Thursday, July 22, 2010

Solutions and Survival: My Experience in a Community of Impact

This is a guest post by Zach Holden, a GELT program participant, reflecting on his experiences exploring community outreach.  Cross-posted from Thanks to both.

 Authored by GELT-er Zach Holden

As we came to the door, I was feeling pretty negative. Tired, frustrated with the cancellation of our early morning appointment, I had bitterly informed my partners that they should take the ‘lead' on this house, that I just wanted to follow orders and let one of them take up the task of explaining who we were and everything we were doing to the home owner. I had a vague sense of ill ease as we reached our destination on Hill Street in the northwest of Highland Park, as the last time we had lugged a weatherization kit through the neighborhood, we had been told we were ‘in the wrong neighborhood' by a group of teens.

When we came up the front steps and knocked on the door, I noticed the tape holding together the screen door and the lingering smell of stale tobacco, thinking we were in for a interesting experience. We heard a man hollering at us, asking who we were. A woman soon came to the door, asking who we were and who we were looking for, telling us she didn't want our ‘shit', Needless to say, we were taken aback by her rather aggressive manner, and the weatherization was nearly dead on arrival, until the man, her husband, informed her that he had in fact signed up. She was further relieved when (in direct contravention of my previous promise to my partners) I explained to her that our service was in fact free, and that we would not only give her the supplies but actually install them as well. When she realized we weren't trying to scam her or otherwise pull some trick, her demeanor instantly shifted from stand-offish to absolutely friendly, and a smile came over her face.

As we headed into the basement, her husband offered a brief explanation of her initial resistance to us- there had been a ‘death' recently, and tensions were running high. I didn't have to wait long to hear the full story. As I burned my fingers trying to install CFLs, she told me that the death in question was in fact a triple murder that had recently occurred on the block, leaving three young men dead, with no news coverage and little hope of justice. She explained her initial hostility, saying there was a huge drug problem on the block.

These were the first revelations of many. As we worked our way through her home, sealing holes, replacing bulbs and sink heads and putting up weatherstripping, we learned that she had reclaimed the home from drug dealers who had taken over the house after her mother's death, and how strangers still showed up at her door looking for a fix (she thought we were of this category), how drive by shootings were a regular occurrence (instead of putting plastic kits over windows with leaky edges as we might in other homes, we covered the windows taken out by a recent shooting). How murders were common and a 90 year old woman had been raped on the block just the other week. How she wanted to get out of the neighborhood, but she was living on her unemployment checks after losing her job as a medical assistant.

This is the sort of situation that can present the central problem of organizing around environmental and sustainability issues in places like Highland Park. How could she devote attention to protecting our national parks or atmosphere when protecting her home is a matter of life or death? I honestly believe that the solution lies in programs such as Green Economy Leadership Training (GELT), and weatherization in particular. It allows for a community and its residents to work together not only to save money on their utility bill and understand environmental impacts, but to also reconnect with one another. Weatherization makes both environmental and economic sense. I hope it can present an outstanding site to develop the necessary, mutually beneficial relationships in places such as Highland Park.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Urban Growth, A GELTer talks about reaching out.

This is a guest post by GELT PDC participant Ayola White, cross-posted from Thanks to both.

Urban Growth

authored by GELT-er Ayoola White

Green Economy Leadership Training (GELT) has been filled with varied challenges. One day we’re constructing raised beds out of wood reclaimed from abandoned houses. The next, we’ll discuss applications of permaculture and the dangers of nuclear power. Since we are constantly defining and redefining our goals as a group, our activities tend to be hectic. Last Friday afternoon, we took on yet another challenge: canvassing residents to find candidates for free home energy improvements.

Hitherto that sweltering afternoon our primary interaction with the Highland Park community involved people from the neighborhood coming to us. Kids helped us pull weeds and remove bushes. Adults sat in on classes, sometimes, or walked around, carefully observing our work. Friday was the first day that we, the participants of GELT, collectively went to meet the people we’ve been working to serve. Armed with clipboards, sign-up sheets, and flyers, we fanned out.


