It’s important to venture outside of our comfort zones once in a while to see what the world has to offer away from home. I was grateful for this chance when I traveled far from Global Exchange headquarters in sunny San Francisco to chilly Highland Park, Michigan last month.
My trip was centered on an Open House party that the Global Exchange midwest region Green Economy Leadership Training (GELT) program staff held in Highland Park to celebrate their hard work and accomplishments over the last two years.
GELT is an initiative of Global Exchange that educates, engages and empowers both youth and adults to be active agents of change in building the necessary clean energy, green economy future. The program trains youth and community members in practical skills that will empower them to improve their communities, such as environmental justice, energy conservation, renewable energy, green building technology, water conservation, waste diversion (recycling and composting), urban agriculture and food security and urban forestry.
I won’t go into great detail about the deep and complex history of Detroit and Highland Park (you can read more about the city’s rise and fall over the last several decades here). Instead I’ll share some of what’s happening in Highland Park now and the vision folks I met in Detroit have for their tomorrow.
Driving into the small city of Highland Park at night (which is literally a city within a city entirely surrounded by Detroit), I passed by the massive vacant former Ford factory and countless abandoned homes – many of them burned and crumbling. It was particularly dark it was on the side streets. I learned later that the city of Highland Park recently removed the majority of city streetlamps to cut electricity costs. This is one of many examples of the lingering effects of a diminishing economy and a case in point for building up the green economy which Global Exchange is working towards in the area.
My trip began with a tour of GELT headquarters in Highland Park – a formerly dilapidated mansion built in the early 1900s, which now serves as place for green learning and home to several of the staff of the Green Economy Leadership Training (GELT) program (http://www.globalexchange.org/programs/greeneconomy). The staff worked day and night for weeks to renovate the massive house – now divided into four separate apartment units – in advance of the Open House. The space was glorious and proof that any of the countless old deserted buildings in the area could be turned into a haven for sustainable living and community.
A few green features of the GELT home:
- A grey water system installed in one of the bathrooms, which uses recycled water from the sink to power the toilet;
- The team weatherized windows and doors to keep the heat inside during the cold months;
- A mammoth greenhouse constructed behind the house this past summer and now has food growing in it year-round. It’s also used as a classroom twice a week for a group of 6th graders from an elementary school across the street who seem hungry to learn about the environment in a fun and educational way. I was lucky enough to witness a Northpointe Academy school assembly during my visit, where animated 6th grade students shared some of their GELT experiences with their entire school of fellow students.
With these green projects under their belt, GELT staffers have countless other big and small plans for the house to become an example of sustainable living and intentional community in Highland Park.
The highlight of my trip was witnessing the energy and power in the room during the Open House party. Dozens of people gathered together at the GELT headquarters before shifting to the school auditorium to hear presentations by community leaders and staff members about the program successes.
Attendees included Highland Park residents and neighbors, representatives from community organizations, pastors, teachers, elementary school and college students who participated in GELT 9-week summer trainings, and passionate parents and kids. Even the Highland Park Mayor Elect’s mom was there! The excitement about this movement was palpable.
We were all inspired by the opening words of Pastor David Bullock – a famous Highland Park leader and partner of the GELT program – who equated the efforts of GELT to bringing Highland Park out of the ashes. Pastor Bullock along with a passionate teacher, a committed 6th grader, and Brandon Knight and Scott Meloeny (the visionaries behind the program) shared stories of the program’s successes over the past two years, and their dreams and plans for the program in the future.
Thanks to all of the Global Exchange and GELT staff in Michigan who made this incredible event – and this valuable program – possible. I left Michigan looking at the world in a new and improved light.