When I was going through the list of community based internships that Semester in Detroit was presenting to my cohort, I knew that I wanted to work with an environmental justice organization. The green organizations were sparse, but I also knew I wanted to focus on southwest Detroit. I chose Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision because it seemed like they were advocates for the primarily Hispanic communities living in the area. SDEV has community gardens in different parks and once-vacant lots now fruitful will nourishment for those living in the forgotten neighborhoods. That aspect of SDEV’s work is magical. I love their dedication to the community in that way. Another project that SDEV is actively working on is their Healthy Homes program. Southwest Detroit has one of the country’s most polluted zip codes, 48217. The surrounding communities are being affected by the amount of industry that is concentrated in a small space. Through the Healthy Homes program we offer assistance to families who have children who have asthma, likely due to the industry. We go into their homes and help educate them about asthma triggers, and if it is needed we offer assistance in house repairs that may be contributing to their child’s asthma. Both of these programs that SDEV runs are beneficial for the community.
The other project that I am working on is a community garden in Oakwood Heights. This community is within 48217. The majority of the houses that once occupied this space were bought out by Marathon Oil and torn down because of the lead and other toxic contaminants found in the soil. Marathon had to buy out the houses because the air quality and lead in the soil was poisoning the people in the neighborhood. When we go to the garden the oil refinery is barely a mile away from the field that the garden is in. One of the other interns cannot go to this garden because the heavier air affects her asthma. Taking a breath in this area is noticeably more difficult. We cannot plant vegetables in the ground here because it is likely that the lead would be soaked up into the food.
The first interaction I had with that garden was a meeting with the Marathon Oil worker in charge of the garden. She was a friendly woman and brought us into the new ornate headquarters. (Marathon had recently moved their main offices because the previous one was down wind from the factory, and the corporate employees could not deal with what they were putting residents of 48217 through). She walked us around the offices, telling us how excited she was to continue on with the community garden project. In the meeting, she told us which vegetables the employees liked best from the garden in previous years. I was confused until talking with my supervisor later, many of the community members do not trust Marathon’s actions because of the harm they have done to the community. I then realized that the community had likely not been consulted. I understand where the few residents left are coming from, they do not trust the people coming from the oil refinery. But, it also seemed like there was little effort in reaching out to them about what they would want. The garden was an idea that Marathon saw SDEV doing at Cadillac Urban Garden and wanted to copy in their area of southwest, without asking what the community members would want.
Going into the shiny new headquarters, and being greeted by a bubbly face of the company after driving through 48217 felt like the scene in The Hunger Games when Katniss finally makes it to the Capitol. The beautiful new office space mirroring the large gaudy buildings Katniss had seen for the first time. Being greeted by the community garden coordinator felt like meeting the stylists who primped and preened Katniss before making her public debut. Those people were warm to Katniss; they treated her with kindness and helped her. While at the same time, they supported and thrived off of the Capitol’s wicked doings. They saw their work as an aid to society, even though their true work was covering up generations of pain and suffering felt in District 12. While the garden coordinator herself was coming to the table with good intentions and believed she was bringing progress to the community, she was covering up the poisoning and displacement of countless families in the 48217 zip code. You cannot cover up the atrocities done to these families with a new nature conservatory and “community” garden. A community garden that is not backed or supported by the people it is attempting to serve is nothing more than a vegetable patch destined to go to waste.
Initially I considered myself a member of District 11 in my Hunger Games metaphor; the farmers who gave food to the Capitol and was not allowed much for themselves. I saw myself that way because mostly Marathon workers are the ones that take food from this community garden. Looking back now, I do not see myself as that at all. I am not the oppressed in this metaphor, my ability to get in a car and leave Oakwood Heights is a privilege in itself. I did not have to evacuate my home because of lead in the ground and pollutants in the air. While I do provide/farm for the people who work at Marathon, I am not the one being poisoned and displaced. I do not know where I fit in my Hunger Games metaphor, maybe it is too black and white to put anyone into these boxes. This is the way I understood my dirty feelings about working in the community garden in 48217. I do not know if I would still call SDEV an EJ organization, but maybe that is for a later blog. What I do know is that the people in Oakwood Heights deserve to be listened to and worked with, which is something Marathon needs to work on.
Here is the garden, as you can see the vegetables are planted in beds instead of the grass/ground. This is because the ground is too toxic with lead and other poisons that it would surely harm anyone who ate from the garden.