This Southfielder with a lifelong commitment to community leads a nonprofit that’s committed to environmental justice, and to equitable, sustainable solutions.
The effects of climate change have the potential to burden all of humanity, but, as with most causes of concern, the poor and people of color are most vulnerable. EcoWorks is a Detroit-based nonprofit that operates at the intersection of community development and sustainability to ensure that, as we talk solutions, inclusion and equity are part of the conversation. The organization provides education, resources and economic opportunity to individuals and entities, while also bringing people together in an effort to foster a better understanding around what a sustainable future looks like.
“It’s important for us to not just think about sustainability from the perspective of our natural and built environment – but what’s that third piece? That most important piece is our community and our community’s sustainability,” says Bryan Lewis, EcoWorks executive director. The organization’s main objective is reflected in its Net Zero F.A.S.T. (For All, Starting Today) initiative, which looks to carve out an equitable, affordable path to zero emissions by 2050. By working with partners from every sector across Southeast Michigan, the goal is to combat climate change and its effects in a way that includes everyone, especially the most exposed among us.
Lewis says the initiative is “a recognition that, yeah, we can talk about having a clean environment, but if that clean environment isn’t available to all, what are we even talking about here?” He says, “We can talk about climate change, if we decarbonize our entire society but people are still living in homes that have to pay upward of 30 to 40% of their income to DTE and don’t have money for food, then we’re not doing a good job. Sustainability is important, but we also have to have equity and economic opportunity that underpins that, so that people can actually own the change that’s happening.”
Also, Lewis adds, we don’t want people to be made to feel guilty for not doing enough when they haven’t been given the proper education and resources. Under the Net Zero F.A.S.T. umbrella, EcoWorks has implemented key programs and initiatives that empower the community. The Youth Energy Squad encourages young people in hands-on, place-based projects that help make homes, schools and communities more sustainable. “There’s a significant opportunity for us to engage young people, and not just engage them, but have young people lead in this space,” Lewis says. He reminds that the problem of climate pollution is one that we’re primed to pass on to our children.
The Eco-D program uses workshops, home visits and appliance upgrades to help residents lower their energy bills and achieve healthier homes. In partnership with DTE and its Energy Efficiency Assistance Program, customers and residents of metro Detroit could be eligible to have their old, inefficient appliances replaced with new, Energy Star-certified models. And EcoWorks’ Healthy Home Kits deliver free, customized energy-saving materials directly to area residents, what Lewis calls “a basket of resources.”
To get started, families and students with the Energy Squad need only conduct an audit of their homes, checking for air leaks around doors and windows, inefficient lightbulbs, running toilets, harsh chemicals and the like. Also, on a macro level, through its Strategic Community Initiatives, EcoWorks involves small businesses, school districts and municipalities in custom, clean energy solutions that will inch us closer to that net zero goal.
Lewis had been the program director for the Youth Energy Squad before being appointed EcoWorks’ executive director in October, the first Black person to serve in that role in the organization’s 40-year history. He earned a bachelor’s in civil and environmental engineering, and a master’s in energy science, technology and policy from Carnegie Mellon University before coming back home to Detroit to continue his work.
“I always say to change the narrative around what’s happening in your community, you have to change the narrator,” Lewis says. “I think it’s huge that we are starting to see more and more people of color in leadership positions, in general, but especially in leadership positions around sustainability and the environment. This is a really, really – take it from me – white-dominated space. And I’m not just talking about the people; I’m talking about the perspectives.”
To ensure that the positive changes we make in the area of climate and environment benefit the many and not only the privileged few, Lewis says we must be intentional about also addressing the inequities that exist. “We have a real opportunity to be more mindful about how we are utilizing our resources, identifying our resources and developing our space, our city, to being inclusive of the culture and the people who live here already – and provide opportunities for them to take part in Detroit’s success,” he says.
For more information on EcoWorks or to get involved, visit ecoworksdetroit.org.