Left: Photo of Jeremy Orr
By Deborah M. Walker
Keeping up with the environmental integrity of Mid-Michigan is what the Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council (Mid-MEAC) is all about; whether it is river protection, green transportation, land use, and sustainability. Mid-MEAC was started on Earth Day in 1993.
As sustainability in communities becomes more important, Ingham, Eaton, and Clinton counties have Mid-MEAC to take environmental concerns from their perspective communities to provide educational resources, assist with advocacy and volunteer opportunities. Mid-MEAC is adamant about environmental safety.
Jeremy Orr, the newly appointed Executive Director for Mid-MEAC, said they will fight to protect Mid-Michigan’s environment and look for ways to implement sustainability and preservation into its environmental culture.
“So folks who are looking to establish a positive [impact] on the environment and protect it and promote sustainability through practices and policies at the government level, we’re that voice for the community at a grassroots level,” said Orr.
Orr has led grassroots advocacy efforts around social justice issues related to environmental justice, transportation, and affordable housing. He said that he will continue his social and environmental advocacy while working towards leading Mid-MEAC on the path of social and environmental equality for all of Mid-Michigan.
Before joining Mid-MEAC, Orr worked for several years as the lead community organizer for a Kalamazoo-based non-profit organization. During this time, he led a number of county and state-wide campaigns aimed at social justice issues concerning environmental justice, transportation, and affordable housing.
Prior to joining the non-profit in Kalamazoo, Orr worked for another non-profit community development corporation based in the city of Detroit as a project manager. While working as a project manager, he secured grant funding for, and also managed, environmental enhancement projects for both commercial and residential areas. While working with this organization, he also helped administer the Northwest Detroit Farmers’ Market.
Although Orr’s experience has been with the east and west sides of the state, he is familiar with Mid-Michigan, having earned both his master’s and bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University.
According to Orr, his work as a social justice advocate has prepared him for his role as an environmental leader and he plans to catapult Mid-MEAC to a new level of social and environmental equality for the community by using his experience to educate and advocate. He said that he will continue his social justice work not just for Mid-MEAC but for any organization looking to help champion social and environmental equality.
“I think there are going to be great opportunities to continue to move Mid-MEAC in that direction; to engage in that work even from a personal level. That’s something I do hope to stay engaged in, not just professionally, but to put in my own time as well. Whether it’s being able to sit on a non-profit board that’s doing that work or sitting on a government commission that is doing that work; that’s something I’m very passionate about,” said Orr.
Orr said that getting the community involved in environmental justice is the key to Michigan’s environmental future. Working together has a greater impact on legislation and policy. People from all backgrounds getting together and sharing ideas not only envelop a sense of togetherness, but it insures that all voices are heard and every constituent’s needs are met. When the community is involved, progress can be made. There are a number of ways this can be done.
“Engage people, educate them and activate them. Move our community members into action to advocate for a number of the issues that we’re working on,” said Orr.
One way Mid-MEAC has engaged the community is through its environmental fair as part of Adopt-A-River. Adopt-A-River engages hundreds of volunteers to clean up the Grand River. The environmental fair features a variety of interesting organizations that aim to improve the condition of Mid-Michigan.
Mid-MEAC’s most popular event is the Smart Commute Challenge which takes place in June for a two week period. Participants are urged to find a new form of transportation whether that is walking, biking, carpooling, paddling, or public transportation. Teams are created for this challenge. The teams could be formed of anyone; family, friends, church members, or even co-workers. The teams then compete with other teams of the similar size and can have any number of people involved. Winning teams earn prizes and top scores based on the number of commute trips and who had the highest percentage of participating team members.
Mid-MEAC also has gotten the community involved through the Community Reinvestment Fund. This program was established to ensure that traditionally underserved and marginalized populations have the opportunity to get involved in the planning process at all levels of government and has been a part of the Mid-Michigan Program for Greater Sustainability.
