In balance with nature? Segregation and sustainability in Detroit
By Gregg Newsom
Special to the Michigan Citizen
This is the latest in a series of columns discussing the Environmental Justice Principles drafted and adopted by delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held Oct. 24-27, 1991. Environmental Justice Principle No. 12 “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.”
The majority of the environmental justice principles we’ve discussed have been directly illustrated by local examples. Principle No. 12 provides an opportunity to zoom out and take a look at the “big picture.” How does the notion of being in balance with nature translate to policy and governance in urban and rural settings? More specifically, what do motions towards “balance with nature” mean and how can they heartily manifest in a geography like Detroit where there is such intense, yet normalized, segregation in education and along lines of class and race?
I’ve been studying maps recently and one map in particular has assisted me in articulating the “big picture.” It’s a map of Detroit that includes the suburbs, reaching close to Pontiac. The map is made up of small, colored dots and its legend reads: “Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other, and each dot is 25 residents. Data from Census 2010.” (see it at www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf/5560480146/in/set-72157626354149574)
While I personally cringe at the fact that this map paints many vital Detroit communities in catch-all yellow, it is the many places on the map where hard lines between red and blue, or white and Black, come into stark focus that are most disturbing.
This is the big picture and, for me, this is where I think that discussions of policy, balance, cultural integrity and access should begin. Detroiters — red, blue, green, orange or yellow — all live and breathe in a very segregated city. In stark contrast to this is the fact that one of the reasons I’m living in Detroit, like many others who look like me, is to have a go at a more harmonious life, to become more sustainable, to find balance.
An issue here is that any manifestation of meaningful, paradigm shifting sustainability is hinged on health, equity, transparency, accountability and a host of other aspects of respectful governance. If these are not constantly held in the forefront of the work, you can call it green/local/transformative/evolutionary or revolutionary until the cock crows, but it is not going to make it sustainable and, from where I’m sitting, will only provide temporary reprieve and a rather arrogant yet false sense of security in the face of dire global and local issues coming to a boil.
Simply put, no matter if you’re part of a red, blue, green, orange, yellow or polka-dot dot, if what you’re doing and the way you’re doing it are not available to, or possible for others to do, it will create a discrepancy that will carry forward and perpetuate conflict, hierarchies, elitism and taxonomies that will threaten your sustainability. This level of sustainability can’t be faked, forged by disingenuous relationships, fueled by messianic visions or funded by corporations or foundations. To use the vernacular of the Matrix Oracle, what we need is “balls to bones” change.
The problem is “balls to bones” is a hard sell. I sometimes regret that this requisite meaningful sustainability can’t be co-opted or replicated en masse. With all the systems of information distribution we have in place, that would be a pretty quick fix. But that’s just not possible, for the systems themselves are designed to perpetuate discrepancies. If Detroiters attempt to pull a paradigm shift on the backs of others it will be even more unstable than what we have going now.
I’m not casting judgment here; I’m striving to speak from my personal experience as a white male attempting to respectfully raise a family in a geography where the majority of the population is African American and/or people of color. Just like mortgage and rent co-implicate us in a man-made, rather fantastical system that facilitates something called “land ownership,” moving to Detroit automatically inserts people, who often have very little historical context, directly into one of the most segregated places on the globe and whether we like it or not, just being here co-implicates us in the racism that is revealed in this map.
Some could disregard it as wishful thinking, but I’ve studied and practiced enough in the way of yoga, martial arts and the like to recognize a certain innate or integral truth in the notion “what goes around, comes around.” My intimations toward sustainability lead me to believe that striving for balance is dependent upon figuring out how to do things not just for yourself, but for the people you know, like grow, prepare and preserve foods, but also upon a ceaseless repetitive interruption of systems that perpetuate our own and our community’s co-implication in and dependence on destructive and violent cycles. In order to find balance we’re all going to need to put our feet down, look around and participate in co-creating change.
Gregg Newsom serves as a communications coordinator for the Detroit Food Justice Task Force (detroitfoodjustice.com), People’s Kitchen Detroit (peopleskitchendetroit.org) and other grassroots organizations.