Challenging assumptions about progress in the face of Emergency Management

This was originally published in The Michigan Citizen, March 5, 2013

This is the final column in our series 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. EJ principle 17 requires that we, as individuals, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth’s resources and to produce as little waste as possible; and make the conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles to ensure the health of the natural world for present and future generations. (

We come to the close of our commentary on the environmental justice principles as we approach the close of the 10-day timeframe to appeal Governor Snyder’s financial emergency declaration and the announcement of an emergency manager. While it is challenging to rally behind the ideals of ‘personal choice’ and ‘conscious decisions’ that EJ principle 17 embodies when confronted with the long-threatened reality of emergency management, it does present an opportunity to consider how we may be able to ‘challenge and re-prioritize our lifestyles’, our own thoughts and deeds, in the face of this political and economic shift.

Lottie Spady closed her recent column by asking, “what does it look like to choose in our own best interest?” Making personal choices to consume less, while a privileged option, seems and may be beneficent. But currently, the lines between truth and marketing are often intentionally blurred. Whether we are considering products on a shelf or a strategic framework for urban development, deception and misinformation have become acceptable terms of engagement in a free market economy.

To make informed, conscious decisions we have to become vigilant in deconstruction and analysis. Frankly, we have to cut through many, often imperceptible, levels of bullshit and distortion to determine what’s going down around us and to determine if we’re acting in our own best-interest, in the interest of the greater good or in the slippery degrees of otherwise. Case in point being the State Financial Advisory Board’s findings on Detroit’s economic status. While the Governor and those who would benefit the most from emergency management endorse the FAB’s findings, existing and hopeful candidates in the November election have suggested the State books are cooked and that Detroit is not as destitute as we are led to believe.

I hesitate comparing Detroit’s financial status to packaged food, but as I look at the spin and distortion I am reminded of how deceptive and manipulative food marketing and labeling can be. It took me years to teach myself to stop reading the bold letters, NEW, IMPROVED, HEALTHY, NATURAL on the front of packages and to start looking at the actual ingredients and nutritional content listed in small print on the back. Many cite the deregulating trends of the 80s, but somewhere along the way, companies began taking liberties with facts to promote products and influence spending. They began to market to what their research determined to be our wants, rather than our needs.

This approach, justified by profit increase, served to reinforce the already powerful mantra that ‘what is best for the company’, as a job provider and revenue generator, ‘is also best for the people’. If it is profitable then, without regard for the health and well-being of individuals or society, it is framed as not only as ethical, but also as the best and/or only option. The goal in this, as far as I’m able to discern, is to move profitable products, ideas and ‘isms’ into the realm of indoctrinated assumptions that promote the ‘best and only’ into ‘the way it is’. It both infers and blatantly states that to do otherwise would be counter-productive, obstructionist, insane and even pestilent. The disconnect between the marketed information on the front of the package and the reality relegated to the back mirrors the discrepancies and contradictions found in the supposed options, personal and consumer lifestyle choices, given across the board.

The players in the economic and political coup d’état unfolding around and between us make use of these marketing and culture shaping strategies to great benefit. The notion of being progressive, for example has shifted from a term used to denote ‘forward-thinking” leftist to a generalized dedication to ideological progress across the spectrum. How is it that many who self-identify as progressives can support, through irony, apology, or silence, economic and political efforts that are antithetical to meaningful or substantial benefit for all Detroiters?

In a recent Huffington Post article economist William Black called out progressives who often unwittingly support austerity measures. He cites college-level indoctrination into the neoliberal economic mythology, “that austerity is the answer and that mass unemployment and prolonged recessions are small prices to be paid (by others) to achieve the holy grail of a balanced budget.” ( Austerity economics promote polices that meet the demands of crisis by taking the most from those with the least and that place emphasis on abstract market-based concerns, like balancing budgets, over root issues like public education, safety, and poverty reduction.

