Build Back Better for Us: Ben’s Story

As we work to address the climate crisis, making sure equitable clean energy solutions that benefit low-income and minority communities are of utmost importance. Ben Dueweke, Director of Community Partnerships for Walker-Miller Energy Services, is driven by the idea that we can empower people through intentional energy efficiency solutions that create jobs and uplift communities as we build a clean energy economy that works for everyone.

Ben’s work at Walker-Miller, a Detroit-based, woman and Black-owned energy efficiency firm, is focused on increasing access and availability of energy resources in underserved communities. Through Walker-Miller’s partnerships with DTE Energy and Michigan’s utility companies, Ben works to find and implement tangible energy efficiency solutions for families and businesses. Some of these solutions are simple, but make a big difference, including the installation of energy efficient light bulbs, shower heads, and the weatherization of homes. Additionally, implementation of these solutions requires a larger workforce, which opens up jobs from entry-level positions to management positions. Walker-Miller offers opportunities for career development and advancement through education and certification pathways, allowing people to maintain and move up in long-term, good-paying careers in the energy sector. Most importantly, these solutions are helping make communities more resilient to the effects of climate change.

As the climate crisis continues to accelerate, Ben’s background in civil engineering reinforces his belief in the importance of incorporating intentional investments to benefit the communities and people who need it most.

For Ben, the Build Back Better act is an opportunity to invest in accessible energy efficiency solutions, create good-paying careers, and put us on track towards a clean energy economy.

“There are huge opportunities for decarbonization within energy efficiency. We can’t hit climate goals that need to be hit without robust energy efficiency. It’s also such a great way for Congress to support their districts because you are really investing in your own community. You are improving the housing stock and building community value on a residential and a commercial level by focusing on energy efficiency standards. These investments come with quality jobs and are built around sustained operations. Looking at these investments and thinking about ways to thoughtfully invest in the people, the training and the career pathways in parallel with the built environment will have ripple effects in so many positive ways.”

Community members installing wifi controlled thermostat
Community member installing hot water tank pipe wrap

Build Back Better for Us: Dolores’s Story

In high school, Dolores wanted to write textbooks; but the day she saw the seed she planted herself at Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision’s Cadillac Urban Gardens had sprouted a tiny leaf, everything changed.

“That’s when I knew I didn’t want to let go of this feeling and I want to make sure other kids have this feeling,” says Dolores Perales while sitting at her desk working for the very same organization she planted seeds with in high school. 

Dolores, 23, her parents, and her three younger brothers, have lived in Southwest Detroit for her entire life. This area of Detroit, enclosed in factories, oil refineries, and the haze left behind by the constant passing and idling of diesel trucks, makes this area one of the most polluted in the state. 

In the summers Dolores made sure to pack her inhaler anywhere she went, it was normal to her, she’d had asthma for years. She didn’t know her asthma was a byproduct of the environment she was living in until she realized her younger brother, her cousin down the street, the kids in the neighborhood, and so many people in her life also had asthma. It was not a coincidence. 

In highschool, Dolores worked for a publishing company, as she imagined a future writing environmental textbooks for students who wanted to make changes in their community. Around this time she also started volunteering at Cadillac Urban Gardens where the literal and figurative seed was planted. 

“(Cadillac Urban Gardens) really changed my perspective on built environments and how your built environment can directly impact your life, your health, your livelihoods, whatever it may be. It totally changed the trajectory that I was on in high school,” Dolores begins, “It’s really cool to write about it, but I want to be a part of the doing… I want to be the one doing the thing and making the impacts that I want to see because there’s obviously issues here and I want to make that change.”

Dolores received her bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University in environmental studies and sustainability, with a minor in global public health while taking on a leadership role in the Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences group on campus. She is currently working on dual masters degrees, one in environmental justice and one in urban and regional planning with a focus in climate change adaptation planning. 

Today, as the Environment and Community Sustainability Specialist for Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, Dolores researches, develops, and maintains greenspaces in her community. She designs and implements programs for adults and youth to get involved, make an impact, and experience the same feeling she felt when she saw that tiny leaf years ago. 

Community input is at the forefront of the decision making process in Dolores’ work, and she believes it should be at the forefront of lawmakers’ work when taking action on climate change. 

“I don’t think they understand why it’s so important to these communities that we make these changes– because we are tired. We’re tired of living in the ways we’ve been living and without laws and policies to back up our claims, to back up our feelings, to back up the changes that need to be made, nothing is going to happen and people are going to continue to get hurt.”

“Now is the time to invest in the Build Back Better Agenda, because if we keep pushing climate action aside any longer, the effects of climate change, the effects of all these different aspects are going to continue to get worse and worse and worse until there’s not going to be any solution.”

