In Highland Park, A Region Raises a Hoop Hous

http://univercities.wordpress.com/2011/07/06/in-highland-park-a-region-raises-a-hoop-house/

written by Joel Batterman

A barn-raising in the heart of Detroit? That’s certainly what it felt like as activists from across the region gathered in Highland Park on Sunday, June 26, to construct a 2000-square-foot hoop house from plastic sheeting and metal tubes. This solar-powered greenhouse can grow food year-round—even in Michigan winters. Armed with the right equipment, it doesn’t take more than a day to construct one. As UniverCities Energy Data Intern Jordan Eizenga and other Suburbs Alliance staff found, it does take a number of willing hands.

Jordan Eizenga is framed by the house’s metal structure.

Jordan (not to be confused with Energy Policy Intern Jordan G.) found lending his hands easy enough. He moved to Ferndale this summer to be near the Suburbs Alliance main office, and biked the few short miles along Woodward Avenue from Ferndale to help build the house. The site was behind the Green Economy Leadership Training (GELT) house near Woodward and McNichols. A branch of a national youth network organizing for solutions to global climate change, GELT seeks to give young people a holistic understanding of the transition to a sustainable, community-scaled economy through neighborhood projects like the hoop house.

Things heat up in the hoop house’s interior.

By late morning, most of the metal hoops that formed the hoop house’s structure were already in place, and the lot was a hive of activity. Builders included master hoop-house mechanic Jeff McCabe, co-founder of Ann Arbor’s SELMA Café, Margaret Lewis, publisher of the Highland Park-based Legacy News, and scores of others from the block, the neighborhood and the greater region. Now that’s metropolitan cooperation in action! While at rest, the group traded farming tips and enjoyed impromptu rapping from the youngest attendees.

The plastic sheeting has been hauled into place.

“Billow it!” As the sun sank lower, the team gathered on either side of the curving metal frame to push and pull the plastic walls of the house into place, sending ripples through the giant sheets to carry them over the top. Slowly, under the careful hands of Jordan and two dozen others, the double sheets slid down to meet the wooden frame near the ground. What had been empty space open to the elements at dawn became a warmer interior where plants will grow come winter.

Collective celebration with the help of a timpani.

There’s much more to be done before the hoop house produces its first crops. For Jordan and the other six Suburbs Alliance staff on hand, though, the day was an inspiring confirmation that people from all over the area can come together to build a healthier, greener and tastier future. Working cooperatively, the group built in one day what a single person couldn’t have constructed alone. Metro Detroit needs to bring that lesson to a regional scale: we’re stronger together.

How to Overcome Fear: Canvassing for Energy Efficiency in Highland Park

Written by GELT Participant – Dan Tompkins

It was an afternoon in summer. Me, this guy James, and a girl named Marion walked down the middle of the road. We were in a rough area. It’s called Highland Park.

The three of us were working with GELT, a community organization that wanted to get some energy efficiency to houses that needed it most. It was a local nonprofit that believed in a green economy. The headquarters was just down the street.

James was tough. He seemed to approach the situation like he had seen the worst of human nature and come back from it unscathed. He moved like a man who had transcended arrogance and conceit and replaced those lesser emotions with pure independence. He talked in clipped, information filled, sentences. One of the first things he said was something like, “If I could get away with it, I would threaten the life of every single person who ever knocked on my door. I would make it so everyone interrupting me during my favorite show would fear death.” He then alluded to intimate knowledge of the abandoned buildings around us.

I laughed and repeated the last thing he said. I’d only met him that morning and was still trying to get a read of his sense of humor. When in doubt, I look for the humor. Maybe he sensed my tension, because from there on out he kept insisting that “people are just people” and regardless of where they have a house, they are just as angry, just as sad, and just as friendly as the rest of us. He was talking about the people ahead of us. They gathered in driveways around barbeques and in loose circles close to their porches. A lot of them wore do-rags that I had come to associate with rap culture, ghetto culture, and crime. It seemed like there were kids everywhere.

As I looked at the men, women, and children, I thought of Detroit and its reputation for violence. People at GELT had heard gunshots almost every night at three and four in the morning. They claim to only really get worried when they hear shots from another gun following the first.

Our mission was to talk with these people about cutting energy bills. We offered a free service that involved going into their house to replace some light bulbs, insulate some pipes, and hopefully cut their bills by three or four hundred dollars a year. It was all part of a greater mission to make a green, truly sustainable, economy.