I no longer consider it conspiracy theory or paranoid delusion; in Detroit and other contentious geographies across the globe, things as they appear to some are simply not as they are for others. In geographies where the majority live at or below the so-called poverty level, austerity economics and politics render hinterlands, in-between spaces, that exist as juxtapositions mixing objectivist dreams made flesh and unprecedented, justified yet demonized efforts at obstructionism. In these ‘spaces-between’ notions of progress, creativity and innovation can be used to promote agendas that stand in stark contrast to notions of equity, democracy or meaningful community resilience. After all, we all want Detroit to have less blight, to progress right?

An example rises in the recently rolled-out and frequently referenced billionaire’s commonwealth proposed for Belle Isle. Presented in the press as novel, yet undesirable, it sounds like a fantastical shot in the dark, but the plan is actually a rather overzealous local spin on so-called “progressive” development strategies being proposed globally. Specifically, a proposal for two ‘charter cities’ in Honduras has been gaining traction through political interventions, coup d’état, the removal of judges opposed to the project and the like. ( Proposed on contested land occupied by indigenous peoples, the promotional video for these Honduran charter cities bears an eerie resemblance to the Belle Isle proposal. These charter cities are promoted domestically and abroad as an example of how progressive, creative, innovative and of course, business-friendly Honduras is. Just don’t pay attention to the dismissal of democracy or the displacement of the people who currently live there.

Again, the lines are blurred, progress is good, right? The two divergent yet interconnected and relative realities emerging around us, one deemed progressive and the other anti-progress seem similar to this scenario in Honduras. The dystopian, dehumanized and corrupt reality of disaster capitalism making way for what is presented as a mandatory homogenized development framework that calls out citizen voice or anything other than the company line as obstructionist. While choice and lifestyle change are foundational in any personal or cultural paradigm shift, for me EJ principle 17 introduces many contradictions that are important to consider as we move forward, as we truly progress.

As our principle encourages us to make conscious decisions and challenge ourselves, are we also willing to challenge our own indoctrinated assumptions around what is possible and what is acceptable when it comes to economics and politics? Sadly, I’ve shared with many Detroiters I consider ‘progressive’, you know, creative and innovative folk from all walks and talks, who remorse that gentrification is just the way it goes in urban spaces. They think it’s a shame we have to remove democratic representation to ‘save’ Detroit and believe unflinchingly that balancing the budget is part and parcel with saving the city in the first place.

I perceive that a gauge of progress in Detroit is directly related to our demand for democratic representation especially in the face of it’s threatened elimination, our strong stance against the displacement of peoples, foreclosures, cuts in services and security, and upon our ability to frankly address inequities and disparities through systemic transformation.

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2012 ReView Emergent Systems Abound in Detroit

From the archives, but I feel it is poignant to share here and now. In December of 2012 I was asked to do a year in review piece for the deeply missed Michigan Citizen. I think it was due to a tight deadline they agreed to run something more personal. I feel I should update this as this really shaped my last eight years here on the Eastside. Thanks for reading,

December 18, 2012

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.

Dec. 18, 2012 – Peace. I write this 2012 ReView just days before the winter solstice, a day  important to me personally because it is also the day that I was born, here in Detroit, in 1969. Maybe it is the nature of the season to be more reflective, but for this column I’m inclined to write more directly from my lived-experience and I appreciate the indulgence. The winter solstice, December 21, 2012, has also been blasted into popular culture due to the date being the end of the Mayan long-count calendar, with spiritual and secular speculation based on recent political and social events abound. You, the readers, have the advantage here for this will be published after the supposed apocalypse. I sincerely hope it went well for you and yours. 

My personal interest, due to my birth, in 2012 phenomena has led me to a great deal of research, academic and experiential alike. This research along with a life-long interest in more sustainable, collective, communal yet autonomous/sovereign living and lifestyles has greatly informed the way that I’ve approached sharing in Detroit. I consider the 2012 phenomenon to be an ongoing non-time specific expression that is connected to and rooted in what I’ve begun to refer to as ‘emergent systems of governance’ These relationship-based hyper-localized, block-level models, techniques or ways that we can come together, appear to be fueling a paradigm shift, not only here in Detroit, but around the world.

