Finding Myself in the Story of Race | Debby Irving | TEDx Fenway
This talk is designed to be a 101 for white people about what white privilege and institutional racism are and how they manifest. Special thanks to The Fenway Alliance and Berklee College of Music for hosting and recording the event.
Why Detroit Residents Pushed Back Against Tree-Planting
Detroiters were refusing city-sponsored “free trees.” A researcher found out the problem: She was the first person to ask them if they wanted them.
A landmark report conducted by University of Michigan environmental sociologist Dorceta Taylor in 2014 warned of the “arrogance” of white environmentalists when they introduce green initiatives to black and brown communities. One black environmental professional Taylor interviewed for the report, Elliot Payne, described experiences where green groups “presumed to know what’s best” for communities of color without including them in the decision-making and planning processes.
“I think a lot of the times it stems from the approach of oh we just go out and offer tree plantings or engaging in an outdoor activity, and if we just reach out to them they will come,” Payne told Taylor.
In fact, this is exactly what was happening in Detroit at the time that Taylor’s report came out. In 2014, the city was a few years deep into a campaign to reforest its streets after decades of neglecting to maintain its depleted tree canopy. A local environmental nonprofit called The Greening of Detroit was the city’s official partner for carrying out that reforesting task, which it had started doing on its own when it was founded in 1989. By 2014, TGD had received additional funding to ramp up its tree-planting services to the tune of 1,000 to 5,000 new trees per year. To meet that goal, it had to penetrate neighborhoods somewhat more aggressively than it had in the past and win more buy-in from the residents.
The tree-planters met stiff resistance: Roughly a quarter of the 7,500 residents they approached declined offers to have new trees planted in front of their homes. It was a high enough volume of rejections for such an otherwise valuable service that University of Vermont researcher Christine E. Carmichael wanted to know the reasons behind it.
She obtained data that TGD collected on the people who turned them down, and then visited Detroit to interview staff members and residents. What she found is that the rejections had more to do with how the tree-planters presented themselves and residents’ distrust of city government than it did with how residents felt about trees. Carmichael’s findings (with co-author Maureen H. McDonough) were published this week in the journal Society and Natural Resources.
The residents Carmichael surveyed understood the benefits of having trees in urban environments—they provide shade and cooling, absorb air pollution, especially from traffic, increase property values, and improve health outcomes. But the reasons Detroit folks were submitting “no tree requests” were rooted in how they have historically interpreted their lived experiences in the city, or what Carmichael calls “heritage narratives.”
It’s not that they didn’t trust the trees; they didn’t trust the city.
These are the stories that people from all walks of Detroit life tell themselves and each other about why city conditions are the way they are. The heritage narratives that residents shared about trees in Detroit were different from the ones shared among the people in city government and TGD.
A couple of African-American women Carmichael talked to linked the tree-planting program to a painful racist moment in Detroit’s history, right after the 1967 race rebellion, when the city suddenly began cutting down elm trees in bulk in their neighborhoods. The city did this, as the women understood it, so that law enforcement and intelligence agents could better surveil their neighborhoods from helicopters and other high places after the urban uprising.
The city was chopping down trees at a faster clip at this time. And the city was flying helicopters over their homes at one point—to spray toxic DDT from above on the trees. However, the government’s stated reason for the mass tree-choppings was that the trees were dying off from the Dutch elm disease then spreading across the country. These were competing heritage narratives of the same event—the clearing away of trees in the 1960s. The two narratives are in conflict, but it was the women’s version, based on their lived experiences, that led to their decision to reject the trees today. It’s not that they didn’t trust the trees; they didn’t trust the city.
“In this case, the women felt that [after the race rebellion] the city just came in and cut down their trees, and now they want to just come in planting trees,” said Carmichael. “But they felt they should have a choice in this since they’ll be the ones caring for the trees and raking up the leaves when the planters leave. They felt that the decisions regarding whether to cut down trees or plant new ones were being made by someone else, and they were going to have to deal with the consequences.”
There was distrust not only of the city, but of the tree planters as well, particularly considering how TGD staff stepped to the people in the communities they were plotting on. The Greening of Detroit had 50,000 volunteers (during that 2011-2014 time period), most of them white and not from Detroit. The organization had just one community-outreach person on staff. And that outreach apparently did not include involving neighborhood residents in the planning of this urban-forestry program.