I walked over a stream of water on the sidewalk. It was bubbling up through a crack in the concrete. There were subtle marks of erosion, which was a sign that a pipe had broken underground and the local utility company had decided to ignore the problem, instead of rip through the layers of excavation work. Apparently the utility company had a reputation for willfully ignoring such problems in Highland Park. The city owed the company around six million dollars and it costs a lot to replace water lines. Suffices to say, the locals didn’t think much of anyone associated with utilities.

Approaching the first door, I tried hard to remember some of the things we had gone over in class back at GELT. I was supposed to get the person talking, make good eye contact, keep it simple, and let them know I came from just down the street.

The woman who came to the door had a stiff lower lip. Her arms were crossed and when she opened her mouth to breath, I felt terrified of her two missing teeth. Narrow eyes suggested suspicion. They told me that no con of mine could outsmart their intuition.

I felt like I owed her something. That I should apologize for some slight I had unknowingly incurred. I wanted to give her what she wanted. I wanted to slip away.

But then it struck me. That was the big moment.

I reminded myself that I was there to do one of the only truly noble things I’ve ever done. So many times in my life some sort of guilt clings to my actions. Do write the paper or play videogames? Do I drink one more, or try to save some money? For me, every occupation comes with a web of doublethink and legitimization of ulterior motives. I tell customers that the whitefish is “amazing” even though I know everyone should stick with burger and fries. I rationalize. I say, “it’s a job.” Even when reaching for ice cream I’m filled with small, nagging questions. I ignore the guilt almost every time because lets be honest; life without ice cream isn’t life at all, but nothing seems to come without a small price of inner guilt. This situation was different though. I didn’t need any money, any work, or even any appreciation. From this woman, I desired only a small chance to help make her life a little better.

In my moment of hesitation, the woman surveyed my companions. Marion, beautiful, sweet, Marion, came to my rescue. She hit all the key points, and in a moment James and I jumped in to back her up.

The woman’s expression softened. Her daughter came out from the shadows of the house. She was ten years old, her name was Stephanie, and she was almost in fifth grade. Stephanie had just trained her dog to lay down. She, “would really like to learn my name.”

The woman called her husband—a man who seemed all smiles and good intentions—and she sat on the porch. She told us that all her neighbors could use the service and that it sounded like a real good thing. She cracked jokes. She smiled.

She made me remember that when you do a truly good deed, people will appreciate you. Causes and purpose aside, if nothing else, it’s hard to hold contempt for a person with dedication.

It’s a weird feeling to do something I so completely believe in. No matter what angle I approach it, I know that there is something inherently good, or noble, or pure about sustainability. Not everyone may agree on global warming, but I doubt a person on the planet really believes that sustainability creates destruction. Also, because I lived in Detroit, I’m familiar—if removed—with many of the struggles some of these people face. Almost all of them need and deserve a cut in their utility bills.

By the end, we invited the family to a GELT planned event that involved building a hoop house followed by a barbeque. The woman pointed us away from the houses that were vacant and the ones where no one was home. She waved goodbye.

To get to the next house we had to use the sidewalks. Some of the empty lots remind me of the nature preserves back in my hometown. The unmanaged grass gets so tall that I imagined moving slowly into the fold and letting the barrier embrace me. The three of us clung to the winding path of broken concrete.

As we worked down the rest of the street, a lot of people either ignored us, or shouted from behind closed curtains. In a perfect world, all of them would take the service, and embrace its motivations, however, I feel it’s pointless to dwell on missed opportunities. It takes no amount of doublethink to do such a purely honest deed and for that fact alone I’m happy to do it, over and over. Door to door, no fraud looms in the back of my mind. Economics, intelligence, and politics aside, people pick up on that.

I started to realize that James was right; they are just people. Some put up an intimidating front, but maybe I would too if I ever worried about someone like Stephanie. I’m not about to stop locking my car or wander the streets after midnight, but people are just people and there’s no reason to be afraid of that.

How to Build a Clean Economy in a Weekend

5th May, 2011 – Posted by Brandon Knight – No Comments

Al Gore at Powershift 2011 Photo Credit: Energy Action Coalition

The third national Powershift conference was held last month in Washington D.C. It was also my third national Powershift conference. The conference overall was a big success, reports were that close to 10,000 people turned out to the Convention Center in Washington D.C.