In the last few years, I have been honored to witness this phenomenon happening across Detroit more regularly. People are coming together for a great many reasons and interests to share information, skills and food. Most importantly, in the last year, I’ve seen these gatherings, these actions, these learning circles, skill-shares, these exchanges begin to connect with and include leadership from block clubs, community groups and citizens who have traditionally been left out of decision making processes that directly impact them. To me this connection is vital for justice and balance to manifest and for the continuous displacement of peoples and the mining of resources and community assets to cease. 

The meetings I attend are more frequently becoming transformative ceremonies where we come together, establish guidelines to keep everyone in our circle safe, express our assumptions and declare our intentions. We develop agreed upon principles and values, and from this space, this circle, together decide on next steps, actions and strategies. To me it is still relatively abstract and I’m certain I only see particular aspects of it, but these meetings appear as a model of governance, one that I comprehend, based on my lived expereince as being resonate with governance models accessed by indigenous and agricultural-based communities who are less dependent upon the global market. Here are some examples, expressed as perceptions to remain flexible, from the past few months in Detroit:

The evening of Monday, December 10th, I stood with 400+ Detroiters outside the East Lake Baptist Church waiting in the freezing cold to get into the Hantz Woodlands public hearing called by the Detroit City Council. When I finally made it inside I was pleased to find the large church hall filled with energy. As I walked through the crowds before the hearing, I witnessed great amounts of information about this land grab and about other, even more insulting and incendiary, deals on the horizon. I heard a great deal about “what’s goin’ on” being passed from one Detroiter to another. What I saw in that moment, before the public hearing even bagan, was very much a massive learning circle, an information exchange, with Detroiters sharing their opinions and lived-experience. I perceive Learning Circles and Popular/Community Education as integral to governance. 

The public comments at the hearing were amazing, with almost every person who choose to speak at the mic sharing a different take on the deal in their own way. Some were prophetic and called on God and Spirit, some questioned the precedent the sale would make, some spoke their truth loudly and passionately while others were more reserved, and many rallied behind the concept that Detroiters can and should manage the land through a community land trust or other alternatives. Alternatives that will actually empower people where they are and as they are and respect the land itself. I perceive Public Comments and Community Voice as integral to governance.

In the weeks leading up to the public hearing, I was honored to assist in canvassing in the ‘footprint’ of the land grab. As our small and respectful crew of canvassers knocked on doors and passed out flyers at local stores we very quickly discovered that an insultingly small percentage of people living in the Hantz footprint were actually aware of the deal. Those who did know were not informed by Hantz or the Lower Eastside Action Plan (LEAP), who claim to be able to speak for this community, but rather through the media or their own non-LEAP aligned community groups. Those of us who canvassed were pleased to see many of the people whose doors we had knocked on at the Hantz public hearing. By respectfully and mindfully approaching the Detroiters most directly impacted by this deal, we managed to meet and support block-level community leaders who care deeply about their neighborhoods and the people who currently live there. I perceive respectful and organized Community Outreach and Canvassing as integral to governance. 

The Hantz Groups’ marketing campaign around this land grab was massive. It took Detroit’s urban agriculture and community gardening movement through the mud, included numerous revisions of front-loaded visions, and extreme proliferation through national and global media. All this served to spread a great deal of irrelevant information and hype around this supposedly beneficent project. While Hantz’ constant redefinition of the ‘farm’ and his double speak around the project made it easy to critique it for what it was, a land grab, it also caused the need for a counter-media campaign that was extremely successful in creating community discussion through the twitter hashtags #HantzOff, #LandGrab and #DetroitFuture and through facebook. By documenting and sharing the voices of people most directly impacted and offering real time streams of information, community-driven media sources became popular locally and globally for those looking for the latest about the deal. I perceive Community-driven media, social networking and the collection of oral histories as integral to governance. 

