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Inspiring the next generation of city leaders in Detroit

As the city exited bankruptcy and infusions of talent and capital accelerated downtown’s rebirth, the national conversation about Detroit shifted from a story of Rust Belt ruin to one about the Next Big Thing.

Still, a true comeback must extend far beyond downtown to the city’s neighborhoods and families. MEC Community Engagement Director Sandra Turner-Handy is a lifelong Detroiter who is committed to ensuring that all of her fellow residents have a voice and role in shaping Detroit’s reinvention.

Her dedication, passion and effectiveness earned Sandra a lead role in Detroit Future City (DFC), a strategic citywide initiative that points Detroit to a more prosperous, equitable and sustainable future.

Sandra continues to serve as a driving force and guiding presence for a DFC project that challenges seniors at Denby High School—located in her northeast side neighborhood—to imagine solutions for Detroit’s future and get their hands dirty putting ideas into action.

To earn their diplomas, members of Denby’s class of 2014 had to complete a rigorous capstone project. Each student was matched with an adult mentor to lend insights and inspiration as they identified from the DFC framework a tangible solution—with an environmental component—to a neighborhood challenge. At the end of the school year, students made formal presentations of their findings to neighbors, educators, DFC leaders and others.

This was no mere academic exercise. While working on their capstone projects, the students took immediate steps to move their neighborhood forward. They knocked on doors in the blocks surrounding the school to connect with residents about their project. Out of those conversations grew the Denby Neighborhood Alliance, which has become an intergenerational forum for planning and action.

Working with their new Denby Alliance partners, the students took part in neighborhood cleanups and made their school routes safer by boarding up vacant properties and convincing the city to remove an ominous, abandoned structure across the street. They’ve also worked to transform Skinner Playfield, which is adjacent to the school, into a community gathering space with sports fields, a play area and performing arts space. And they planted raised-bed gardens to provide a neighborhood source of fresh fruits and vegetables while learning the basics of operating a small business.

Sandra rolled up her sleeves every step of the way. As DFC Director of Operations Heidi Alcock told the class of 2014 as their work wrapped up, “This project was fueled by one of your neighbors, Ms. Sandra Turner-Handy, who is one of the most inspiring and effective leaders working in the city today.”

The Denby project has earned praise from city leaders, foundations, the media and even federal education officials, who see it as a template to help schools across the city revitalize neighborhoods and inspire a new generation of community leaders.

Our goal is that this model will continue to take root throughout the city and play a transformative role in making Detroit’s neighborhoods safer, more vibrant and richer in opportunity.

Expanding curbside recycling in Detroit
As a lead member of the Zero Waste Detroit coalition, MEC played a key role in expanding curbside recycling from a limited pilot program to a citywide service available to all single-family homes. When city officials negotiated a new waste-hauling contract, they required citywide, curbside pickup—a step that reflected the effort we’d put into educating them about recycling’s benefits. We set to work immediately to inspire residents to participate and make the program a success.

Working to end waste incineration
With ZWD partners, we also made important strides in ending waste incineration at the trash-burning facility near Midtown, which emits toxic chemicals and foul odors that undermine neighborhood quality of life and contribute to high asthma rates. We hosted public meetings and distributed more than a thousand leaflets informing residents how to report smells to the Department of Environmental Quality. And report they did!

The incinerator accounted for the vast majority of complaints filed with the DEQ in 2014—complaints that led to major fines and a consent agreement with the state, requiring the company to install multimillion-dollar odor-control equipment.

Protecting funds to upgrade water and sewer infrastructure
While Toledo’s drinking water scare drew national attention, MEC continued our longstanding work to shape the massive investments in Detroit’s water and sewer system that are required to reduce stormwater overflows that contribute to mass algae blooms and other troubling symptoms in Lake Erie. When it appeared that $400 million in Detroit Water and Sewerage Department funds would be diverted as part of the city’s bankruptcy plan, we raised red flags with city leaders, state legislators, and Snyder administration officials. We also shared our views with the media, including publishing a viewpoint in the Detroit Free Press. Thanks in part to our efforts, those funds remained at DWSD where they will be used for urgently needed infrastructure upgrades.
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