“City residents could request a tree planting in their neighborhood from TGD, but TGD’s green infrastructure staff decided in which neighborhoods to plant trees, as well as tree species to plant and tree maintenance protocols,” reads the paper. “TGD’s green infrastructure staff members committed to maintaining trees for three years after planting, which residents were informed of through door hangers and at community meetings, if they attended such meetings.”
Failing to meaningfully involve the residents in the decision-making is a classic environmental-justice no-no. However, from reading excerpts of Carmichael’s interviews with TGD staff members, it’s clear some of the tree planters thought they were doing these communities an environmental-justice solid. After all, who would turn down a free tree on their property, given all of the health and economic benefits that service affords? Perhaps these people just don’t get it. As one staff member told Carmichael in the study:
You’re dealing with a generation that has not been used to having trees, the people who remember the elms are getting older and older. Now we’ve got generations of people that have grown up without trees on their street, they don’t even know what they’re missing.
However, environmental justice is not just about the distribution of bad stuff, like pollution, or good stuff, like forestry projects across disadvantaged communities. It’s also about the distribution of power among communities that have historically only been the subjects and experiments of power structures.
In 2014, Detroit had an African-American population of 83 percent, and the highest rate of concentrated poverty among the top 25 metros in the U.S., according to the Brookings Institution. This forestry project was ramping up right as the city was in the throes of bankruptcy. These residents may have had different priorities in mind than those carried by the tree-planters who came knocking. Race and class matters in urban greening agendas, as the City of Houston once learned when it failed to survey non-white, lower-income residents for the creation of its parks master plan in 2014.
One Detroit resident whom Carmichael interviewed for her study told her: “You know what, I really appreciate you today because that shows that someone is listening and someone is trying to find out what’s really going on in our thoughts, the way we feel, and I just appreciate you guys. And maybe next time they can do a survey and ask us, if they would like to have us have the trees.”
Monica Tabares, TGD’s vice president of operations and development, said the organization always had a community-engagement process, but other factors complicated their interactions with residents, such as the city’s poor record of tree maintenance.
“Our capacity to fulfill every community partner’s needs was in hindsight a bit more difficult to achieve, and that resulted in some impressions among some individuals about not feeling the inclusion,” said Tabares. “Also, the city itself didn’t have the capacity to bring down dead trees, nor to prune trees, plus the fact that we were now replanting trees in some really decimated areas with no tree canopy. It left people questioning whether they were going to be taken care of. It just didn’t jibe right with all of our resident partners.”
Since talking with Carmichael and learning her study’s findings, Tabares says TGD has made several changes to its program, adding more material involvement of residents in the tree-planting and planning process. The organization now also has four community-engagement members on staff, all of whom live in the city of Detroit, which Tabares said has encouraged more trust from the residents.
“Having people come in and not be from the city and then dictate what goes on—not that we ever did that—but that’s the feeling. So we want people to feel comfortable with our engagement team that’s talking about the benefits of trees,” said Tabares.
The lessons learned from the study are immediately important, given that environmental organizations often partner with cities for these kinds of services. This is especially true when local governments don’t have the funding to do it (as happened in Detroit) or when the federal government shuts down (what’s happening now). Having diverse staffs that reflect the city’s neighborhoods and understand the heritage narratives that run through them matter.
“Heritage narratives are important because they guide actions that are taken,” said Carmichael. “A nonprofit might say tree-canopy decline can be used to justify their approach to educating residents, because there are people who don’t understand the value of trees. But everyone I interviewed understood those benefits, so it’s inaccurate to say that. Ultimately, the feeling was that they were being disenfranchised.”
Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
What an international volunteer needs besides their suitcase.
Good will abounds. We believe in giving back. Each year over 1,000,000 of us pack up and leave the U.S. to volunteer in another country. Most of us plan to do service work for a week or two. So, what will we need for a couple of weeks that won’t fit in a suitcase?
Research shows: 1) we need to check our assumptions, 2) have realistic expectations, and 3) be selective in choosing the nonprofit organization that will pick us up at the airport and put us to work in their programs and projects.
Here are some assumptions to check. Why am I going? What do I believe about the people on the receiving end of my efforts? How will they benefit? What do I believe about poverty, people living in poverty, and how to change it?
Evaluating expectations means asking other questions: Am I prepared to be unplugged from phone and internet? Follow the dress code and guidelines recommended by the nonprofit I’ll work with? Be patient? Insist on “fixing things” my way? Give money to the “poor” people I meet? Listen? Learn? Really get to know the people? Be able to understand their language and customs?
