DETROIT — The National Wildlife Federation and partners hosted the first in a series of environmental justice and frontline community roundtables, with several Great Lakes elected officials joining leaders from across the region. The virtual meeting gathered more than 20 community advocates, local, county, state and federal officials, faith, youth, and nonprofit leaders to explore how African Americans in cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, Cincinnati, Gary, Ind., Flint, Mich., and Minneapolis are coping, planning and preparing forward thinking to resume conservation practices, policies, education, and engagement.
“The COVID-19 crisis has only exacerbated the health and environmental challenges facing frontline communities and communities of color — and underscored why we need to have real conversations with people about the solutions they need and how to get there,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation. “It’s important to support our frontline communities to endure through this incredibly challenging time. We need to seize the opportunity to respond in ways that create a smarter, more resilient, and more nature-based future through equitable and just recovery packages that enable our most vulnerable to move from surviving to thriving.”
“Ironically, a global health crisis that likely started with the wild animal trade and habitat devastation, has been especially devastating on U.S. urban centers,” said Simone Lightfoot, national director of urban initiatives and environmental justice for the National Wildlife Federation. “Particularly in those cities where the National Wildlife Federation is established, it only makes sense that we would lead the charge and connect stakeholders across our vast network. Although we focus on wildlife conservation, first and foremost we are facing a human tragedy.”
National partners supporting the series of roundtables include the NAACP, National Children’s Campaign, National Coalition of Black Civic Participation, National Environmental Justice Journal, and Union of Concerned Scientists.
Participants included Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes; Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison; Gary Mayor Jerome Prince; U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.); Wayne County Commission Chair Alisha Bell; Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Dwane Mallory; City Councilwoman and Detroit City Council President Pro Tempore Mary Sheffield; Michigan Assistant Secretary of State Heaster Wheeler; Rhonda Anderson, Sierra Club Detroit; Kevin Boyce, Franklin County Commission; Brenda Coley, Milwaukee Water Commons; Ernest Coverson, Amnesty International Chicago; Tammi Davis, Gary Sanitary District; Joe Mallory, Cincinnati NAACP; Justin Onwenu, Sierra Club Detroit; Monica Lewis Patrick, We The People of Detroit; Dr. Pam Pugh, Michigan State Board of Education and Michigan NAACP; Alderman Khalif Rainey, Milwaukee Common Council; Dr. Tony Reames, University of Michigan; Pastor Jefferey L. Smith, Bethlehem Temple Missionary Baptist Church; Regina Strong, Michigan Environmental Justice Public Advocate; and Dr. Karen Weaver, Clinical Psychologist and former Flint Mayor.
The event provided a forum to discuss the intersection of conservation issues – such as biodiversity, habitats, farming and agriculture — with justice issues such as urban community mental and public health, COVID-19, housing, jobs, education, voting, brown and green infrastructure, water affordability and shutoffs. Through its work focusing on urban initiatives and environmental justice, the National Wildlife Federation recognizes that all of these factors are interrelated.
“Beyond the obvious, one of the most revealing aspects that the COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered is the reality that life is harder for African Americans and other vulnerable populations,” said Donele Wilkins, CEO of Detroit’s Green Door Initiative, who participated in the roundtable. “This is not new to those that struggle to survive everyday but perhaps it reinforces that the struggle is real. Like other major movements over the years, real change requires cooperation and commitment to achieve change. The roundtables model what is needed to bring genuine change to those that need it the most.”
“COVID-19 has put a powerful magnifying glass on the racial health disparities, economic and environmental injustice, especially in communities adversely impacted by the Emergency Management imposed on black communities across Michigan, particularly in Benton Harbor, Detroit, Flint, Saginaw and Pontiac,” said Tameka Ramsey, convener, Michigan Coalition on Black Civic Participation and Black Women’s Roundtable Detroit/Pontiac Metro area. “To address these issues, we must educate, raise awareness, engage, organize and mobilize. This conversation was a great start in reaching out to broader frontline communities and local elected officials across the Great Lakes with the same concerns.”
“It is essential to have these convenings and address these critical issues,” said Rhonda Anderson, regional organizing manager, Sierra Club Detroit. “Those on the frontlines have been raising alarms for years and now here we are. We have to work together with the community and policy makers, to make needed changes.”