There are many other examples, pieces of the puzzle, that I’ve noted but do not have the space to discuss here. I am sure there are many more I’ve yet to see. Social system hackers like myself and others around the globe, study and research systems of movement and exchange, particularly of information and food, places where, and the ways that people gather, because many of us consider them to be where the magic happens.

As I comprehend it, and I strive to be flexible and as non-dogmatic as possible in this, it is through this coming together, healing and holding each other accountable that we can respectfully grow the greatest opportunity for the notion of a paradigm shift postulated by the 2012 phenomena. Fostering and supporting grassroots and community led expressions of these emergent methods and techniques flies directly in the face of neo-liberal, market-based economic policy and state-imposed austerity measures like right to work and emergency management. 2012 has been a year of emergence both locally and globally and though I cannot be certain of what is on the horizon, I am beginning to deeply posit emergent governance models and techniques as potential antidotes to emergency management and other forms of oppression. Respect and Gratitude.

– END-  

The Occupation, Repression and Exploitation of Inner Geographies 

This was originally published in the Michigan Citizen, November 6, 2012

This is the third in a series of columns on the 15th Environmental Justice principle. Environmental Justice Principle 15 opposes military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and cultures, and other life forms.

As we tune into this week’s EJ principle, we’re considering our food system and its relationship to military occupation. To enter into this discussion, I have to express that I recognize the United States’ government and the majority of the US population as an occupying force in North America. The US’ very existence is dependent upon continuous military/police occupation of land, the repression of indigenous peoples and culture, and the perpetuation of social divisions based upon race, gender, class, etc.

My intention here, as we consider our food system in relationship to military occupation, is to respect and express solidarity with those who have struggled against this occupation for generations. With this in mind, it is vital to note that military occupation, trade and agriculture have intimate relationships that span centuries and that greatly inform the scale and scope of our current food system.

Historically, the standard operating procedures of imperialism and colonialism utilize occupying armies to enforce and defend the establishment of plantations. In the 17th century, chartered companies begin to emerge. Hired to colonize lands, and in many cases, granted monopolies over their jurisdiction by the state, these occupying companies/armies, through the cultivation of the land, are not only able to feed themselves, but also reign in local populations as workers and slaves, privatize land and other natural resources, and fund expansion of their efforts through unregulated trade. In our current geopolitical situation, the state-chartered companies of the 17th century are recast as massive global corporations, but their practices, procedures and sadly, the massive injustice they propagate, remain the same.

Whether it is Roman expansion across continents, the Dutch East India Company 400 years ago, or the current exploitation of lands, resources and people by Big Ag to supposedly “feed the world” while propagating patented seeds and biotechnology, it appears that these practices and procedures are extremely consistent. Through meditation I began to consider just how prolific these practices and procedures that deeply co-implicate military occupation, agriculture and trade, are. I began to consider them as being at play, not only at the global level, but on an inner-personal, even biological level.

This is quite a leap, but I reference a movie that frequented Detroit’s UHF channels in the 70s called “Fantastic Voyage”. This 1966 cold war influenced science fiction film finds a miniaturized submarine and crew injected into a human body on a mission to repair a blood clot. Looking at our personal relationship to food at this miniaturized, microscopic level, I began to consider agricultural and food system biotechnology in a very different light. If we could shrink ourselves to the point where we could witness how our bodies process the various toxic chemicals we subject them to daily, through our own choices and through our environment, what exactly would we see?

The wisdom, ‘you are what you eat’ has emerged from cultures across the globe and, given the scale and scope of our current food system and its direct ties to occupation, repression and exploitation, how does the food we put into our bodies impact our inner-geographies. I often consider that our consumption of highly processed and/or genetically modified foods, at some levels, opens doors for potential occupation of our internal landscape. I posit that, if we could all take a “Fantastic Voyage” within our own bodies we would bear witness to attempted occupation of our inner ‘land’ by pathological cells, repression of life giving systems by refined sugars and saturated fats, and the potential exploitation/extraction of resources through the creation of imbalances that lead to costly healthcare.

