Meet 2023 Milliken Award Winner, Donele Wilkins
Donele Wilkins’ story is a grand one to tell. Member of a pioneering environmental justice conference. Founder of the first environmental justice organization in the state. Destroyer of incinerators. Builder of jobs and homes and solar panels.
This story is why the Michigan Environmental Council is giving Wilkins Michigan’s lifetime achievement honor for environmental protection: The 2023 Helen & William Milliken Distinguished Service Award. She received it at the 25th Annual Environmental Awards Celebration at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.
But a better, realer version transcends job titles and work projects. This story is imbued with the wonderful serendipity—or as Wilkins believes, divine guidance—of her work and life.
Russell Street is where Wilkins’ story (so far) both begins and ends. It’s in north-central Detroit, a quick veer off 8 Mile Road right where it cuts past I-75.
Wilkins grew up in a quaint, two-story home there. It wasn’t always easy. She and her siblings often worked to help their single mother keep the house's lights on and water running. As Wilkins left for college, drug use came to the area. Then, when the 2008 recession hit, Wilkins’ mom had to give up her home.
Kourtni Graves—program assistant for the Green Door Initiative, which Wilkins runs—said the story is all too common. Economic instability paired with institutional strife makes life a struggle for many Detroiters.
At first glance now, Wilkins' old home is as unassuming as before. But solar panels on the roof now glint in the sun. Inside, just about everything is new, sustainable, and electric. An employee now lives there with his child.
Wilkins saw the property for sale online and, with federal grant money, bought it. It’s now the seed of Motor City to Solar City, an ambitious project of the Green Door Initiative she leads. Its goal: create a community-centered neighborhood run on renewable, efficient energy.
If Wilkins and her team have their way, this underinvested community will be a model for others in Detroit, the state, and the nation.
In this vision, every home will be renovated and powered by clean electricity. The long-shuttered school Wilkins once walked across the street to will be a hub for environmental workforce training, entrepreneurs, and community gardens. Residents will play an active role in shaping their neighborhood. And trainees of the Green Door Initiative’s career programs will build it all.
Environmental justice must occur “where we live, where we work, where we pray, where we play,” Wilkins said. “It occurs to me that this is what we’re trying to showcase.”
It's a holistic approach to bettering our environment. It's more than fighting climate change. It's using that to make our built environment and daily life better.
That path forward for Motor City to Solar City is still developing. But Graves isn’t worried. She’s only worked at the Green Door Initiative for a few months, and she has already felt Wilkins’ willpower.
“Ms. Donele’s super serious about everything, and she’s really passionate about it, so I know it’s going to happen,” she said.
Graves herself had a serendipitous moment not unlike some of Wilkins’ own. She recently attended a conference that left her feeling inspired for the clean energy and job training work ahead, just like Wilkins was when she was her exact age.
“I’m like, ‘Am I following in your footsteps, Ms. Donele?’” Graves recalled.
It was 1991, and Wilkins was working in occupational health and safety when University of Michigan professor Dr. Bunyan Bryant invited her to a national conference on the disproportionate impacts people of color face from pollution, the first of its kind.
There, Wilkins met Indigenous people on contaminated reservations; people living in polluted public housing; and Georgians whose river water was so dirty they couldn’t perform baptisms.
So many people had dealt with so many problems with little public outrage, recognition, or action. They came to the conference seeking a formal solution.
“It was systemic,” Wilkins said of the injustices. “It wasn’t about the multiplicity of issues. It was about the sameness of the issues.”
Each story’s plight had the same source: industries and institutions disproportionately setting up shop and polluting in communities of color. After a few intense days, the conference created eight of the 17 principles of a strategy to counter this: what's now called environmental justice.
Wilkins said that conference felt like an epiphany, a call from God to dedicate her life to the cause. It was what she was meant to do.
Wilkins and her fellow Detroiters arrived back in their hometown, charged to make a movement with the principles they created in mind. They hosted their own local conference to determine the most pressing issues.
From this, over barbeque in Wilkins’ backyard, the state’s first environmental justice nonprofit was born: Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. Wilkins became its founding executive director.
For the next 14 years, Wilkins grew the nonprofit’s budget 20 times over and added 12 others to staff. It gave DWEJ the infrastructure it needed to advocate for cleaner, healthier neighborhoods across Detroit with residents right alongside. Its environmental justice tenants were never before used to drive an organization.
Wilkins’ proudest accomplishment, though, was something concrete—literally. Two traditional environmental organizations recognized DWEJ's unique ability to build trust with and mobilize residents and asked Wilkins to join an effort to shut down a hospital incinerator. Not only was it making the air dangerous for residents nearby but the very patients it was treating.
“It was really a tender moment and a tender ask,” said Wilkins. She had to rail hard against the hospital system and the county government while reassuring residents the hospital under scrutiny would not leave the city like so many others.
Wilkins said it typically takes about a decade to close an incinerator. It took this campaign a year and a half. In another moment of serendipity—or divinity—the incinerator came down on Wilkins’ birthday.
But then, a while after the incinerator crumbled, so did Wilkins' faith in God, the being that she said found her purpose. She was let go from DWEJ.
Wilkins stepped back for a moment, prayed. It was difficult. But from that moment of doubt, her belief in her God-given mission for environmental justice was reborn ever stronger. It was more holistic and stripped to its essence.
“If environmental justice presented itself, would I recognize it?” she remembers thinking. “What does it look like?”
The answers to those questions became the basis of the Green Door Initiative, formed in 2010.
“The whole idea and image of the green door is that people walk through this, and there are opportunities, and they are life-changing instances that people can embrace,” she said. “That—one family and one person at a time—begins to pull together a lot of momentum.”
Momentum indeed. A dozen years later, the Green Door Initiative offers six environmentally oriented technical certification programs. It teaches life skills beyond a job’s work. It uses job fairs and its alumni network to get trainees placed in jobs. It hires alumni themselves. And, of course, it’s building a renewable, affordable, self-sustaining neighborhood right where it all began for Wilkins.
Just as DWEJ introduced a new way of working and a new moral code, Green Door Initiative offers a new way of bringing environmental justice to people who have suffered the most: with real, tangible tools that transform lives.
“I’m grateful to have had the ability to dedicate my life on behalf of my community and my people,” she said. “I’m grateful that my granddaughter can one day look on at her grandmother and say, ‘My mimi did this.’”
Receiving recognition like the Milliken Award feels like another divine intervention in the story, Wilkins said. A sign of a job well done and a call well heeded.