 

Build Back Better for Us: Edward Pinkney

Benton Harbor minister wages fight for clean water in majority Black southwest Michigan city

As a freshman attending the East Texas University, the Rev. Edward Pinkney was asked to intervene after some older, Black students took over the chemistry building in protest and threatened to blow it up.

Pinkney didn’t know the protesting students but courageously entered the building to talk to them about their concerns—the harassment and attacks they faced whenever they ventured into town, the terrible food, and inequities on campus. He listed their demands, took them to university officials and negotiated for the students. While police threatened to arrest the students, the university officials delivered pizza and agreed to their demands. None of them was arrested. 

For his role in resolving the standoff, Pinkney became a big man on campus and learned a valuable lesson that would motivate him through his life: “You can’t win if you don’t fight.”

Today, the minister and president of the grassroots Benton Harbor Community Water Council, is leading a fight for the 10,000 residents of Benton Harbor, an impoverished majority Black city in southwest Michigan, who are living with lead-contaminated water.

“For at least three years, the people of Benton Harbor have been living with contaminated water. We urgently need safe, clean water right now—today,” he said in a recent online news conference.

Besides leading a group of 20 community activists and public advocacy organizations to ensure residents have access to bottled water, water filters and information about the dangers and health risks of lead poisoning, Pinkney supported filing a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in September.

The petition called for federal intervention to obtain safe water supplies for Benton Harbor residents, shining an international light on the issue and sparking comparisons to the Flint water crisis, which became a national symbol for environment justice.

The nonprofit Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, which helped spearhead the EPA petition, has reported that since fall 2018, more than 60 Benton Harbor homes have tested for lead levels in their drinking water that exceed the federal government’s lead action level of 15 parts per billion. 

One home tested for 889 parts per billion, which is nearly 60 times the federal safety limit.

Pinkney, now 72, says some residents don’t understand the potential impact on their health—and particularly on their children’s health, which could have lifelong effects.

“They say, ‘I don’t drink the water. I drink bottled water,’ Pinkney said. “I tell them, ‘but you cook with the water, and you bathe in it and give it to your pets.’”

Exposure to lead can seriously damage a child’s health, including lowered intelligence quotient, and other injuries to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavioral problems and challenges with hearing and speech. 

No safe blood lead level in children has been identified, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In late September, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed to seek all available resources to help Benton Harbor receive $20 million earmarked to replace old pipes, part of proposed $200 million investments in lead pipe removal across Michigan. The state’s budget included only half of her proposed funding—$10 million for lead pipe replacement.

“We need all the lead pipes replaced,” Pinkney said.

In the Flint water crisis, which started in 2014, residents were sickened, suffered hair loss, sores, and other skin problems after water with excessive lead levels flowed from the untreated Flint River through old, corroded lead pipes.

As a result, women suffered miscarriages, children had unexplained health and behavioral issues and some residents died.

“We don’t need another Flint and we need help to stop this crisis right now,” Pinkney said.  “We are asking the federal government to intervene for the sake of our elders and children. Lead is poison. Lead kills. We desperately need funds to Build Back Better immediately.”   

Build Back Better for Us: Tim Werner

Tim Werner, a city commissioner in Traverse City, is always striving to make his city better. As a lifelong problem solver, he sees the build back better agenda as an incredible opportunity to improve upon Traverse City’s infrastructure to help combat climate change and mitigate the effects it has had on his city.

Opportunities for improving Traverse City’s infrastructure include adding sidewalks to encourage more walking, planting more trees, and improving sewer/stormwater systems to avoid flooding. With funding from the build back better agenda, Traverse City could accelerate these projects that would otherwise be long, drawn out processes due to funding.

In Tim’s view, improved infrastructure can give residents the option to implement practices that are healthy for themselves and for the planet, like walking more. With Traverse City’s current sidewalk structure, this is not an option. 

“We don’t need to force people to live with a smaller carbon footprint, but we should at least make it possible.”

At their current spending rate, this project would have taken 100 years to complete. Tim worked with the commission to build momentum to secure $6 million for their sidewalk project, which is significant in a city which works within a $15 million budget.

And when it comes to budget, Tim says a lot of these infrastructure projects will pay for themselves, as roughly 50 percent of the water the city is treating is stormwater that gets into the sanitary system. Because of the added, unnecessary cost of treating rainwater, overtime the improvements to infrastructure will pay for themselves.

With extreme weather and heavy, intense rains, the sewer system in Traverse City has been taking in stormwater when it shouldn’t, which then causes overflow into the river and bay. Tim knows that in order to properly address this issue, we need to rethink how we rebuild our infrastructure.

