By David Sands
Since the 1960’s, the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, better known as EMEAC, has served as an important advocate for the land, air, water and—just as importantly—the people of our region.
On top of that, it’s a multicultural, multi-issue organization that makes a point of drawing together environmental struggles with other concerns facing members of our communities.
While EMEAC has definitely had its twists and turns over the years, this past summer the organization made one of its most intriguing moves yet: replacing its outgoing executive director Diana Copeland with not one, but three new directors.
The new intergenerational leadership team consists of Siwatu-Salama Ra, William Copeland and Darryl Jordan. According to Copeland, EMEAC went with this three co-director model because its board of directors liked the idea of having an intergenerational team.
“In terms of institution-building in the community… we thought that it would be better to have that team than put it all [on a single director] and give one person a job,” he says.
EMEAC boasts a 500-strong membership roster, with 100 of those folks being active volunteers. Among the group’s responsibilities are running environmental youth leadership programs, administering a federal nutrition and health program to local youth and maintaining the Cass Corridor Commons, a community space located at Cass and Forest in Detroit. EMEAC also works in coalition with other groups like Zero Waste Detroit, works with media to tell Detroit’s story through an environmental justice narrative and helps host a rotating activist community dinner called Food Justice Fridays.
The new co-directors certainly have a lot of talent and experience between the three of them to do this work.
Ra, the youngest of the trio, grew up in the movement. She’s the daughter of Rhonda Anderson, the Detroit Sierra Club’s environmental justice organizer.
“With that mothering figure, I had no choice but to get involved in activism,” she tells Critical Moment. Now 24, Ra has an organizational history that stretches back a decade. As a representative of EMEAC, she has traveled the world extensively to speak out about the environmental and social realities people face in Detroit.
“Five years ago, I would have never seen myself running an organization [like this],” she says of her appointment. “It’s a dream job. I feel confident in the people and allies around me.”
Copeland grew up in Detroit and has a history of activism that stretches back to the turn of the millennium, when he linked up with Boggs Center while studying at the University of Michigan.
“Volunteering with Boggs Center in the early 2000s, I got to meet different activists active in the 70s, 80s and 90s,” he says. “I came into activism [by connecting with] the elders, plugging into this history that’s been going on many decades.”
Copeland served on the board of the Boggs Center from 2008 to 2009. His introduction to EMEAC came through his partner, the organization’s previous executive director. He got involved with the group’s youth programming, working with the Young Educators Alliance to reach out to high school and college students and young adults.
Prior to becoming a co-director, Copeland worked as EMEAC’s Climate Justice Director. In addition to all that, Copeland also slings verses as a hip-hop artist. His album The Basics is available through his website, willseemusic.com.
Copeland says his new role is challenging, but he’s certain it will be worth the effort.
“There’s a part of me that would love to just not worry about the bills and the grants and adding up the numbers and the payrolls and say: ‘Yo, let me talk about the issues, just let me work on these programs,” he tells Critical Moment.
“But I’m also in a phase where I really want to get into this institution-building,” he continues. “And in order to build institutions, somebody’s got to count the numbers, somebody’s got to make sure the fundings there. So I’m honored to do it.”
Darryl Jordan is a veteran organizer with more than 35 experience working on issues like human rights, health and wellness, hunger and food security, labor rights, peace, anti-racism, and community organizing.
Raised in Virginia, Jordan moved to the Motor City in 1978 to work as a volunteer with Vista, a national service program dedicated to fighting poverty. His many years of activism and organization work include: labor organizing with SEIU; community organizing with U-SNAP-BAC; developing a neighborhood health empowerment center with the Warren Connor Development Corp; and serving as director of the Third World Coalition for the American Friends Service Committee.
In 2014, he joined EMEAC as a senior organizer to work on Just Transition issues such as water, food and land justice and community resilience.
He tells Critical Moment he’s excited to be part of the new approach to running the organization.
“It’s new. It’s an approach that not too many people have attempted to do, especially here in Detroit.”
“I think our three experiences and perspectives,” he continues, “will allow us to do some intergenerational planning as we attempt to grow the organization’s work at EMEAC and attempt to grow the Commons, not just our office space, but something that people see as the community.”
EMEAC’s new co-directors are responsible for maintaining a justice-oriented space in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Beyond that they’ve also got some big projects on the horizon.
The group will be supporting the North American Social Solidarity Economy Forum when it comes to Detroit next April and plans on helping to organize a People’s Movement Assembly at around the same time. On the policy front, EMEAC will be focusing some of its energies on pushing for a better version of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, one that closes corporate loopholes and takes environmental justice needs into consideration.
In addition to this, Copeland says folks can expect to see an energetic embrace of EMEAC’s identity as a multi-cultural organization rooted in Detroit’s Black community.
“We’re very aware that all three members of the leadership team are Black with African-American descent,” he says. “We intentionally work with other communities. We intentionally hold space to benefit all the people who benefit Detroit. We do cultural work within the Black community. Then we do certain things that are openly political and about Detroit in general.
“That’s very important,” he add. “I think you’re going to see more of that in 2016.”
Folks interested in volunteering with or donating to EMEAC can learn more about its work by visiting emeac.org or visiting the Cass Corridor Commons, 4605 Cass in Detroit, during regular business hours.