This summer I have the privilege of working with the Sierra Club in Detroit for my community based research project. It is the oldest and one of the largest environment organizations in the United States. The organization and its community partnership program in Detroit works toward bettering the quality of life for low-income communities and communities of color, helping them organize support to voice their concerns and realize their power.
The Sierra Club initially caught my eye because of their focus on the health and quality of life impact from major industries, such as Marathon Petroleum and Koch Carbon. As a student who wants to pursue public health in the future, this project was very appealing to me because I would have the opportunity to gain experience in conducting a needs assessment for communities and help develop programs to address those needs in return. In addition, I would gain a general insight on conducting community participatory research. The Sierra Club’s method of approaching a community in need is unique because it is very similar to those of a grassroots organization. Two things my supervisor, Rhonda, mentioned in particular stuck out: firstly, she will only enter a community in need if they reach out to her first and extend to her an invitation to join them and second, any ‘experts’ that the Sierra Club may consult with to help the community will already be an existing member of that community, not an outsider. Keeping these two things in mind has fostered strong and sustainable relationships between the Sierra Club and various communities because they [the Sierra Club] don’t force their way into communities and try to “fix” them–they are there as a resource to the community, not an intruder.
I’m working on this project with another awesome student, Kerrel, and we started our first day sitting in on a teleconference meeting. It was a meeting to discuss the issues surrounding the mountain of Petroleum Coke (Pet Coke) that is sitting on the Detroit Riverfront and its impact on residents. To be honest, there were a few times in the meeting where I was like, “what is going on?”, and things were just going over my head but as the meeting progressed, I started to gain a better understanding of the issues underlying the PetCoke piles. We wrapped up our day attending the Detroit City Council meeting and it was my first time attending a city council meeting so it was very interesting to see how the meetings were conducted. Our project touches upon a few things but it mainly focuses on the the PetCoke problems in Detroit, our tasks throughout the summer will be to conduct health surveys in communities and then to compile the data afterwards. The health surveys will be used to assess the needs of the communities and then we’ll use that data to create plans of action to assist them if needed. After explaining our goals to us, Rhonda once again reiterated that we are there to assist them in realizing their power in the community and not to intrude.
Another thing I noticed on my first day was Sierra Club’s office space. I wasn’t expecting an extremely fancy place but maybe one that was more representative of the Sierra Club’s long standing reputation. Instead, I entered a humble office space with stacks and stacks of paper lying across the room, shared with a few other people. Despite being a one-woman team representing Sierra Club Detroit and having very little resources to work with, Rhonda continues to work hard and diligently for the community. Non-profit organizations may not look very glamorous on the outside but I’m quickly coming to appreciate the heart and passion that these people put into their work because it definitely shines through and the communities they work with are positively impacted. I’m very excited to spend my time with the team this summer and immerse myself into the community!