The 2011 Powershift was framed by an Obama Administration wavering on its support of clean energy, the anniversary of the BP oil spill and the nuclear disaster in Japan.

Powershift conferences are the single most effective event in mobilizing young people around energy and climate issues in the past 5 years. National and Regional Powershift conferences have effectively mobilized 40,000 youth across the country during this time, with those 40,000 youth leaving the conferences and joining the efforts of the Energy Action Coalition partner organizations, including Global Exchange.

Powershift 2011 Protestors Photo Credit: Sustainability At SIUC

While the conferences have brought together young people from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences, the general message coming out of Powershift conferences is to demand action from governments and corporations.

And rightfully so.

The Federal Government has stalled out on significant action to pass a comprehensive climate & energy bill, and fossil fuel energy corporations have recorded an unparalleled series of blunders that have threatened peoples lives and the very ecosystem from which we depend on.

For most Powershift attendees, the conference has been a relief to know that they are not alone in witnessing the insanity of humanity to not deal with climate change and to not unlock the revolutionary power of a transition from dirty fossil fuels to community wealth building renewable energy.

Youth Celebrate in Movement Building Session Photo Credit: Energy Action Coalition

The 2011 conference had a significantly different feel to it than the conferences over the past four years. The collective experience of the young people at the conference brought forth a more diverse message and a movement that is now prepared to take deeper action.

Powershift Nation was less optimistic in President Obama’s ability to make the changes that many in the movement either campaigned directly for him to make or voted for him with the belief that this President would be different. The conference was a wake up call for the grassroots of Powershift that now is the time to start building a more radical and aggressive movement on the ground in communities across the country. Without or without the support of President Obama!

This sentiment even broke through to the national media. Global Exchange partner organization Grand Aspirations’ Matt Kazinka summed this up well in an article from the NY Times:

“I feel like in many ways, a big opportunity was missed to do climate legislation,” said Matt Kazinka, a junior environmental studies major at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. “Right now it seems like there isn’t a lot of opportunity to push large-scale climate legislation through.

“But I also think it’s a good moment for the climate movement to step back and say, ‘Maybe right now the large-scale political approach isn’t going to work,’ just given what’s happening,” he said.

Kazinka volunteered for Obama’s campaign two years ago. Now he’s torn over what he sees as a lack of leadership from Obama on the issue and the reality of a political climate that’s limiting the president, he said. Kazinka isn’t alone.

Powershift 2011 Speaker Photo Credit: Energy Action Coalition

Not only was the larger conference impacted by the political and economic realities of the past 4 years, our Global Exchange Powershift team from Detroit brought forth a unique strategy to the 2011 conference. In collaboration with Green For All and Grand Aspirations, we facilitated the Clean Economy Track, which presented information and strategies being used across the country to specifically build an economic engine that matches the political activism being created by Energy Action Coalition.

It offered a concurrent program to conference participants. While some participants were learning how to tell their story and build organizing teams through the training organized by the New Organizing Institute, the Clean Economy Track presented to people that opportunity to “be” the story and focused more specifically on what organizing teams can do once they are built.

The twin tracks complimented each other and gave a coordinated parting message from Powershift 2011 that young people are ready to start building the clean economy on the ground as opposed to just protest and organize for actions.

This new message was the most easily distinguishable quality of the 2011 conference compared to Powershifts from the past. Powershifters were effectively dismissing the political climate and the disappointment in Obama’s inaction by reorienting and diversifying the movement from lobbying nationally to action locally and from campaigning to business development. We all know we need both, Powershift 2011 was the manifestation of a movement’s collective epiphany.

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NOW, IT’S TIME FOR YOU TO TAKE ACTION

Powershift 2011 is over. But there is a new opportunity to join the movement coming up. It’s called the Green Economy Leadership Training.

Today, you are being presented with a choice, an opportunity that could ultimately shape the rest of your life. Today, you are learning for the first time about the Green Economy Leadership Training.  Today, you are being invited to join the ranks of the most committed, well trained, impactful people of your generation.  If you choose to accept this invitation, you will shape the future of Highland Park and Detroit.

What you will be learning:

  • You will grow food, produce renewable energy & use energy more efficiently, transform infrastructure.
  • You will become a solution focused individual that recognizes opportunities to participate in improving communities, corporations, governments and institutions.
  • You will learn how to lead projects that will alter the course of the 21st century.
  • You will learn how Detroit and Highland Park are the silicon valley of the green economy.

