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EMEAC on Detroit’s cutting edge of honoring cultural integrity and providing fair access

By Patrick Geans-Ali

DETROIT — This week’s column addresses environmental Justice Principle No. 12, which “affirms the need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities, and provide fair access for all to the full range of resources.”

There are probably more community-based initiatives going on in Detroit these days than there have been in a long while. Many of them are doing outstanding, visionary work when it comes to “cleaning up and rebuilding the city” — whether that’s with bricks and mortar or something more substantial like brains and morals, but there are few who do it with the right mix of style and substance like the folks at the East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC).

There are probably less — but not a few — who are focusing on bridging the gaps between urban and rural communities in the hopes of striking a better balance with our Mother Nature who nurtures us all. Finally, there are those lonely voices crying out into the breech of the on-going culture clashes between haves and have-nots, home rulers and homesteaders in the name of cultural integrity for all communities and fair access to a full range of resources.

An organization that has the capacity to encompass all of these various challenges is unique and I’ve been fortunate enough to be introduced to the city through just such a special organization in EMEAC. EMEAC has been my home here in Detroit since coming into the city over a year and a half ago, and although I’ll be taking my next step in the environmental justice struggle by joining the Detroit Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice Office in September, I really couldn’t move on without recognizing all the wonderful people and programs I’ve been blessed to know while at EMEAC.

EMEAC’s vision reflecting all the challenges of EJ Principle No. 12 began with their core team, which consists of Executive Director Diana Copeland and associate directors Lottie Spady and Ahmina Maxey. Although Maxey has since moved on to pursue her master’s degree, this team guided EMEAC’s transition from suburban Birmingham to the heart of the city around five years ago. It was the fact that they did so intentionally with all 17 EJ Principles as their guideposts that has allowed EMEAC to grow with the ever-changing dynamics of the city while still maintaining relevancy at all levels.

That commitment to the fundamental EJ idea that community comes first and community voices must be lifted up and heard is what anchors EMEAC to Detroit’s struggles. At a time when competing narratives suggest Detroit is like a Dickens novel, a tale of two cities — simultaneously going through the best of times and the worst of times — an open-hearted approach to community building is called for.

Through their various people, programs and partnerships, EMEAC has brought a successful visionary approach to a most difficult process. The work is getting no easier with the kind of intractable, regressive forces we are up against in the EJ Movement, but I expect EMEAC to remain a force thanks to both their vision and their grassroots approach.

It’s been wonderful to see EMEAC establish the Cass Community Commons as a true community hub inside the First Unitarians Universalist Complex at the corner of Forrest and Cass. It’s been an amazing process to go from our small little office over on Canfield to the bustling social justice presence in Midtown that the Commons blossomed into in less than a year.

The process is only beginning and improvements are being made each day. With the rest of EMEAC’s wonderful staff of Ife Kilamanjaro, Charity Hicks, Will Copeland, Siwatu Salama-Ra, Kim Sherobi, Dee Collins, Priscilla Dziubek, Anthony Grimmet, Roger Boyd, Rayven Roberts and Sanaa Nia Joy, EMEAC has a talented and diverse core of people who are committed to making a difference.

Then there are the wealth of partner organizations EMEAC is aligned with through various other collaborations such as the Commons partners, which include the Sugar Law Center for Social Justice, Gregg and Angela Newsom’s Peoples Kitchen Detroit, Sarah Sidelko’s Fender Bender Bike Shop, the D. Blair Theater and the Whole Note Healing Collective. Of course, that’s just the beginning as EMEAC is active in various local, national and international collaborations with groups such as the Detroit Future Youth Network, Detroit Food Justice Taskforce, Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, Detroit Future Media, Grassroots Global Justice and the Praxis Project.

Look for EMEAC’s role in Detroit’s environmental justice movement to continue to flourish. Like anything that grows, it all begins with having the right ingredients and knowledge of your environment. EMEAC has both, so the future will be full of bright, beautiful and healthy things.

To learn more about EMEAC programs and activities go to

Contact Patrick Geans Ali at

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