Flooding on Detroit’s east side.
Flooding on Detroit’s east side. Credit: Planet Detroit

This article is co-published by the Energy News Network and Planet Detroit with support from the Race and Justice Reporting Initiative at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University. 

The University of Michigan is opening a clinic on Detroit’s east side — but instead of offering flu shots and check-ups, this clinic aims to help residents cope with the vagaries of climate change.

The University of Michigan Sustainability Clinic aims to “improve the ability of the City of Detroit and nonprofits serving the City to address the impacts of climate change on the natural and built environment, human health, and the city’s finances — while working to enhance sustainability policy and action,” according to a press release. The University of Michigan has committed 10 years to the project, which is supported by an initial three-year, $1 million commitment from the Kresge Foundation. 

The clinic’s inaugural client will be Jefferson East, Inc., located in Jefferson-Chalmers, a neighborhood heavily impacted by this summer’s flooding. It will operate out of the UM’s Detroit Center on Woodward. UM’s School for Environment and Sustainability students will work on research projects designed to address equitable and just climate solutions, lower energy costs, reduce carbon emissions, and support service delivery to improve residents’ quality of life.

Traditionally, University of Michigan graduate students conduct a research-based project for their thesis or capstone without any promise of follow-up action to the community. But student projects conducted through the clinic will be different, according to Kerry Duggan, the program’s founding director. 

“Universities often get dinged for this sort of parachute fly-in research,” said Duggan, a former Obama administration policy official and currently an appointee to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Council on Climate Solutions. “And so I really wanted to get away from that.” 

To accomplish this goal, the clinic will operate three-year cohorts during which resident clients will have long-term contact with University of Michigan students and experts. The program will also hire a diversity, equity, and inclusion resident who will be responsible for making sure the community’s voice is being heard.

Communities everywhere are faced with the reality of the “climate clock,” as Duggan explains it. Through long-term engagement with Detroiters on the ground, the School for Environment and Sustainability hopes to pair the university’s technical knowledge with Detroiters’ “local wisdom,” she said. “It’s getting away from … dropping in, doing research on the community and leaving, and trying a fresh approach of a multi-tiered kind of layered cohort,” Duggan added.

Joshua Elling, chief executive officer at Jefferson East, Inc., expressed excitement for the partnership in the press release. “Students will have an opportunity to better understand and meaningfully support the Detroit community by bringing to bear the resources of a world-class university in our state,” he said.

Students within the program will have a wide array of focus ranging from “energy and water justice to green infrastructure in the neighborhoods to small business support in sustainability, to remediation and restoration of the Detroit River to support for the city’s climate agenda,” Duggan said.

The inaugural clinic will be a part of a statewide effort, launching in 2022 “to support the vision that the Great Lakes State lead the nation in the implementation of 21st century resilient infrastructures that address climate impact, racial inequity, unemployment and economic fallout from the global pandemic.”

“We hope to get institutions in our own backyards to turn around and face the community and make that expertise available in a way that is really tangible and real for community members,” Duggan said.

Editor’s note: A prior version of this story incorrectly suggested that the clinic will be housed within Jefferson East. It will operate out of the University of Michigan Detroit Center.

Rukiya is a native Detroiter and a co-founder of the Eastside Solutionaries Collective. She was a 2021 reporting fellow for the Energy News Network and Planet Detroit.