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Program Details:
Location: Highland Park, MI
Dates: June 6th – August 8th.
Sign-up: www.distributedpower.org

See you there?

Uncovering Transformation

*authored by GELTer Ayoola White*

Caulk gun? Check.

Window kits? Check.

Toolbox? Sink aerators? Clipboard? Check, check, check.

Every morning, for the week and a half that the GELT team performed weatherizations, we hustled to prepare for the day. We gathered our supplies, called Highland Park residents, and hurried off to our destinations. People generally tend to regard all neglected communities as if they were identical, but we quickly recognized that no two houses were alike, neither in their weatherization needs nor in their family dynamics.

At every household, we were offered a little peek into the stories of those who lived there. Many of the narratives were nonverbal, implied in sighs, creaky stairs, and the giggles of children running around. Karina, an outspoken woman who has resided in the area for a long time, actually took the time to verbalize her story to my partner and me.

What surprised me so much about Karina was how freely she spoke about events in her personal life, especially to two young strangers. She had no qualms whatsoever about conveying her feelings about her ex-husbands, her ailing mother, her battle with drug addiction, or her complaints about certain neighbors. Her narrative was more than a little shocking, but, in the end, she gave a simple, yet moving account of how she took a step toward ridding herself of her pain.

Until recently, Karina never felt comfortable in her own home. To her, the walls held memories of toxic relationships and bitter shouting matches. In her studies as a student of natural healing, she eventually realized that she had to change her surroundings if she was to take control of her life. So she painted her walls a whimsical shade of pink.

Karina’s fundamental lesson for us was the importance of honoring oneself. People without self-respect and self-love are like black holes that swallow everything, even light. They make destructive decisions and can never truly move forward.

Listening to Karina’s story has made me realize that we cannot forget that there are individuals in the environmental movement. Coalition building and community organizing are vital, of course, but we cannot simply regard ourselves as identical cogs in a machine. We must learn our strengths, hone them, and adapt them.

Green Freedom

authored by GELTer Ayoola White

Over the course of our time in Highland Park, we GELT-ers have had a variety of learning experiences: permaculture lessons, visits to nearby farms, a lecture about the danger of nuclear power, and tutorials on home weatherizations. In addition to those classes, we’ve been taking a seminar entitled “the Freedom Movement”. In this seminar, we have discussed the history of slavery, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Poor People’s campaign.

To the untrained eye, this seminar would stick out like a sore thumb when compared with everything else. After all, our overarching goal is to create a model green economy in Highland Park. What do the civil rights battles of the past have to do with the environmental struggles of today?

In actuality, social and environmental concerns have salient intersections. After all, the most disadvantaged people in the world—women, people of color, citizens of the Global South, and disabled people—will be affected first and most severely by climate change, pollution, rising ocean levels, and the like. These groups have struggled and continue to endeavor to gain political efficacy, just as blacks, women, Chicanos, and indigenous peoples did in the ‘50s and ‘60s in the United States. Attempts to solve environmental problems must take into account human communities in order to succeed. Sadly, not everyone realizes this necessity. As one workshop facilitator at the United States Social Forum noted, news regarding environmentalism covers two topics almost exclusively: politics and polar bears. People? Not so much. How can the human population as a whole deal with environmental crises if a substantial portion is so encumbered by pernicious, institutionalized forms of negligence and discrimination? The lessons from the Freedom Movement offer tools to ameliorate the situation.

In our Freedom Movement class, we’ve sharpened the valuable skill of defending our ideas. One exercise we’ve practiced is to create a short thesis—25 words or fewer. Then, we must defend that thesis for ten minutes against probing and difficult questions from our peers. With this exercise, we have to keep cool and think on our feet, much like the countless civil rights activists who made arguments for equality to people who vehemently—and sometimes violently—resisted the encroachment on their unearned privileges. Certainly, the stakes aren’t the same, but I personally appreciated this opportunity, since persuading irreconcilables to recognize the reality and urgency of climate crisis is such a burdensome yet necessary task.

Nonviolence is another key concept we’ve explored. Although environmental activism is not typically considered to be as aggressive as other forms of activism (hey, we’re treehuggers, not tree mercenaries, right?) it is vital to remember that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, “Hate multiplies
 hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” We, as environmentalists, must be proactive, not reactive. Moreover, we must make connections to other movements, not simply notice parallels between them.

