(This summer, our Michigan team is working with GreenNation on the Green Economy Leadership Training program. This entry was written by GELT-er Ayoola White. Cross-posted on Solutionaries.net)

Caulk gun? Check.

Window kits? Check.

Toolbox? Sink aerators? Clipboard? Check, check, check.

Every morning, for the week and a half that the GELT team performed weatherizations, we hustled to prepare for the day. We gathered our supplies, called Highland Park residents, and hurried off to our destinations. People generally tend to regard all neglected communities as if they were identical, but we quickly recognized that no two houses were alike, neither in their weatherization needs nor in their family dynamics.

At every household, we were offered a little peek into the stories of those who lived there. Many of the narratives were nonverbal, implied in sighs, creaky stairs, and the giggles of children running around. Karina, an outspoken woman who has resided in the area for a long time, actually took the time to verbalize her story to my partner and me.

What surprised me so much about Karina was how freely she spoke about events in her personal life, especially to two young strangers. She had no qualms whatsoever about conveying her feelings about her ex-husbands, her ailing mother, her battle with drug addiction, or her complaints about certain neighbors. Her narrative was more than a little shocking, but, in the end, she gave a simple, yet moving account of how she took a step toward ridding herself of her pain.

Until recently, Karina never felt comfortable in her own home. To her, the walls held memories of toxic relationships and bitter shouting matches. In her studies as a student of natural healing, she eventually realized that she had to change her surroundings if she was to take control of her life. So she painted her walls a whimsical shade of pink.

Karina’s fundamental lesson for us was the importance of honoring oneself. People without self-respect and self-love are like black holes that swallow everything, even light. They make destructive decisions and can never truly move forward.

Listening to Karina’s story has made me realize that we cannot forget that there are individuals in the environmental movement. Coalition building and community organizing are vital, of course, but we cannot simply regard ourselves as identical cogs in a machine. We must learn our strengths, hone them, and adapt them.