Mid-Michigan’s environmental future has to be about sustainable development and understanding the role that sustainability plays in the environment realm. According to Orr, it is important to make decisions that put Mid-Michigan in a good position not only financially, but environmentally as well.
Environmental advocacy has changed explained Orr. Many people hear the word environment and think trees, water, and recycling, however, there is more to it than that. Environmental justice encompasses a large variety of social issues that affect the entire Mid-Michigan community.
“In order for people in our community to have a desirable quality of life they have to be able to interact with a physical environment which fosters that. It’s not just a scientific problem that’s a civil rights and human rights problem,” said Orr.
In college, Orr studied human development which dealt with sociology. Orr said it was a great learning experience and he was able to get exposure on the environmental aspect of sociology.
According to Orr, environmental work has changed and now includes a variety of issues. Environmental justice today breaks down old stereotypes as it modernized the movement.
“It is not your grandfather’s environmental work,” said Orr. “It’s not what you see on TV; the cliché environmental things. Now environmental work can mean so many different things. It’s sustainability, it’s wind energy, it’s renewable energy, energy efficiency, it’s health equity, and transportation. There are so many different things that go into it now,” said Orr.
There needs to be a balance when dealing with the urban and rural environment alike. Some people live in rural areas while others reside in urban areas. Both have issues regarding environmental issues and while some are very different the outcome should be the same. When working towards environmental justice both issues have to be taken into account.
“For me in particular, I grew up in an urban area and worked in urbanized areas, so my hope is to really spread education and awareness about sustainability in particular. How are we planning and putting policies in place that utilize resources efficiently? Sustainability is about long term resource management,” said Orr.
Environmental sustainability means that society has, and will continue to have, the basic necessities for survival, including clean water, fresh air, and rich fertile soil for this generation and beyond. Recycling, green energy, and smart zoning practices are the key to sustainability because without it there will eventually not be enough resources to go around.
During Mid-MEAC’s land use luncheon held on Friday, January 9, 2015, the issue of sustainability and planning were highlighted. Mark Grebner, political consultant and guest speaker at the luncheon, discussed land use and zoning and how our current ordinances affect the environment.
According to Grebner, it is important to have zoning ordinances put into place that take into account environmental sustainability that makes sense for the community.
“To say that apartment buildings should be built on a main street, that hospitals should be near the interstate highway; that factories shouldn’t be so close to the houses…,” said Grebner.
Zoning ordinances need to try and shape the region so that uses are consistent with each other explained Grebner. Spaced out planning leads to more drivers on the road traveling further distances, this uses up gasoline and adds to pollution.
“One thing we try to avoid is endless suburban sprawl where everyone has to drive further and further to reach their destination,” said Grebner. “We try to minimize the pollution for example that is caused by long commutes. Better air quality if we have things that are clustered.”
Clustering would be good for Mid-Michigan’s environmental future, whether it’s commercial or residential, both have the ability to limit development to the extent that it may eliminate sprawl.
“I do think that clustering, in many instances, is a good idea for Mid-Michigan's environment. In an ideal world, development would take place when there is a societal need that must to be met. However, the reality is that development often takes place where and when there is no societal need. In the latter instance, the practical environmental benefits for the many are sacrificed for the financial gain of the few. Clustering in Mid-Michigan would limit residential development in particular and protect our natural bodies of water and green space for the enjoyment of those who live, work, play, and go to school here,” said Orr.
Orr said those looking to get into environmental advocacy need to come in with an open mind knowing it is not the same as it was in the past. Environmental advocacy has transformed into much more.
“It’s a grab bag for anybody who has any interest in improving their quality of life and the quality of life in their community,” said Orr.
Those looking to get involved with land use ordinances or any other environmental issue affecting Mid-Michigan should contact Mid-MEAC at 517-292-3078 or visit their website at www.midmeac.org.
This was printed in the January 25, 2015 - February 7, 2015 edition.