In selecting which nonprofit to volunteer with, there are even more questions to ask. Does the nonprofit have programs and projects that do “for” or do “with” the people. Who decides what the programs and projects will be, e.g. the board? the executive director? the staff? the clients/customers? the donors? Who benefits from the decisions? What is the mission of the organization? Are outcomes measured?
These questions won’t fit into a suitcase, but engaging them will add clarity and quality to the experience of volunteering abroad.
This summer, I was part of a local news segment about life expectancy discrepancies in Boston. I was given the opportunity to speak about Doing Good…Says Who? and was thrilled to see the book made the final cut! To watch the news segment, follow this link (I speak about the book at the 2:50 minute mark): WCVB Chronicle 5 News Segment
We are excited to see Doing Good…Says Who? picking up traction both locally and nationally!
The following is a response to the book from Boston College senior Sean O’Rourke, as part of a course on “Faith, Service, and Solidarity.”
“Doing Good…Says Who?” was a tremendously rewarding book to read this week. The text taught me so much about the context, background and world views that I and anyone else from a privileged position may bring when trying to serve.
I could see myself so easily in the shoes of each character throughout the book; that is, each character from the West. Ellie’s first judgmental impression and outlook were similar to those I have noticed on service trips, Lucy’s energy and enthusiasm were relatable, and the men and women in the group of the third chapter had the same desires to “help” as me!
The challenge of this book, however, is to look at our collective lives in another way. To recognise that we Westerners are not saviours, but equals. Greg Boyle SJ would say that our goal in serving is to be in kinship with one another, and to have compassion – that is to be with those who suffer. This book just puts those ideas in secular terms.
On Arrupe this past winter break, I wondered what we as a collective could bring on the trip with us for the people, and after reading this, I know that my initial checklist was way off… Books, (probably in English – which they couldn’t read), supplies, and food wouldn’t get to the heart of any structural problems that the people face. The best thing to pack would probably be an open mind, heart, and willingness to feel broken and helpless.
Our one week trips to foreign countries aren’t really capable of changing anything, but it’s often hard for us to recognise that as Westerners who receive such a feel-good factor from participating in them.
With regard to being helped, I know from a personal standpoint that as a child I needed my parents to do things for me. And I was very happy for them to do it for a long time, because their insight and expertise generally got me further along the path to what was deemed “success.”
However, nothing has been so liberating as becoming independent from them while at college. I have loved, I will say it again, LOVED doing things for myself since breaking away from a closed-knit family unit back home. The people of this book and elsewhere are no different. They too can be empowered and worked-with to affect positive, lasting change in their communities, as the numerous examples of this book show. It just takes a change in mind-set, and a shifting in one’s standing position to see that they don’t need to be “helped”, in ways that we usually believe.
I think that the whole book can be summed up in the words of Lilla Watson, who was quoted earlier in one of the readings of this course, saying: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
We would do well to heed to such advice as we embark on our journey as ‘BC Eagles’, who typically strive to “Ever Rise to New Heights”. Maybe in our haste movements, huge appetites, and deep desires to set the world aflame, we could first consider what the ground of the earth actually looks like, then encounter and embrace the small embers we find, already lighting.
I highly recommend this book to all the NGOs in Guatemala who bring donors and volunteers from the US. Each and every one of them should read this book BEFORE they come. So many times we hear people say, “well, here’s how we do it,” as if our way in the US is better, without any understanding of the culture or reasons existing in Guatemala for doing things their way. Approaching situations with patience and observation before recommending is essential! The five steps of understanding outlined in this book will make EVERYONE’s experience richer and so much more valuable! I speak as one who has worked with various NGOs in Guatemala for the last 11 years, I’ve seen several come and go because of lack of understanding and a determination to “do it the right way,” which was actually the wrong way!
I have been volunteering in rural villages in Cambodia teaching English. A fellow volunteer was so disturbed by the conditions in the school where we were teaching, that he decided to raise a LOT of money and build a proper school for them. However, before doing this, he didn’t bother to investigate if that is what the villagers wanted or needed. So, the funds were gathered and the one room schoolhouse was built.
When he returned to the village, to check on the progress of the school, he expected a crowd on hand to thank him. But he was surprised to find the school half-built with cow shit covering the floors. He learned that the villagers were so upset by the building that they harassed the construction workers and brought in their cows to poop on the floors as an act of rebellion. They didn’t see the school as an opportunity for their children to be educated. They viewed it as a threat to having their children help them in the fields. In the end, the money was wasted. However, the villagers gained a new storage shed.