“I’ve been a voice for many years for not just building back to the same,” said Tim Werner. “Let’s not just put a bigger pipe in the ground, let’s have less hard surfaces so we have less stormwater flowing into the system, let’s use green infrastructure. Building back the same is not adequate. We really do need to build back better. Let’s do better because we can.”

While stormwater and sewer upgrades are a more obvious piece of infrastructure, Tim also thinks creatively on what can be considered infrastructure, like planting more trees. Not only do trees provide a beautiful landscape, but an increase in tree coverage also assists with stormwater and energy use from increased air conditioning loads in the summer months. These small changes will make a big difference, and for Tim, his work is all about using these opportunities to improve the city and finding creative solutions. 

With the build back better agenda, he and the Commission will be able to bring those creative solutions to life to take action on climate change. 

“We’ve waited a long time already — we’ve known that climate change is real and it is a climate crisis. Now is the time. It’s like they say about planting a tree, it would have been best to plant a tree 20 years ago, but the next best time is today.” 

For Traverse City, and for local units of government across the country, now is the time to take action with funding from the build back better agenda.

Build Back Better for Us: John Kinch

As we work to tackle the climate crisis and eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels, there is no doubt that renewable energy sources, particularly solar energy, must be at the forefront of our nation’s strategy. John Kinch, executive director of Michigan Energy Options based in East Lansing, MI, is focused on making this a reality. 

Throughout his time at Michigan Energy Options, Michigan’s longest tenured energy-focused organization, John has gained experience and expertise when it comes to implementing renewable energy solutions that benefit the communities in which solar projects are built. The organization’s focus on community-based energy projects — like the solar project John and his partners helped build in East Lansing — has been a core tenant of its work as Michigan Energy Options looks to reduce fossil fuel consumption and help put the state on a path towards a carbon-free future. 

Along with his work for Michigan Energy Options, John works for the State of Michigan and major utility companies, advising on how renewable energy solutions can be implemented to produce tangible results in the fight against climate change. Holding a PhD in Environmental History, John recognizes how urgent the crisis is, and believes that solar energy energy must be a key part of our strategy. 

For John, building back better and greener means taking advantage of the historic opportunities in front of us to invest in solar energy, building solar projects in unused or underutilized spaces such as parking lots and former industrial sites, both to move the needle on carbon emissions as well as accommodate our growing populations while protecting our precious natural spaces. With promising developments in the fight against climate change at the state level with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan, John believes that we can capitalize on these opportunities at the federal level as well by passing President Biden’s Build Back Better Act to invest in clean energy solutions that produce tangible results for people and communities. 

“We have some real immediate challenges when it comes to resiliency and adaptation. Climate change is a crisis that is not just immediate, but it is a long term crisis. I don’t think we are ever going to get ahead of it unless we really actively think about how we empower communities to develop approaches, to develop funding, to develop mindsets that encourage more renewable energy development.”

 

Build Back Better for Us: J. Field Reichardt

A lifelong resident of the Grand Haven area, Field Reichardt understands what’s right for his community’s electric energy. Field has been long involved in the Grand Haven community, striving for its best interests, especially issues affecting quality of life.

With the shutdown of the city’s aging coal-fired power plant, Grand Haven’s Board of Light & Power proposed a plan to build a new gas-powered “peaker” plant. The proposed 12.5 megawatt plant, to be used 5-10% of the time, would be built on Harbor Island in the Grand River, a piece of land vulnerable to high water, and the site of both a coal ash storage area and a toxic former city dump.

In late 2019, the Grand Haven City Council had set a goal, for 2020, to find “a community driven” solution to the electricity issue. Reichardt and a group of other citizens pushed for an independent study.  When the Council declined, and “punted” the ball to the local utility board, the growing group formed the Grand Haven Energy Organization, to promote the independent review of the plans. The group, including conservatives and liberals, young and old, grew to over 1,400 supporters.  

The effort also energized diverse, forward-looking candidates to run for the utility board and for the City Council.  The August Primary stunned the community:  The newcomers, all of whom favored a new look at the power plant plans, won overwhelming primary margins.  Local officials and leaders who had been backing the new plant realized they had underestimated community concern.  According to Field, the expectation in the August 16 Council Meeting, a few days after the primary, was a  3-2 Council vote to approve bonding for the plant. 

“We were stunned when the council voted 5-0 to request the Board of Light and Power to come up with a new plan,” said Field. 

More than 100 people showed up at that council meeting.  27 people, including about 15 young people, addressed the council to express their opposition to the BLP plans. Only three people supported the plans.  

