Skip to Main Content

PRC Oral Storytelling Project: Eastside Community Network


In this episode, listeners will hear from the CEO & President of Eastside Community Network, Donna Givens Davidson, and the Director of Climate Equity, Ricky Ackerman.


In their community project, the Eastside Community Network (ECN) has identified the impacts of the urban heat island, increased precipitation, and lack of social cohesion in the Lower Eastside of Detroit, MI. ECN identified neighborhood centers, also known as resilience hubs, to help residents during and after climate impacts. ECN is retrofitting a demonstration home with renewable energy (such as solar power and geothermal climate control), LEDs, low flow/flush plumbing (toilets and faucets), commercial kitchens, energy star appliances, and structures to collect and reuse rainwater, shared broadband, and community gardens. ECN also works with waste management through composting, which benefits community gardens and reduces waste going to landfills. The ECN resilience hubs will be networked throughout the Lower Eastside of Detroit by partnering with neighborhood leaders. These homes owned by residents will be retrofitted and open to the community during climate impacts. This exchange assists community members who volunteer their homes by updating and repairing various structures while reducing their environmental impact and utility bills. Through community storytelling, ECN will continue to share the benefits of climate resilience and the work that they have done with community members.

Full Transcript

Donna Givens Davidson [00:00:00] My name is Donna Givens Davidson. I was born in Ann Arbor. I was raised in Detroit and I currently live in the city of Detroit, Michigan. My whole professional career, I kind of stumbled on it when I was in college. You know, there was an idea you could be a doctor, a nurse, you know, engineer, and I didn’t want to do any of that. I wanted to help people and I didn’t know what that looked like. But my mom was working at the Detroit Health Department as a social worker, and the HIV aids epidemic had just begun. I volunteered at an affiliated organization, Community Health Awareness Group, and found that I was really good at it and I was helping people. And so I got into the world of trying to create community change through my mom by accident just ended up in the right place at a terrible time in our history, and I’ve stayed here ever since.

Ricky Ackerman [00:00:53] My name is Ricky Ackerman. I am originally from Saint Louis, Missouri area and grew up in the south county suburbs. And I currently live in Detroit and have for the last four years. When I think about how I got involved in this kind of work, I kind of there’s kind of two avenues for it. So there’s the environmental side and then the community side. And I was I was going to school in a smaller arts college in Kentucky and learning about the moral side of environmental issues. So the impact that a lot of our exploitation on the environment was having on people around the world really became a big motivator for me. I joined the Peace Corps after college. I had originally
wanted to go to law school and pursue politics, but I made a change of heart and joined the Peace Corps and ended up in Ecuador, working as a natural resource conservation volunteer focused around environmental education. I was in grad school in Ann Arbor and I graduated and I was I was looking for a job and applying at a lot of different places all across the country didn’t have it necessarily aimed at ending up in Detroit, but I applied for a program manager job and WCN was hiring for. I’ll openly admit I was very out of my depth when it came to racial equity and racial justice, and that was very apparent to me in the interview, too. And I walked away from it thinking others…that was that I had to have been the worst interview I ever had. There’s no way I’m getting this job. And then Donna
apparently walked out of it thinking, This is the guy.

Donna Givens Davidson [00:02:36] Our organization is the Warren/Conner Development Coalition, and we do business as Eastside Community Network, and we were founded in 1984. And so we’ve been around. This is going to be 38 years this year. We develop people, places and plans for sustainable neighborhood growth on Detroit’s east side. And this year, we’re going to be modifying our mission to be more specific and intentional about talking about racial justice as part of what that means. Right now we’re looking at is climate justice and climate equity, how climate change is impacting residents in our community and that can be evaluated through the lens of right now. People know that we’re dealing with global warming, but warming doesn’t impact everybody the same. In the city of Detroit here have been studies that demonstrate that if the average temperature increases by two degrees, then more people will die in Detroit than all of the people who died in Hurricane Katrina. Not because Detroit is a hot weather climate, but because the people in Detroit have specific social vulnerabilities that make them more at risk of dying when this happens. For example, we have a horrible public transportation system which gets more horrible by the day. We have suburban communities being able to opt out. Our system does not go to many places in the community where the people in the highest need, need transportation. You have to walk a mile or two miles to access the bus. We don’t have any other mass transit and we have 40 percent of our community living without cars in their home. So on a heat action day, people are trapped inside of homes where they don’t have access to cooling resources. And that is made worse by the fact that our entire community is an EPA non-attainment zone, meaning that we have a lot of pollutants in our air which are increasing in volume at the time when there is a high heat. And so there’s an increase in hospitalizations and increased respiratory and pulmonary types of disease. And then we don’t have adequate access to preventive or treatment health care. We don’t…we close three hospitals inside of our community in the past 15 years, which makes no sense when you think about the existing need.

