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Justice Communicator Column 1: Denying youth access is an environmental injustice by Patrick Geans-Ali

This week, Detroit Evolution is pleased to repost the Justice Communicators column from The Michigan Citizen. Patrick Geans-Ali, Victoria Goff and I have been cycling through a loose discussion on the relationship between principals shared by the Environmental Justice, Media & Digital Justice and Food Justice movements. Thus far we have discussed the principals of Access, Participation and Community Ownership. Detroit Evolution will be posting these columns every day for the next nine days in the order they were published and invite you to join in on the discussion. Please share and thank you! ~Gregg
• Sun, Jul 31, 2011

By Patrick Geans-Ali

With the mounting wave of privatization and gentrification gathering momentum everywhere, the concepts of public facilities and public space are about as safe these days as the Fukushima Nuclear plant in Japan was on the morning of March 11. The need to control access and put up protective measures may well prove prudent steps in some cases. The key seems to be who gets access and on what basis. That challenge seems to be asking too much from some gatekeepers these days.

A couple of interesting — if not downright sad — examples happened at the East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC) the week of June 20. That was the first week of EMEAC’s Gardening Activism Media and Education (GAME) Summer Camp, when a group of a dozen or so youth attending the camp led by EMEAC Associate Director Ahmina Maxey visited two institutions in the city. One institution calls itself a “community garden,” but is in actuality is a private enterprise in Midtown. The other is a public building in the heart of downtown Detroit.

In both instances, the campers were met by individuals bent on denying them access to these facilities. Being new to Detroit, it’s completely baffling to me that a group of teenagers, attending an environmental summer camp and seeking whatever educational enlightenment these institutions had to offer, would be turned away by adult gatekeepers.

Although both business institutions are private, I do believe any question about whether all citizens have a right to enter public spaces and expect access to their services was settled in the 1960s. From an environmental justice perspective, our environment is where we live, work, play and learn. So long as citizens conduct themselves properly, being denied access is an environmental injustice.

In the first instance, the campers were purportedly denied access because there had recently been thefts at the garden — the implication clearly being that the campers were somehow likely to cuff something if allowed inside. Even after Ms. Maxey explained who they were, why they were there and that they were given the access codes to the garden by another member who was notified and approved of their visit, the gatekeepers still turned them away and saw fit to make sure the lock on the gate was turned to the inside — just in case the campers had a notion to double back when these vigilant gatekeepers were unawares and make off with the garden’s goods.

In the second instance the very next day, the campers were stopped that afternoon and told they couldn’t enter without a chaperone. When Ms. Maxey introduced herself as the chaperone and produced her driver’s license as proof, the gatekeeper still insisted they could not enter and only relented when Ms. Maxey appealed to a higher level staff member.

Maybe over the years, the city has been plagued with gangs of teenagers breaking into urban gardens on summer afternoons in search of fresh produce. I hear fresh vegetables are hard to find in the city, but is it really necessary for gardens to rest behind iron bars and locked gates as if they were a 24-hour Burger King? Are there really marauding hordes of youngsters so out of control they can’t be trusted to walk through a public building during the middle of the day?

I’m more inclined to think that whatever thefts had happened at the community garden were more likely done by gangs of four-legged rodents who can get through or under spiked gates; or solitary wretches driven to risk impalement in the middle of the night by force of a severe drug habit. In either case, I personally wouldn’t begrudge them the treat of some fresh vegetables any more than I would a group of inner city youth wanting to feed their minds.

What would lead these gatekeepers to deny access in these situations is puzzling. An opportunity to discuss what happened has been arranged and I’m keenly interested to know what the justifications are that would make some adults in this city so afraid of giving access to their institutions to young people trying to learn. Especially since we see them otherwise giving free access to the public treasury to shady business interests, politicians and their hired cronies in the form of emergency financial managers, who pay themselves and their buddies in the consultant industry six- and seven-figure salaries while leaving the public trust worse off in nearly every instance.

The tidal wave threatening Detroit and many communities throughout this country are not teenagers trying to get an education by day. It’s the blindness of adult gatekeepers who see their jobs keeping out the most vulnerable among us at bay while handing over the keys to the privateers who are threatening to sweep away the very idea of a public trust.

Patrick Geans-Ali is communications coordinator for East Michigan Environmental Action Council.

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1 comment

1 dcommunicator { 11.01.11 at 12:29 pm }

Thanks, Gregg, for hosting this! It’s going to be so great to reread what we had to say “back in the day”–I had forgotten about these events from earlier this summer. So important that they were documented and discussed–part of the role of communication is to uplift and hold onto community memories!

Looking forward to what comes next! :D

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