The Resilience and Advocacy of Theresa: A Lifelong Detroiter Fighting for Environmental Justice

Photo taken by Jeremy Marble

“I retired with what I thought was a good pension, but it wasn’t,” said Theresa, a lifelong Detroiter who has lived on the same street her entire life. “I tell my daughter all the time we’re just one step away from being homeless.”

Theresa’s home is located in a predominantly African American community that has seen its resilience challenged over the years by rising costs. 

“With inflation and the cost of living so high, the baby boomers are having to get 2-3 jobs to survive and pay their monthly bills. I cut down on everything, and do you know that my utility bills are still just as high because they’re always raising rates,” Theresa explained.

That’s primarily the reason why Theresa still works into her “golden years.”

“I was in my senior years, then silver senior, and now I’m in my gold senior years,” she said. “Gold is when you’ve retired twice over and still working.”

According to Theresa, another one of her community’s biggest battles is against pollution, stating that she currently resides in one of the most polluted zip codes in the state of Michigan. But she doesn’t just point at the problem, she works with local organizations to reduce pollution in the fight against climate change—although if you ask her, this was not her first career choice.

“It was out of necessity to learn how our environment was impacting us,” she said. 

Living in the tri-cities, away from Greater Detroit, Theresa often reflects on the community where she grew up being one that was self-sufficient. She remembered a large amount of Black owned businesses in her community. She remembers it being home to one of the first Black hospitals in the area. She also remembers the community being forced to accept the pollution around it.

“We didn’t know we were having air quality challenges. It was just normal to see the brown air and black soot on our homes and cars,” said Theresa. “We didn’t understand this was an industrial fall out. We have a large population of residents with chronic illnesses that can be connected directly to pollution.”

When she’s not advocating for her community’s climate, Theresa serves on three national boards, a handful of local organizational boards and multiple steering committees. She is also the President of the Original United Citizens—a community block club that focuses on environmental justice efforts. Together, the organization went door-to-door educating people on how to pay their property taxes so they didn’t lose their homes to tax foreclosure. Theresa describes her volunteer efforts as just “taking care of the needs of the community.” 

Theresa first crossed paths with UpTogether through the UpTogether Equity Fund—a cash offer that invested directly into Black leaders. 

“They called me and said I was a perfect candidate to receive funds,” said Theresa before sharing that she was able to use the funds to subsidize the costs of gas, food, and flyers to support her community during COVID-19. “We had to come to the realization that our government was not there to help us [effectively]. The money wasn’t getting there quickly enough to the people that needed it,” she said. 

By 4 o’clock in the morning, Theresa would load up her truck with items from local pantries so that she could take it to seniors in her community who didn’t have transportation. 

“[The UpTogether Equity Fund investment] helped me put gas in my car and buy me a little breakfast, because most days I didn’t eat trying to get food out to these seniors,” said Theresa. 

Her big heart soon turned into a big resource. She often met up with others to trade resources—swapping items someone had a surplus of, for items they may not have had. 

“We began our own triage to help our own community because the government wasn’t moving,” Theresa said. “COVID really opened a door to see into people's lives. We found families that were buying water because theirs had been shut off. Some people’s utilities are so high because of medical equipment—you never know what someone’s need is.”

Theresa knows her community is valuable. 

“I had a woman call me and say her toilet is running but she can’t afford a plumber,” she said. “If they just had a little support it could help get them over that hump. Keep their water bill paid.” 

Theresa also knows her community is under-valued by others who unfortunately focus on their deficits rather than invest in their strengths. 

“The qualifications for these federal dollars is a barrier. People have to jump through hoops to apply for these things, and many are denied. That’s how UpTogether could come into play, because people are struggling,” Theresa said.

Regularly, Theresa’s cohorts ask when she plans on taking a vacation. She’s been afforded the opportunity to travel through her work in environmental justice, but where she really wants to go is Sweden. 

“I watch the History Channel and they have, to me, some of the cleanest living. Rolling greens and pastures, people live a long time, it seems like the perfect country. lifestyle, to a degree. I’d like to go just to see,” she said. 

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