As we oppose military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and cultures, and other life forms, it is also vital that we strive to oppose the occupation of our physical bodies and our internal landscapes.

– END-


Sweating It Out Together

From the Michigan Citizen column, 2012

This week, I’m honored to be writing from Albuquerque, New Mexico while attending the 13th annual White Privilege Conference. “The WPC is a conference that examines challenging concepts of privilege and oppression and offers solutions and team building strategies to work toward a more equitable world”. This year’s conference was extremely well attended by a diversity of peoples from all over North America and the world. My personal intention in attending is to continue to learn, study and reflect upon what it means to be a white male anti-racist/anti-oppression ally to the majority Black and People of Color communities, organizations and individuals that I share with in Detroit. I attended the conference with my partner, Angela Newsom, who serves as the program director for People’s Kitchen Detroit.

We haven’t left Detroit very often since we began sharing here six years ago, so rather than fly we decided to drive to Albuquerque with our three year-old. As we traveled across the country I reflected upon this weeks’ environmental justice principle. EJ principle #6 states that “Environmental Justice demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production.” The extreme proliferation of environmental toxins that are rampant in our city, due to the collapse of the auto industry, the dishonorable departure of business and industry that left behind hazardous wastes, and the continued operation of the Detroit Incinerator and the catastrophic effects of toxic industries in and around zip code 48217.

The week before we left, local news reported the water department and hazardous materials crew was flushing the sewer system around the Detroit Medical Center due to what was most likely massive quantities of illegally dumped paint products. As the miles pealed away on our odometer, I reflected upon my own family’s exposure to toxins since we moved to Detroit in 2006. Last year, due to a cracked-opened “manhole” in the basement of a home we were renting in North Corktown/Briggs, we were slowly poisoned by sewage gas. Unaware, over a couple of months we found ourselves slowly become more and more sick. Thanks to a knowledgeable friend, we eventually discovered the leak, sealed it and began the process of detoxification.

Due to our destination being focused on privilege and oppression, as we drove, I thought upon our own privilege when confronted with the inescapable toxins we are exposed to daily and how other families in Detroit, who have been exposed over generations to hazardous materials by eating, breathing and living in the Arsenal of Democracy’s dumping ground must be effected. I also thought about the privilege of being able to leave Detroit for close to two weeks as we began to breathe easier in the noticeably fresh air outside of the city.

We began to breathe easier, sadly, until we reach the so-called heartland of US. As we traveled through increasingly rural areas, we began to pass by large industrial farms and started to see Monsanto signs everywhere. Monsanto is the world’s largest producer of genetically modified seeds and the chemicals farmers use to grow them. Being food justice activists, I admit that we may have been looking for these signs, but what we didn’t expect to see was just how prolific Montsanto is and how daunting it was passing by large chemical storage facilities and industrial spraying machines.

Dismayed and slightly depressed by the corporate domination of the landscape even here, we pulled into our first motel for the night. Exhausted and simply looking forward to rest, we entered our room and were immediately hit by the intense chemical smell of disinfectant and an over-the-top sickly-sweet scent that I can only assume was intended to cover up the disinfectant. Being too tired to load everything back into the car and find another, less toxic room, we laid our heads on pillowcases washed in chemical-laden industrial detergent. Waking with a massive headache, Angela’s first words in the morning were “we need to get out of here as soon as possible!”

I agreed and we got back on the road immediately. Passing by more industrial agricultural spraying equipment, I began to notice how “blown-out” the small towns we passed through were. Trying to find solace in the fact that these small town ruins somehow reminded me of home, it struck me that while our country’s urban areas are vilified due to their poor populations and environmental hazards, many rural areas seem to be in the same situation.

I returned to this week’s environmental principle and mourned over the immense and seemingly impossible idea of cessation of chemical production. While our privilege affords us the opportunity to attempt to reduce our family’s exposure to toxins and hazardous wastes, it appears that communities, not only in urban but rural areas as well, are under attack by companies like Monsanto, whose website lies that they are “meeting the needs of today while preserving the planet for tomorrow.”

