That was a question the Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ) wanted answered when it assembled the Detroit Climate Action Collaborative (DCAC) in 2011, a largely volunteer initiative to bring government, industry, academia, and the community together to address the effects of climate change on the city.
“Understandably, a lot of people don’t have the time and the resources to be thinking about climate change, but, as a society, I don’t think we have a choice in the matter,” said Natalie Sampson, University of Michigan-Dearborn assistant professor of health and human services. “It’s exciting to see [DWEJ Policy Director] Kimberly Hill Knot and the environmental justice community pick up this topic and run with it.”
Sampson sits on the DCAC steering committee and chairs the public health work group. She hopes to get decision-makers to think about how public health and climate change are connected. With climate change, southeast Michigan will likely experience increased temperatures and more heavy precipitation events. This has implications for health—think of how heat waves can trigger respiratory issues or how flooded basements can expose people to waterborne diseases.
“The core mission of public health fits in with getting ready for these events,” she said. “If we have these extreme weather events, what does that mean for some of the city’s most vulnerable residents? If we’re behind on this issue, we’re going to further amplify disparities.”
DCAC has led focus groups and community outreach activities to make sure their work reflects the needs, resources, and knowledge of Detroiters and the DCAC’s partners. Across the city, many related community development and environmental initiatives have been underway for years.
To address climate change, Sampson said, “We have to think about how we can put systems in place to support citywide efforts, as well as the good work that is already happening in Detroit’s neighborhoods.”
The DCAC is working on a climate action plan that will begin to address those needs in ways that reflect existing research. The plan—similar to plans developed in more than 600 cities nationwide—will document the city’s current greenhouse gas emissions levels and detail strategies on how to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
DCAC published initial accomplishments in the Michigan Journal of Sustainability and will release the climate action plan this spring. The group also plans to continue to work with its many partners and Detroit residents to raise awareness of climate change and its impact on the city.
When Neinas Elementary School students purchased a vacant lot for $900, empty buildings and idling trucks gave way to rain gardens and flower beds as part of the school’s living outdoor classroom.
That classroom, it turns out, is the perfect setting for students enrolled in University of Michigan-Dearborn’s teacher education program to learn alongside elementary students.
“The space students live in is an important source for curricular information. It’s a way to ground the information you’re trying to teach them with issues that make the content authentic and connect it to their lives,” said Chris Burke, associate professor of science education, who uses the outdoor classroom to teach Introduction to Science for Elementary Teachers and Elementary Science Methods.
At Neinas Elementary School, that means learning about sustainability. Specifically, what does a sustainable southwest Detroit look like? Fifth-grade teacher Amy Lazarowicz has tackled the subject for years and connected with Burke nearly three years ago to bring UM-Dearborn students on board.
Together, the two groups of students have studied soil components and flower parts. They’ve hit crushed limestone paver when digging for rain gardens. And they’ve learned to decipher between different types of manure to determine the best way to make fertilizer.
UM-Dearborn College of Education, Health, and Human Services (CEHHS) students learn about classroom management and how to conduct experiments. But Burke hopes the lessons extend beyond basic textbook knowledge.
Through the course of the semester, he sees the role of student and educator shift a bit. This isn’t about saving Detroit, he said. It’s about learning from some of the city’s youngest residents.
“I want my students to learn from these kids. They have insights about the ecosystems of Detroit and pollution and the needs of the community that my students don’t have,” he said. “I want them to develop a deeper understanding and a more nuanced picture.”
That was the case for Zeinab Skaf.
The science education student came to Neinas to gain hands-on experience in the classroom. But she left with a better understanding of what students can teach her.
“The students at Neinas are smart, talented and motivated to learn,” Skaf said. “This experience taught me more about the city of Detroit and, more importantly, about the schools and students there.”