Upon reaching the first household in my assigned turf, the southernmost region of Highland Park, I was stunned to discover that the words I had so smoothly recited that morning were not so smooth anymore. It was as though I suddenly had no clue what I was doing anymore. Luckily, my inner nervousness and confusion didn’t flow outward enough to repel absolutely everyone, and I was able to gather a few signatures in the first hour or so. I eventually tweaked my spiel to something that was comfortable for me to remember. But still, in the journey between each door, I kept scrutinizing my tactics. Am I talking too fast? The way I stammer is so embarrassing! Am I saying too much? Did I forget to say ‘thank you’ to that last lady? Is there something in my teeth?

Even when I was able to overcome self-consciousness, though, I felt that there was a moderate disconnect between me and the people I visited. Thankfully, most were friendly, and no one slammed a door in my face, but the people appeared wary of me sometimes. Given my unfamiliar face and the clipboard I was carrying, perhaps I was mistaken for a census worker or a salesperson before I opened my mouth to speak. Some were incredulous that the home energy visit I was describing was free. Others seemed suspicious of me, and they asked me where I was from and whether I worked for a utility company and was trying to get them to switch their service. It was as though there were walls of thick glass separating us, sometimes, making communication challenging.

In addition to reflecting on my own actions those of others, I was also mindful of my physical surroundings. My canvassing partner and I covered a total of three streets in that afternoon. Each street had its own character, its own look. One street was filled with lovely houses and breathtaking gardens, but there weren’t that many people outside enjoying them. The next had houses that were shabbier, but more people were congregating and conversing on porches. The last one was a mix of the two. What a contrast from my neighborhood, where every house, every street is a copy of all the others.

Despite the many abandoned and decrepit houses I saw everywhere, I noticed that immense vibrancy existed among the pockets of squalor. People were walking around, greeting their neighbors. Kids played together and adults watched out for them. What’s more, there were plants growing EVERYWHERE. Lawns, left untamed, exploded with greenery. Leaves and vines grew out of stairs and floorboards. It’s as if millions of sinewy green hands are emerging from the ground to pull the houses into the earth. How ironic it is that places like Highland Park are often thought of as sites of urban decay, when so much growth is taking place.

Since our goal in GELT is community building, not gentrification, it is vital to tap into the positivity that already exists here, rather than assuming that we have all the answers and that we’re here to rescue the weak and the downtrodden. On Friday, we GELT-ers made connections through our canvassing work that I hope will evolve into a strong network of people who will shape their neighborhoods into comfortable, sustainable living spaces. Together, we’ve already gathered about 50 signatures from people who want to make their homes more energy efficient. From here, our impact shall grow.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Together We Rise

This is a guest post by Monika Kothari, a participant in the Green Economy Leadership Training program.
 Together We Rise
For the past few days, my younger brother has been reading a book for school called The Fate of the Earth. If the title weren’t depressing enough, the book primarily consists of an account of the hysteria over the rise of nuclear arms, the resulting existentialism, and what those arms mean for…well, The Fate of the Earth. Supposedly, with the development of these weapons in the 1940s, humans officially became the first species in history with the potential to devastate not only our own population, but every other species, and quite literally the entire planet. Even today, nuclear annihilation is on the world’s mind as the greatest potential manmade disaster. 

The truth is that humankind developed destructive potential long before the rise of nuclear arms, and the greatest threat to our extinction today is not a nuclear threat, but an ecological and environmental one. We are the only species that is knowingly and voluntarily causing its own demise…literally. Okay, so I know we all know the story. Everyone and their mother has seen An Inconvenient Truth, heard politicians use catchphrases like “green energy” and “sustainability,” and thrown things at Glenn Beck. But too many of us, like me, are used to sitting on our butts at home, preaching from a high horse about turning the tap off while brushing our teeth.

The most difficult part of “environmentalism,” from my point of view, anyway, is internalizing it. Learning to see it as a movement that is not foreign or outside of oneself is difficult. When we watch the news, we are passive creatures, mentally absorbing oil spills, holes in the ozone, floating piles of garbage by the Great Barrier Reef, and distancing ourselves from them. But when we encounter those things up close and personal, and when we can physically see the differences our personal choices make, we realize how big and important this whole thing is. And it becomes most evident on a local/community level. I know it all sounds cliché, but it’s true.  And that is why I have decided to spend my summer in Highland Park, Michigan as part of the Green Economy Leadership Training.
 Until now, I have been a hypocrite in many ways. I’ve never been particularly involved in “The Movement,” and always held this mindset that being “environmentally conscious,” that is, aware of my impending death and The Fate of the Earth, was enough. I can pretend to be “liberal,” whatever that word means today, but like most Americans, I am extremely resistant to change. And I guess some of us have just become dismissive and nihilistic about the whole issue. But fortunately, it’s not all gloom and doom. The good news is that there actually are people in the field everyday, researching, implementing, organizing, and working towards solutions.