The result: The Board of Light and Power is revising their plans, changing their focus from being an energy producer to being an energy distributor.  

Field calls the success “a classic people vs. public relations” effort.  His message:  “It took us a year and a half to turn the big ship away from the shoals. If people care enough about an issue, they can change even the most entrenched opponent’s minds. It took time, It took patience.  It took diplomacy. But we did it.”

Now, as the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy (EGLE) has become involved with the city on the environmental problems near the mouth of the Grand River, there are more issues to resolve: protecting Harbor Island, the river itself, and Lake Michigan from further threats of contamination. 

Through his years as a political and community activist, Field recognizes the importance of investing in our transportation and clean energy infrastructure and the need for bipartisanship to address climate change. At the center of this belief is the understanding that the threats facing our communities are not partisan issues, but points of common interest that our elected leaders should be working to address, regardless of party affiliation. Field supports investments that will improve the resiliency of our energy grid, enhance renewable energy and energy storage systems, and make transportation more sustainable.

“The United States has only 4% of the population of the planet.  Though we need to think globally, we can all act locally to make a difference. We are doing our bit in Grand Haven. So can you!”

Build Back Better for Us: Denise Keele’s Story

Step one in saving the world: admitting the problem. The problem being the greatest threat to our infrastructure, our livelihoods, our food sources, and our way of life: climate change. 

Denise Keele, a professor of environmental law and sustainability and development at Western Michigan University, and founder of the Kalamazoo Climate Crisis Coalition (KCCC), says recognizing and conveying the urgency of the climate crisis is the first step in fighting it. 

“The urgency could not be greater. That’s  why it’s called the Kalamazoo Climate Crisis Coalition. That’s why we’re passing emergency declarations, to change the frame of mind about the level of response that is necessary.” 

In 2019, Denise and the group of activists who would soon become the KCCC, petitioned the Kalamazoo Environmental Concerns Committee (ECC) and requested that the Kalamazoo City Commission declare a climate emergency. The proposal was passed and some political candidates in Kalamazoo adopted the emergency declaration in their campaigns that year, a move KCCC had anticipated. 

Recognizing climate change as a public emergency not only raises awareness within the community, says Denise, “and now we have something we can hold these elected officials accountable to. It gives us a tool of continued leverage, that is really the value of the declaration.” 

Denise understands that while taking action against climate change at a local level is important, the real heavy lifting has to come from the state and federal levels. 

“There are so many, what we call, shovel-ready projects right here in Kalamazoo. What is stopping them is federal support or the state support, and we just don’t have the capacity and staffing and funding we need. And that’s what the government is for right?  And these local folks want their Community Solar, we have passed ordinances for housing Equity, we’re trying to put in our charging stations, and grow our food gardens, and to scale it up requires that federal piece and that federal support.”

Denise supports the major investments in climate action proposed in the Build Back Better agenda, she knows combatting this crisis requires major federal support and bold action in every sector across the board.  

“There is no silver bullet to solving the climate crisis. It is going to take a myriad of different policies and actors in every single sector in order to not just address and mitigate, but also adapt,” says Denise. 

“What is the biggest threat to our infrastructure? The biggest threat to our livelihood, to me getting around, to me having a place to live, shelter, to me getting food, is climate change! …Our downtown floods every single spring now. Heat is buckling our roads. People are dying because they don’t have air conditioning, or because their home is not insulated properly. We cannot feed ourselves. So to me, why should every policy decision be a CC decision? It’s because it is our greatest threat. Anything that you want to do, whether it be housing and the equity issues, everything that you want to do is going to be impacted by a climate change effect. So it has to therefore be included.”

Build Back Better for Us: Austin Burt’s Story

For Austin Burt, the “Lake Life” has always been his way of life. Growing up in Traverse City, MI, Austin developed a deep connection with the Great Lakes and everything the region has to offer in terms of outdoor activities. This connection is made especially unique by his love for surfing the Great Lakes and his involvement in the small, tight knit surfing community consisting of individuals that surf Lake Michigan in all weather and seasons. 

Being born and raised in Northern Michigan, Austin has seen the changes that have taken place over the years and how the accelerating effects of climate change are impacting the land and water that he loves so much. As lake temperatures rise and weather patterns have become more inconsistent, it has gotten harder for Austin and fellow surfers to catch the waves in the same way they used to. He sees climate change as the culprit for these changes, and is passionate about taking action to protect the lake he calls “Big Mama Mich” and his beloved playgrounds. 

