justice issue.

David Fair: And if you just look at the map itself, there is a stark disparity between those who live on the west side of US-23 and those on the east side of 23. Do you take that into consideration as your job as a commissioner?

Justin Hodge: Absolutely. It's something that I speak with my colleagues about frequently. One of the things after I got elected that I focused on quickly was for us to get a resolution together and passed that will commit us--the county board of commissioners, county administration and county departments--to using the Opportunity Index as a tool to guide our policy and programmatic decision-making.

David Fair: We're talking environmental justice and more with Washtenaw County Commissioner Justin Hodge on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. Commissioner Hodge, you want to use that Opportunity Index, as you mentioned, to guide the county board of commissioners in its policy and program decisions, and you did pass for passage of the resolution that would have mandated it. Where does that push stand?

Justin Hodge: So, we were successful in passing that, and I'm really happy to say within my first 100 days in office, so especially as we start talking about the American Rescue Plan and, for us, what we're calling the Washtenaw Rescue Plan, which is how we're going to use funds from the American Rescue Plan and other county funds to support our residents, we'll be using the Opportunity Index to guide those decisions.

David Fair: While these conversations are underway, and there is slow, but incremental changes taking place, there are all too many still living with the consequences of environmental injustice. It managed to manifest itself, as we've discussed, in unemployment, but also lower household incomes for those who are working, access to food and health care, rodent and cockroach infestation, exposure to worse quality air, and lead paint. And that's just a few of the issues. What recourse in Washtenaw County right now is there for people who need help?

Justin Hodge: Yep. So, we have an environmental health division within our county health department, and they do a lot of that work. You had Kristen on this show recently, and she talked about some of the work that they're doing around, you know, failing septic systems. And, as you mentioned, with bedbugs and bad cockroaches, wide range of things, our environmental health division works on that. And they work with residents and in a form of partnership where if you contact the health department with any of those issues. They will work as a mediator and as a connector to community resources, as they try to engage the responsible party to see first if they're aware of the issue, how they can work to remediate it. So, it's a great way to try to approach things from the community perspective and to engage non-profits, local governments, federal agencies, whoever, to try to resolve some of those issues.

David Fair: I'm sure you've heard from some that they have tried to register complaints or get a need addressed and feel ignored and don't know where to go after that first line of defense. So, if there is that kind of nature of complaint, what do you recommend?

Justin Hodge: You know, first, I think that the challenge to our health departments and our county is still responding to the pandemic, and that has slowed some things down. So, if someone filed a complaint and they have not received a response in a timely fashion, I would recommend that they reach out to their commissioner to provide some support. I mean, we're here to try to connect our residents to county government, and if there are challenges like that, I always recommend that people reach out to their elected representatives.

David Fair: We've been talking about a lot of very specific issues, but, in the broader sense, Washtenaw County has, in fact, declared racism a public emergency. And with that at the center of developing and implementing new policy, will the declaration ultimately have lasting impacts on the collective effort to build equity and ultimately equality?

Justin Hodge: I believe it will. I am frequently working with our racial equity office, and we have recently passed a resolution that commits funding to equity initiatives. I see that as just the first step. And we're going to continue to bolster that office, so we can really integrate a racial equity approach and anti-racist approach into our work as county government. I see all these steps that we have taken so far from declaring racism a public health crisis to committing more funding to the office. And I would love to see us continue to committing more funding to the office. But these are all just first steps in what will be a transformative change.

David Fair: And how exactly do you go about exercising patience as you wind through the sometimes slow process of bureaucracy?

Justin Hodge: You know, that can be challenging, and, as you mentioned earlier, the issues we face in our county from segregation to economic inequality, a lot of that was done purposely in the past. And it's going to take purposeful action for us to change that. You know, I went into government and ran for office knowing that it's going to take some time to make the changes that I would like to see. And patience is a key part of that.

David Fair: And, as you personally exercise patience when your constituency comes to you impatiently, what do you say to them?

Justin Hodge: That's a great question, because we do have people that are looking for change right now, and one thing that I try to do is educate people on what's going on, connecting them with the initiatives, and making them aware of the work that I'm doing, the work that the rest of the board is doing, and that county government is doing. The one thing that I notice is a lot of people aren't always paying attention to what county government is doing. You know, state government is much more in the news, as well as national government. But I think people tend to be surprised when they see all the work that we're doing at the county level. And we always have to work to try to put that in front of people so they can see that their elected representatives at the county level and the hard-working staff and county administration are working to make change.

David Fair: Well, I thank you for the time today, and I will look forward to another conversation, and we can talk more about progress.

Justin Hodge: Absolutely. Thank you for having me on.

David Fair: That is Justin Hodge. He serves as 5th District Washtenaw County commissioner and chair of the County Board's Ways and Means Committee. He's been our guest on Issues of the Environment. It's a weekly feature produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. You hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89-1 WEMU FM and HD one Ypsilanti.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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