Solutions and Survival: My Experience in a Community of Impact

authored by GELT-er Zach Holden

As we came to the door, I was feeling pretty negative. Tired, frusterated with the cancellation of our early morning appointment, I had bitterly informed my partners that they should take the ‘lead’ on this house, that I just wanted to follow orders and let one of them take up the task of explaining who we were and everything we were doing to the home owner. I had a vague sense of ill ease as we reached our destination on Hill Street in the northwest of Highland Park, as the last time we had lugged a weatherization kit through the neighborhood, we had been told we were ‘in the wrong neighborhood’ by a group of teens.

When we came up the front steps and knocked on the door, I noticed the tape holding together the screen door and the lingering smell of stale tobacco, thinking we were in for a interesting experience. We heard a man hollering at us, asking who we were. A woman soon came to the door, asking who we were and who we were looking for, telling us she didn’t want our ‘shit’, Needless to say, we were taken aback by her rather aggressive manner, and the weatherization was nearly dead on arrival, until the man, her husband, informed her that he had in fact signed up. She was further relieved when (in direct contravention of my previous promise to my partners) I explained to her that our service was in fact free, and that we would not only give her the supplies but actually install them as well. When she realized we weren’t trying to scam her or otherwise pull some trick, her demeanor instantly shifted from stand-offish to absolutely friendly, and a smile came over her face.

As we headed into the basement, her husband offered a brief explanation of her initial resistance to us- there had been a ‘death’ recently, and tensions were running high. I didn’t have to wait long to hear the full story. As I burned my fingers trying to install CFLs, she told me that the death in question was in fact a triple murder that had recently occurred on the block, leaving three young men dead, with no news coverage and little hope of justice. She explained her initial hostility, saying there was a huge drug problem on the block.

These were the first revelations of many. As we worked our way through her home, sealing holes, replacing bulbs and sink heads and putting up weatherstripping, we learned that she had reclaimed the home from drug dealers who had taken over the house after her mother’s death, and how strangers still showed up at her door looking for a fix (she thought we were of this category), how drive by shootings were a regular occurrence (instead of putting plastic kits over windows with leaky edges as we might in other homes, we covered the windows taken out by a recent shooting). How murders were common and a 90 year old woman had been raped on the block just the other week. How she wanted to get out of the neighborhood, but she was living on her unemployment checks after losing her job as a medical assistant.

This is the sort of situation that can present the central problem of organizing around environmental and sustainability issues in places like Highland Park. How could she devote attention to protecting our national parks or atmosphere when protecting her home is a matter of life or death? I honestly believe that the solution lies in programs such as Green Economy Leadership Training(GELT) and weatherization in particular. It allows for community and its residents to work together not only to save money on their utility bill and understand environmental impacts, but to also reconnect with one another.  Weatherization makes both environmental and economic sense. I hope it can present an outstanding site to develop the necessary, mutually beneficial relationships in places such as Highland Park.

Day in the Life of a GELTer

authored by GELTer Zach Holden

This past Thursday, I learned to soder, or to speak very technically, sweat pipes. Later that day, we built a bench out of discarded wood combined with the trunk of a tree I had cut down earlier in the day. This doesn’t sound too meaningful, but in actually it pretty profoundly represents the genius of GELT, and why I decided to spend my summer in Highland Park.

You see, sodering and making a bench share the attribute of being work that engages with ‘the good’. Sorry for lapsing into jargon, but what I mean is that this type of labor engages with the human need for excellence. Further, in this type of labor, you know if you reached the ‘Good’- the bench either holds weight and stands straight, or it doesn’t. The pipes either hold water, or they don’t. To me at least, this presents a welcome relief from the abstract realm of academia.

My love for this type of work isn’t just born out frustration with intellectual debates, I also find that his kind of work offers a certain satisfaction in that it actually produces. At the end of the day, I have a pipe system and a bench to show for my labor, and the knowledge that I have produced something useful in this world.

This production is the driving force behind GELT. I find that the supreme virtue of GELT in comparison to my previous experiences in the sustainability movement is that GELT has a unique focus on producing a tangibly greener world. Instead of producing memos, GELT produces raised beds, hoop houses, and cob ovens. This is why I chose to spend my summer in Highland Park- it allows me to put my beliefs into practical action, and physically create the green world I want to live in.