State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


New Class on Sustainability and Racial Justice in 21st Century Detroit

MS in Sustainability Management Faculty Donna Givens Davidson

Donna Givens Davidson, a new faculty member in the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program, will bring her extensive experience in nonprofit leadership in community economic development to the program in Spring 2021.

Donna Givens Davidson has over 35 years’ nonprofit leadership experience in areas of youth and family development, community economic development, community partnerships, and community education. Over the years, she has developed and implemented demonstration programs and worked in partnership with a number of youth serving organizations with the consistent goal of increasing opportunity, building capacity, and fostering growth.

Now serving as president and CEO of Eastside Community Network, Givens Davidson formerly served as president of the Youth Development Commission, CEO of Visions Education Development Consortium, LLC, executive director of Vanguard Community Development Corporation, vice president of programs for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit and in leadership positions at several other nonprofit organizations. She serves as board member of New Detroit, Inc., Michigan College Access Network, and Urban Research Centers; member of the Bridge Detroit Magazine Advisory Council and the Charles H. Wright Community Advisory and Action Council; and steering committee member for the Lower Eastside Action Plan, Building the Engine for Community Development in Detroit and the Detroit Resident’s First Fund. Givens Davidson co-hosts a weekly podcast, Authentically Detroit, with Orlando Bailey.

In the Spring 2021 semester, Givens Davidson will introduce a new course, Building Resilience in 21st Century Detroit: Roots and Remedies to Racial Injustice. Detroit is well-recognized as the Blackest big city in America within one of the most segregated metropolitan areas. This pre-eminence collapsed over the span of the past 40 years under the weight of racist public policy, public and private malfeasance, financial disinvestment, and the temporary usurpation of Black political power. In an effort to better understand current conflicts between Black citizens and their government, this class examines the role of race in public policy formation, institutional systems, and government. Students will study the thesis that sustainability and racism cannot co-exist and will explore grassroots efforts to address root causes, community development efforts to build sustainable communities, and alternative approaches to restructuring local economies.

Givens Davidson provided some insights into her class and the importance of equity and justice to sustainability.

The description of your course references environmental racism; could you elaborate on this concept and how it manifests in Detroit’s landscape?

Environmental racism is an outgrowth of policy and practices that concentrate environmental risks in Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities through either action or inaction. Industrial plant operations, storage and management of industrial and other waste, contaminated soil, and housing contaminated by lead paint, asbestos, as well as black mold caused by unremediated flooding and sewer back-ups are examples. While these decisions are not overtly racist, they are a reflection of capital, policy and programmatic decisions that discount the risks to people with low social and political capital and limited wealth, which are characteristic of Black, indigenous and immigrant communities.

Why do you think it is important for sustainability professionals to learn about sustainability in the context of racial injustice?

Sustainability is not possible without equity and justice. Environmental injustice impairs the health and wellbeing of Black and Brown people. Out of sight and out of mind, environmental destruction impairs the health of people who live within toxic communities. But water is water; soil is soil; and air is air and none of these systems can be truly contained within politically defined geographical boundaries. In the parable of the miner’s canary, canaries were sent down into the mines to test the air quality. When the canaries died, miners understood the air was not safe to breathe and the same toxic air would sicken or kill miners. In places of injustice, Black and Brown communities function like these canaries. Until we address the hoarding of resources, the displacement of environmental destruction, and the failure to give voice and power to all people, we cannot protect our planet.

Is there any specific work you’re involved in that’s related to building resilience in Detroit?

Sustainability is not possible without equity and justice…. Until we address the hoarding of resources, the displacement of environmental destruction, and the failure to give voice and power to all people, we cannot protect our planet.

We have developed resident-driven land use plans for a 15-square-mile area known as the lower Eastside Action Plan area. These plans are informed by resident needs, goals and desires, as well as technical expertise from urban planners, sustainability experts, and city officials. We initially focused on stormwater management, given the age and condition of our stormwater and sewage infrastructure and the frequency of flooding and sewer back ups. Towards this end, we have installed a bioswale, and repurposed over 100 vacant lots into urban rain gardens, with one serving as a best-practice example across the city. We have educated residents and encouraged rain gardens in resident-led projects, including 15 projects we funded through mini-grants. We have partnered with experts across the city to promote stormwater education for residents and business owners. We have solicited research into policies that would promote offsite stormwater mitigation in low density neighborhoods. We commissioned a documentary film “I Want My Water Now” to discuss stormwater issues in our community. We have developed plans to install bioswales make other green stormwater investments at our headquarters.

Air quality is another significant concern. We’ve worked with environmental partners to challenge air quality permitting and industrial expansion in our community. We have solicited land use plans that promote use of vegetative buffers and increased tree planting to improve air quality. We work with partners to re-route truck traffic from residential neighborhoods. We work with partners on increasing access to renewable energy. And we have been working to define and develop resilience hub/wellness hub models that we will implement in our own properties and that partners are implementing in vacant and repurposed homes and community centers. We are also working on community education, on increasing resident and small business capacity to create a green economy, and in partnership with the Detroit Sustainability Office as well as Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to promote changes from within.

Are there any extra details that you would like to add about your course that might interest students in enrolling?

Detroit is a fascinating and unique American city with attributes that are often overlooked by national media and by a largely exiled white population. Beyond the motor city and Motown, Detroit has functioned as a laboratory for Black civic, political, and social empowerment since the formation of the Underground Railroad and pathways of safe passage for people fleeing forced labor camps in the land of Dixie.

Celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2020, the M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. Visit the website to learn more.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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Stephen Boyle
3 years ago

Congratulations on the course opportunity. Detroit is definitely a textbook case of institutional despotism with intentional dereliction seated in so many influential positions.

myrtle denice thompson
myrtle denice thompson
2 years ago

Your insight, work, and lived experience are to be respected in relation to teaching your students. Thank you for the opportunity to bring practical application to the academic setting. In the words of Grace Lee Boggs, In Love and Struggle. Myrtle

charles m samul
charles m samul
2 years ago

At one point in my career (10+ years prior to entering the MS program I am a 2013 graduate) i managed real estate and real estate transactions for Norfolk Southern Railway in Detroit. That was now 20 years ago, but I remember clearly how impressed I was by the scale of industrial activity that involved the railroad. Dave Bing, who had not yet entered politics, was operating his own metal recycling business. I always meant to stop in to introduce myself, but regret i never did.