With the US government’s strings being pulled by corporations, the idea of their being held accountable to people brings more frustration. The idea that these companies would implement detoxification or that they would be honest with us in any way seems nearly impossible. Our entire culture, oppressed and privileged, urban and rural alike, has become dependent upon the very products that are killing us. While corporations dominate the government, media, production and distribution of goods, from food to cleaning products, we are all threatened and literally under their control.

As my family and I enjoyed Albuquerque and learned and shared at the White Privilege Conference, Detroit’s city council was negotiating a loose/loose agreement with the State, the outcome of which will most likely be known by the time this prints. While I don’t want to be a naysayer and strongly support the efforts of those who labor to block it, this agreement and the push to put more of our resources, including our water and our children’s education, on the auction block for profit, often appears unstoppable. As I tuned into the local news and social media while away, my personal frustration over the impossibility of not only the cessation, accountability and detoxification from toxic and hazardous waste, but also from the corporate domination of our lives continued to grow.

Thankfully, this frustration shifted towards the end of the conference. Two days before our departure, we were extremely honored to share in a traditional community healing ceremony. This indigenous ceremony, called a Tezmacal, shares some common ground with a Native American sweat lodge. As Angela and I sat in the extreme heat and purged many of the toxins from our bodies I finally found some resolve to my frustration and a slight release from the overwhelming oppressive systems we are all connected to and co-implicated within.

As the community that gathered in the Tezmacal released their pain and anger through songs and screams that seemingly reverberated across and through our diverse generations of both privilege and oppression, I found solace in the fact that, while at the moment these massive systems and corporations would deny accountability, each of us can reframe our relationships so that we can grow an accountability to one another. Through singing, screaming and sweating out our pain, depression, anxiety, anger and loss… through the healing many of us already know we need, we can learn more about each other and, what’s more, we can overcome. As I back out of the small door of the Tezmacal, I suddenly looked forward to returning home, even in the face of the toxic politics and environment, to learn more, share more, sweat more and heal more.

– END-  

Bridging the gap between apathy and self-determination

Originally published in the Michigan Citizen, May 2012

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.

Through this weekly column we’ve discussed the potential found in attempts to remove our personal and professional blinders by looking at the principles of digital, environmental, and food justice from different vantage points. It is telling that we’ve found real-world manifestations of the issues these justice principles speak to, both in Detroit’s current events and the history of our city.

This week, being mindful of this history of struggle and the current corporate-funded and media-enforced manipulation of Detroiters, the environmental principle on deck is rather daunting. EJ Principle #5 states; “Environmental Justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples.” That cuts right to the heart of it. From where I sit access to “self-determination” is exactly what is on the auction block in Detroit, that along with the community-owned resources that help to make up our “commons.”

Recently, I’ve been honored to participate in a series of intergenerational conversations around emergency management, potential bankruptcy and consent agreements. These conversations have been transformative for me as I’ve furthered my understanding of how disaster capitalism and institutionalized racism have fostered community-threatening levels of individualism and lack of accountability while propagating both mental and physical apathy and an increased reliance upon external systems. Addressing this apathy, this indifference to the world around us, has been a constant thread in our discussions. Why do so many people, Detroiters and folk across the state of Michigan, appear to be indifferent to or support such measures?

This question sent me into mediation on the nature of apathy itself. While perpetuating the same inability to effect meaningful change, apathy manifests differently for different people. While being a choice for some, apathy is a much less self-determined reality for others. A great disconnect occurs between those who can choose apathy, whether manifest as hipster irony, detached charity, or “tough times, tough measures” posturing, and those who can’t. Insult is added to injury due to the perception of a non-existent equal playing field. This normalizes apathy and somehow makes it acceptable.