Coupled with the changing climate, Austin is deeply concerned with increasing amounts of pollution in Lake Michigan, including debris, mercury, and micro plastics that have found their way into fish and animals. In the spring of 2021, Austin and a friend went fishing on Sleeping Bear Bay, an area that is known for its salmon and trout fishing. After catching an enormous, beautiful salmon in the bay, Austin says that when he and his friend filleted their catch that they found its intestines littered with all sorts of trash and plastic, making the fish inedible. 

This is sadly now a common occurrence and Austin sees the threat pollution and climate change pose to the fishing and tourism industries that the region relies on for economic well-being. Consistently participating in beach cleanups that produce several contractor bags full of garbage on average, Austin is worried about what the future will hold for the region’s economy and how the region can maintain the delicate balance between supporting its economy and protecting the water and land that is truly a paradise. 

For Austin, building back better and making investments in our infrastructure present a unique opportunity to protect the Leelanau Peninsula, “Big Mama Mich,” and the “Lake Life” lifestyle that is such a big part of his daily life, not to mention the precious waves that he chases in a wetsuit when lake temperatures dip towards freezing. He is calling on elected officials in Michigan and members of Congress to take advantage of this opportunity to protect Northern Michigan, the Great Lakes, and the region’s economy so it can remain the pure, beautiful oasis that it is today. 

“Northern Michigan and the Leelanau Peninsula is one of the last bubbles of clean water and beautiful spaces. We have to keep it that way, man. Once it goes bad, it’s really hard to reverse those changes. We need to invest in our infrastructure and tackle climate change and pollution to make sure we protect the places we love. We have to be more environmentally conscious. I want to always be able to have this playground and continue doing the things that I love.”

Build Back Better for Us: Bali Kumar’s Story

Bali Kumar is a resident of Detroit and Chief Operating Officer of PACE Loan Group, where he lends capital nationwide to property owners and real estate developers to retrofit existing buildings and build more sustainable adaptive reuse and new construction projects.

Bali’s company helps nonprofits, businesses, apartment buildings, hotels, and other commercial properties finance clean energy and water conservation upgrades that help them save money while reducing their carbon footprint and eliminating waste. Working in the clean energy space, Bali sees firsthand the potential for jobs building and installing the clean energy and energy efficiency technologies of the future. For example, PACENation estimates that for every $1 million in PACE financing, 15 jobs are created.

Through public-private partnerships and bold investments, like the American Jobs Plan, the government can play a big role in the advancement of clean energy. It’s programs like PACE that help property owners small and large do their part to reduce emissions and promote cleaner air and water in a fiscally responsible manner.

Bali supports President Biden’s American jobs Plan because it sets bold and smart plans for the inevitable transition to clean energy. He has seen the growth in jobs and the impact clean energy has on Michigan’s economy and believes there is much room to grow this sector nationwide with the right policies in place.

“Transitioning to clean, renewable energy will not only help us mitigate climate change, but it will also help create local, well-paying jobs. Green-collar jobs are the jobs of the future. We need leaders in Congress to recognize this opportunity in the American Jobs Plan to rebuild our economy while protecting our air, land and water for future generations.”

Build Back Better for Us: Bob Sutherland’s Story

Bob Sutherland owns Cherry Republic, a food store born in northern Michigan that sells more than 200 products made from cherries with six locations across the state. As a prominent northern Michigan business owner, Bob understands the importance of Michigan’s Great Lakes, majestic dunes and beaches – and the need to protect them.

Bob is an advocate for our Great Lakes and northern Michigan way of life because he believes it’s right. With multiple locations in northern Michigan that rely heavily on a thriving tourism and agriculture industry, Bob is seeing the impacts of climate change firsthand.

Record high lake levels over the past several years have caused erosion of Michigan’s dunes and beaches. Extreme weather and abnormal climate patterns have led to excessive rainfall and humidity causing extra work and expenses for cherry farmers, on which Bob’s business depends. He is experiencing the inherent connection between our water and Great Lakes and the climate crisis.

It’s Bob’s belief that the business community has a significant responsibility when it comes to the protection of our air, land and water and the fight against a changing climate. Business owners should use their platforms to take a stance and ensure leaders know why protecting our air, land and water is so important.

That’s why he’s using his platform to support President Biden’s American Jobs Plan to build back our economy and water infrastructure while positioning us to tackle the climate crisis. The American Jobs Plan presents our country with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect our water, that businesses like Bob’s rely on so heavily. 

“We are seeing the impacts of climate change right now here in northern Michigan. The American Jobs Plan is our opportunity to create jobs rebuilding our country and tackling climate change. We need bold action and leadership now to tackle the climate crisis, which is why I’m calling on members of Congress to get behind the American Jobs Plan.”