A group of panelists, from left, Liz Kennedy, Chrystal Ridgeway, Ahmina Maxey, and Norrel Hemphill.
From left, Liz Kennedy, Chrystal Ridgeway, Ahmina Maxey, and Norrel Hemphill on the Waging Love panel in Detroit’s Love Building. Credit: Kenny Karpov / Courtesy

This article was produced in partnership with Planet Detroit.

What does it mean to wage love?

The question, inspired by deceased Detroit activist Charity Mahouna Hicks, formed the centerpiece of a recent gathering of Detroit environmental justice advocates. 

Hicks, who died from injuries sustained after being struck by a hit-and-run driver in 2014 in New York City, made the phrase her mantra. For the panelists, answering that question means charting a course toward a better future.

Waging Love: Building an Environmentally Just Detroit featured an intergenerational panel of local activists and residents from Detroit’s environmental and climate justice movements. 

The panel capped off the 2023 Allied Media Projects’ Seeds Series designed to “bring together visionary minds from across the AMP network for dialogue, resource-sharing, and reflection.”

Producer Liz Kennedy moderated the panel, including Ahmina Maxey of Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition; Chrystal Ridgeway, a Core City resident activist; and Norrel Hemphill, an Equal Justice Works Fellow and attorney at the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center who works closely with We The People of Detroit. 

The event was held in the newly renovated Love Building, a new social justice hub in Detroit’s Core City, which houses Allied Media Projects, Detroit Justice Center, Detroit Narrative Agency, Detroit Disability Power, Detroit Community Technology Project, and Paradise Natural Foods.

The event opened with a land acknowledgment and remarks by David Pitawanakwat, the founder of the Detroit Indigenous Peoples Alliance. Before the panel discussion, DanceAbility Detroit, a dance group for people of all abilities, performed. 

Hemphill said she did not know Charity Hicks but knew that Hicks was warning people in the 1990s about what was coming with Detroit’s water issues — massive shutoffs of low-income Detroiters, often Black mothers — for nonpayment. She said Hicks sounded an early alarm about how water is often used to punish the most vulnerable “because if there is no running water, you are at risk of losing your children.” 

Hemphill acknowledged many other forebears to her work, including Detroit activist and former council person JoAnn Watson, who recently passed away, and two co-founders of We The People of Detroit, Monica Lewis-Patrick and Debra Taylor. 

“JoAnn Watson is the reason I do this work,” Hemphill said. “Mama Watson always said to deputize yourself. No one is coming to save poor little Black women in Detroit. You have all the things that you need to save yourselves.”

“We don’t wait for anybody to parachute in, we don’t wait for permission, we don’t wait for a door or somebody to offer us something. We make demands,” Hemphill told the audience.

Maxey remembered Hicks as someone who “exuded love.” Maxey tries to “do work that comes from the heart, leaning on our ancestors to keep us going when the work becomes hard.”

Ridgeway said that it feels like there is a war waged against love. 

“If you wage love on a daily basis, we would have no problems,” she said. She quoted her dad, who often said, “Your job on this planet is that any person you come in contact with is left better off after having met you.” 

The panel worked to define an environmentally just vision for Detroit amid a growing climate crisis, unjust environmental policies, widespread power outages, floods, air pollution from wildfires, and industry.

Ridgeway pointed to the Core City fight against a concrete company that wanted to set up a crushing facility in their neighborhood. For example, residents stood up to fight for the integrity of their community. The company, she said, thought no one lived in the neighborhood.

“An environmentally just Detroit is a place where policies are not left vague,” she said. “As community members, we are responsible for being awake, aware, and walking our neighborhood.”

Maxey introduced the idea of affordable, reliable, clean energy as a crucial part of an environmental justice vision.

“Success to me looks like people who represent us at the city level and at the state level have Detroiters’ best interests at heart and are free from political contributions from these major polluters,” she said, noting that most legislators accept money from DTE Energy. 

“You see what’s happening in the state and the city with outages and shut-offs. You have a climate bill that is being pushed through the legislature that is trying to be carbon neutral instead of being 100% about renewable energy,” she said. “If you have 93% of senators taking money from the same person who’s gonna get affected by this particular policy, we’re never going to get to this vision.”

Success, Maxey said, is about fair representation.”No matter what you look like, no matter where you live, you have access to clean air and clean water. That your vote and your voice are not being co-opted by somebody who may look like you but is not actually representing you. The way to move towards success is to think about cumulative impact. Not the one facility but the 10 that are in the neighborhood.” 

Hemphill highlighted the year-old Detroit Lifeline Fund, a measure adopted by the city to tie water rates to income, as an example of community voice having an impact.

“The good that you see in the Detroit Lifeline Plan is the ‘we’ of the community and the ‘we’ that’s in We The People of Detroit. That dashboard you see is because we demanded transparency,” Hemphill said, referring to the city’s online tracker for the Lifeline program, which displays metrics for participation and dollars spent.

She insisted that residents must demand public officials do what they’re supposed to do and write letters so they go in the public record. 

Hemphill shared with the audience that state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, has been leading an effort to make water affordable for all Michiganders. She encouraged everyone to go online to Wel Coalition to take the pledge, sign on, and learn more.

“Community is the antidote,” Kennedy said. “Getting organized, knowing your neighbors. Being embodied in our relationships to living here on this land.”

This was the first public event in the Love Building. Allied Media Projects will have an official grand opening event soon.

Angela Lugo-Thomas is a reporting fellow for the Energy News Network and Planet Detroit. She was born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, grew up in Detroit, and has lived in Highland Park, Michigan, for over 20 years. She has a Puerto Rican heart with a Detroit soul. Angela is a graduate of Michigan State University and is married with three children. She is a local leader for GirlTrek, a board member of the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, a founding member of La Casita Cimarrón y Yuketi de Detroit, and a dancer with the RicanStruction Bomba Drum and Dance group.