One blatantly offensive and detrimental manifestation of the apathy can be found in the comments sections of the majority of online stories around emergency management. The argument runs that incompetence or poor choices justify ‘democracy-lite’ – a reduction in rights. Sadly, the targets of these comments are not just city officials, but also the people of Detroit as a whole.  This incendiary ‘incompetence argument’ isn’t left to unencumbered online rhetoric. It is supported by well-organized replication in the media and has been used to justify the “blank slate/ruin porn” narrative and savior mentality that informs a great deal of interest and investment in the city.

While it would be ludicrous to deny the budget deficit or rampant corruption, I regard these things as symptoms and/or side effects of expedited and disrespectful economic divestments that plagued white-flight and unregulated capitalism hyped-up on a mega-dose of steroid-like corporate personhood. This is not intended as an apology for corruption. Leaders, elected officials and citizens alike should be held accountable through respectable means in good times and bad. That being said, I also recognize that, just like each one of us, historically and currently, Detroit’s city officials are navigating systems that are fundamentally designed to turn a profit by any means.

Cries of corruption, even when well warranted, without checked by our humanity have historically been used to disempowered existent populations and grab resources. Similar motions have been applied rather openly in US foreign policy and secretly, behind closed doors, domestically for generations. Maybe a move towards negating apathy and lack of concern for others is to raise awareness that this argument is part of the same flawed, dehumanizing, profit-driven logic used to exploit and enslave people for centuries.

I don’t want to be entirely theoretical here. Through sharing in the work of the Detroit Food Justice Task Force (, the East Michigan Environmental Action Council ( and other grassroots organizations, I’ve become more aware how open and inclusive space for participation and low-stress and accessible means of action around issues can combat apathy. Taking part in and promoting actions like Metro FoodLand’s 27/27 Campaign ( can get us thinking differently about how we are all connected and the role we can play in supporting the move away from apathy and towards self-determination. Until we change, not only the way that we do things, but also the way that we think about things, we cannot offer up anything more than a temporary band-aids or extensions on already borrowed time. In order to begin to manifest any self-determination in the face of the current climate we need to shift paradigms and challenge the very institutions that perpetuate not only poverty but also political, economic and environmental apathy.

– END-


Recognizing sacred relationships with land and water through ceremony

From the 2012 archives of my Michigan Citizen columns. Cant find the exact date on it now. Gratitude to those who supported the ceremonies behind this post.

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 11 ‘recognizes a special legal and natural relationship of native peoples to the U.S. government through treaties, agreements, compacts and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination’. (

I have to thank my co-columnists for their expressions around this principle. Two week’s ago VG’s ‘Environmental Justice through Tribal Sovereignty’ discussed how important it is for non-native peoples to acknowledge the depth of the relationship between native peoples and the government. Last week, Patrick Geans-Ali followed up by extrapolating “the definition of “native peoples” from the traditional one” to discuss the current political and economic crises here in Detroit to highlight long-range historical leaning of corporate serving governing bodies towards corruption.

I respectfully reference both pieces as they greatly influenced my approach this week. Being someone who presents as white, discussing native peoples rights or attempting to compare and contrast the lived-experience of colonization to my own or anyone else is a slippery slope I attempt to steer clear of. From my perspective, defining and interpreting native or any other oppressed peoples’ experience has too often been used as a tool to further marginalize their population. With this said, as I first read this week’s EJ principle I cringed. Thankfully, V’s advice to take the time and make the effort to seek other perspectives served as a point of entry. I found Central Michigan Universities Clarke Historical Library’s Treaty Rights archive ( and began reading over treaties between the government and native peoples drawn up around the geographic area we currently recognize as Detroit.

I certainly do not want to imply that a little online research constitutes any depth of understanding of the ‘special’, as our principle deems it, relationship between the government and native tribes. However, in the time spent reading through these treaties, and a few historical documents for context, I found myself thinking about current land use policies and how notions of land ownership, whether governmental, corporate or private, have not only impacted, but also continue to impact indigenous communities. How does the very way we think about land and the way our culture ‘handles’ land, locally, globally and historically serve to carry forward unchecked corruption that fosters premeditated genocide of populations through efforts that range from salvation-based assimilation to straight-up murder?

