As Presidential Candidates Descend on Detroit, the City Wants to Be the 'Engine of the Green New Deal'

Photo: Getty

Detroit has seen its fair share of environmental disasters from industry pollution to ridiculous water bills. But the city is also building equitable solutions to address these issues, especially as climate change further threatens the health and well-being of Detroiters.

It’s against this backdrop that the second Democratic presidential debates will be popping off on Tuesday and Wednesday. Candidates are already in the Motor City, and its leaders and advocates will be looking at who has the best plan to address these issues head-on. Winning Michiganwhich Hillary Clinton lost in 2016—will be key for any Democrat hoping to take the White House so candidates need to come prepared.

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“Folks are really looking for candidates to talk about how they’re going to stop these sacrifice zones that continue to be placed around the country, especially in communities of color and low-income communities,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, the vice president for environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation who used to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice, to Earther.

Many environmental advocates have been rallying behind a campaign dubbed “Make Detroit the Engine of the Green New Deal.” Organizers are holding a march and rally Tuesday evening as a pregame to the debate. And they have reason to want as much. The city has faced heavy pollution for years, as a result of all the industry pumping crap into the air and dumping gunk into the waterways.

Ali, who spent part of his time growing up in Detroit, said he wants to see candidates give the city the attention it deserves. He and other environmentalists want to know what candidates can offer Detroiters to end the constant stream of pollution as well as how they’ll better enforce regulations to hold polluters accountable or ensure there isn’t another water crisis like what the state saw in Flint.

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Water, in particular, is a constant theme among local environmental leaders both because of the threat of industrial pollution to drinking water and unequal access. Flint, Michigan, saw its water supply contaminated with unhealthy levels of lead in 2016 and is still recovering from that disaster. In 2017, more than 17,000 homes in Detroit lost water service. 

“That’s something no one is speaking about,” Rhonda Anderson, a regional organizing manager in Detroit for the Sierra Club, told Earther. “We believe water is a human right, so how can you shut off the water from people when it’s so essential?”

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Democratic presidential candidates Julian Castro and Jay Inslee, at least, have committed to clean water and eliminating lead exposure as part of their platforms. But advocates want to hear more about how candidates will upgrade the city’s infrastructure to avoid future water disasters (like Flint’s). They want to know how the candidates plan to keep the Great Lakes clean in the face of increasing harmful algae blooms and degradation as a result of development and agriculture, a problem that will become worse with climate change.

And Michigan is just the tip of the iceberg. Water issues affect people across the U.S., not just in Detroit or Michigan. We all need water, and Flint is a reminder that all of our water systems are susceptible to contamination.

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Detroit, baby.
Photo: Getty

That’s why many environmental advocates in the city are rallying behind a Green New Deal, which is supposed to help transition the economy away from fossil fuels so that we can avoid the worst climate disaster while helping create new jobs that pay well and people want. While many like to think solar panels and wind farms are all the green economy can offer, Donele Wilkins likes to say, “[w]e have to clean up before we green up.”

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Wilkins is the founder and CEO of the Green Door Initiative, which trains formerly incarcerated people in disaster response and hazardous waste removal. These are booming markets in Detroit, she told Earther. And they’re a necessary step in working toward sustainability and addressing the city’s high unemployment (especially among its black residents).

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“I really do want to encourage elected officials and those that want to be president to think about the opportunity to focus on the Green New Deal,” Wilkins told Earther. “This is an opportunity to be a leader in this world when it comes to protecting this one Earth that we have.”

Models like Wilkins—investing in disenfranchised communities to help improve their immediate environment and, ultimately, the health of their neighborscould show candidates what a Green New Deal could look like on the local. Her work with the Green Door Initiative isn’t only about cleaning up Detroit, it’s about putting money in the pockets of individuals who face incredible hurdles to enter the workforce. And residents want to hear about candidates plans to do the same.

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Presidential candidates can learn a lot about how to address the environmental crisis from this city—but will the Democrats be willing to listen? More importantly, will Detroiters walk away from these debates trusting candidates will help remediate some of the most pressing environmental issues?  

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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