Why did I decide to spend the summer in Detroit? As someone that wasn’t born here, this city has always seemed like a fascinating study in urban decay. Maybe I felt that way because the only times I’ve actually been here were on my way to Canada. I’ve passed abandoned buildings and neighborhoods like silent skeletons, and found it difficult to imagine that this was once the center of the Midwest. But in reality many of these communities are still teeming with energy and filled with people of all ages that are eager to participate.

For the first few days of GELT, we have been learning about something called permaculture design, which includes an understanding of everything from the importance of soil to water catchment systems to replicating natural patterns from nearby ecosystems. So…uh, what exactly is permaculture? (A week ago I would have given you a blank stare.)  Fair enough; it’s a term that Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize. It’s short for permanent agriculture, and it’s more of a paradigm shift than anything else, one that involves developing permanent, sustainable methods of growing food and living in community.

The way I understand it, permaculture offers one of many possible solutions to the triangular problem of peak oil, climate change and economic instability and is one that is particularly well-suited to urban and suburban environments. It’s a different way of seeing the world, using existing patterns in nature and working with nature, rather than seeing it as an obstacle as humans tend to do. To some degree, it involves seeing things that “aren’t there”: noticing how the wind blows, how the water flows, how the ecosystem functions, and incorporating these elements into living and garden designs.
The overall idea of the work we are doing involves using a bottom-up approach to change the system, working at the community level to affect change on a small but potent scale. And with permaculture, we are truly starting from the grassroots.  I’ve found that sticking my hands in dirt not only satisfies my craving for hands-on experience, but is kind of spiritual in a way, and it’s not just because I’m sharing my blood with a massive colony of mosquitoes. I’m learning to appreciate life at it’s most basic level – the soil.

I was raised in a pretty religious Jain family, and taught at an early age to “live and let live,” respect all beings, and all that jazz. But most of my family never considers the consequences of their own actions, especially the deceptively little things. When the results don’t have a clear dollar sign in front of them, then it’s out of sight, out of mind, right? Well, humans are very visual creatures: we need to see results, cause and effect. And in Highland Park, we’re trying to produce results that people can see, and reproduce in their own homes, by implementing ecologically conscious permaculture techniques and allowing the public to help and learn during the process.

We’re working with some local homeowners, properties, and vacant lots, to create “community spaces,” which can range from playgrounds and daycare centers to urban gardens and educational facilities. The nature of the properties we are working with allows us to work with a tabula rasa when it comes to design: because many of the internal structures of the buildings have been destroyed, it’s easier for us to start from scratch. And, from there, the idea is that we can design whatever we want…so far, we are trying to be as ambitious with our plans as possible. There’s been talk of greenhouses, basketball courts, and large urban gardens, among other things.

But obviously, one “sector” we need to take into account is the neighborhood, and we must also bear in mind the needs and desires of the people living in the area. Making nearby residents a part of the process is essential for the success and longevity of these projects, because, in the end, it is their space to maintain and pass on. While the scale of the visions of the different members of SwOT may vary, the general consensus seems to be that we want Grove Street, our current workspace, to develop into a model green neighborhood for the city, state, and country. Hopefully, through our efforts and the support of the community, we can make that kind of positive change.
Penned by Monika Kothari, a student at Michigan State University and GELT-er for life

GELT is a multi-city program of Global Exchange in partnership with:
  • GreeNation
  • Global Exchange
  • Zaida
  • W.A.R.M.
  • PRI-De
  • Chiwara Permaculture Design
  • Highland Park NAACP
  • Highland Park Home Owner Collective
  • City of Highland Park
  • Highland Park High School
  • Grand Aspirations
  • Energy Action Coalition
  • Michigan Student Sustainability Coalition
  • DC Project