As I processed and meditated on these rather heavy questions around “treaties, agreements, compacts and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination”, I also felt a natural inclination to amplify or ‘turn-up’ my relationship with the Land itself. Questions began to swell around my own relationship with land, the suburban enclaves I grew up in, and the culturally engineered drive towards home-ownership and the american dream. I have experienced personal transformation around these issues due to my shift in awareness of and emphasis on food, both growing it and eating it. This transformation has come hand-in-hand with a deepening of respect for the earth itself. I’ve always supported my instinctual awareness of the phases of the moon and seasonal changes, but as I work more closely with the land, I find that awareness deepening. For me, there is a deep profundity in this process, and while being non-dogmatic in its expression, it has become extremely sacred.

While I cannot claim understanding of a native perspective in any way, I have found this sacred yet non-dogmatic process to reflect the handful of authentic indigenous ceremonies I have been blessed to partake in. While rather challenging to articulate, I have also found reflections of these ceremonies within many of the grassroots organizations and individuals I’ve been blessed share with. When I began to build more genuine relationships in Detroit, I found myself sitting in circles, creating safe spaces, respecting ancestry and progeny, breathing together, facilitating healing, participating in collective imagining and visualizing, amongst other practices which, based upon my own experience, I consider to be emergent aspects of sacred ceremonies. Of particular interest here is the relationship between these ceremonial motions and the forms of self-governance these organizations, communities and individuals strive toward.

Returning to treaties, in particular the State of Michigan’s Treaty with the Ottawa and Chippewa from 1855, I’m reminded that, from my limited perspective, tribal governance is deeply rooted in ceremony. This awareness was kicked in fully as I read Article 5 “The tribal organization of said Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, except so far as may be necessary for the purpose of carrying into effect the provisions of this agreement, is hereby dissolved; and if at any time hereafter, further negotiations with the United States, in reference to any matters contained herein, should become necessary, no general convention of the Indians shall be called; but such as reside in the vicinity of any usual place of payment, or those only who are immediately interested in the questions involved, may arrange all matters between themselves and the United States, without the concurrence of other portions of their people, and as fully and conclusively, and with the same effect in every respect, as if all were represented.” Through this paper-based dissolution of tribal governance, there is also the attempted dissolution of collective and communal thought and deed, which I perceive as being facilitated through the ceremonies related to said governance.

I perceive a link between governance and ceremony that I intuit as being reflected in our ability to work, live and breathe more collectively and sustainably. While a great many of our ceremonies have been rendered highly dogmatic, thoughtful ceremonial reconnection to the earth, through diverse non-intrusive means that respect all faiths, like growing food and cooking together, can empower us to connect with ourselves and each other more directly. While I cannot interpret the experience of native peoples, through reading these treaties I can point directly to a process of cultural assimilation that I see being utilized strategically in global land grabs and in efforts by political and economic interests right here at home. With gratitude, I can also point to numerous successful efforts in Detroit to counter this assimilation by reconnecting to the earth, to each other and to thoughts, words and deeds that celebrate and revere these connections.

I currently find solace from the weight these questions in community spaces, in the often simple ceremonies we engage in, and through my attempts to recognize all my relationships as sacred. Personally, I’m attempting to listen to my intuition around land and water more. After the announcement of the state’s intentions for Belle Isle, I found myself heading out to watch the sunrise from the island. An elder had recently shared that the native tribes used to gather on the island for ceremony and governance. As I walked through the pastures to a space where the land meets the water, I attempted to hold the image of a gathering in my head. I sat and meditated for a short time after making humble gestures to the land and water, and then walked away in the silence that comes with awe, reverence and gratitude. As we continue to build together as a counter to formidable political and economic forces, I feel we should get and stay rooted in our personal relationships to land and water and no matter our faiths or lack-thereof, strive to celebrate them together as inclusive ceremonies of re-cognition of one another, those who came before and those who will be.

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