Ricky Ackerman [00:04:58] I think one of the central climate issues that we’re trying to address and not necessarily getting into the..the issue specific, but the sort of general impact of climate change is around ensuring that our community members are prepared for the impacts of climate change. So it sort of…sort of adaptation mindset of how do we make sure people who are not able to afford the resources themselves are getting programs and policies that are going to protect them as these changes impact our community?

Donna Givens Davidson [00:05:36] One of our key issues is trying to find places for people to go in the event of a climate emergency, in the event of a power emergency where we just have a power blackout and we have a lot of those in our community. Electricity goes out more often and stays out longer than in many other communities,
although it’s also more expensive.

Ricky Ackerman [00:05:56] One success I would know from 2021 that stands out to me and it’s hard sometimes. Calling these things successes when they come in in the face of tremendous challenges and just like negative things occurring, but we had a very severe storm event on June 25th and 26th, and so it rained seven inches in just a matter of hours and we saw tens of thousands of homes get their basements flooded from sewage back up. And that in itself was devastating. Is.. you sometimes in those situations that so overwhelming you just feel kind of helpless. But we quickly pivoted as an organization or like, what resources do we have that we can provide to the community immediately? Because that’s what people need is some sort of immediate support and a relief. And this is after a year and a half of COVID, you know, people have been in their homes, they’re told to stay in their homes and now they’re experiencing this flooding event. And that’s along with all the other challenges they’re personally facing. So what we did was we opened our doors ahead of time and we had our staff sort of orient towards helping people
with the flooding in the aftermath, rather than what would have been their typical jobs to focus on…on a lot of these other issues. But we were like, “We need to be there and we need to be present and offer space to community members to come and get support.”

Donna Givens Davidson [00:07:36] If you are not intentional about investing in resources like green infrastructure in neighborhoods where people are socially vulnerable, what you end up with is green gentrification, which everybody says greening is a good thing, but it’s only a good thing if it is done in an equitable manner. If it’s not going to actually helps to intensify inequities inside of the community. Expanding justice because what ends up happening is where you put green infrastructure is where wealthy people are attracted to live, where they already are and or the people who are already there are pushed out. So one of the other aspects of our work around green infrastructure is granting residents control over what happens control over the land to some type of community land trust or, you know, shared ownership so that you can use it as a mechanism for new development that brings in other people to this cool new projects. And then finally, we are working in the area of composting where we are working with…we have a collaborative of three organizations or three collaborative organizations, and we’re working on in a number of levels. One of the levels that we’re working on is just trying to train people on how to do composting correctly. Another element is trying to create composting businesses among some urban farmers and others who are interested in earning money from composting and also trying to increase access to affordable compost for farmers and people who are investing in green infrastructure so that we can make these things more equitably available. We’ve built partnerships with hospitals, with others who are calling us saying We want to partner with you on various things. So you know, there’s this concept, if you build it, they will come. And that’s not always the case in nonprofits. Sometimes you build it and you can never get somebody to support your work. But what we were able to do is to tap into a need and an opportunity to create change inside of our community and then attract resources to that. Here’s my optimism. All the people who are really messing up our world right now, they’re all old. Not all of them, but when almost like when your average person in Congress is older than me making decisions and especially the people these leadership
positions that really tells me that these people are trying to hold on to that last grasp of power. And I love all people. I love my mother. My mother is 89 years old and my mother is the first one to say they’re too old. Well, I think she’s they are too old. They need to sit down and we need to let young people lead. I love the courage, and I love the way that young people do not just accept the same old things and the okey doke from us and are really willing to challenge the systems. And I would say just keep challenging, form coalitions. And so I think that rather than waiting on politicians to save the Earth, we’ve got to figure out how to create alternative systems of change. And then once we figure out how to do that at the local level, then try to institutionalize that in the same way that banks and corporations have institutionalized their financial thinking and systems. A few years ago, one of my former staff and I started a podcast Authentically Detroit. And through the Authentically Detroit podcast, I started telling people what I think now. Now I’ve always been a person who didn’t want to alienate people. I consider myself a bridge builder. I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable, whatever. The people who listen to our podcast are foundations. Government officials and other people in influence, and they come to me like, we love your podcast, we love what you say. I’m talking about you. But what I found is that I’m not really talking about them. We talk about the issues. We don’t talk about people, we talk about systems, we talk about challenges and we’ve had influence. So we have two funders. This Government Foundation and the Ford Foundation are now supporting our podcast. We’re being trained to teach young people how to find their voice through Volunteer Youth Voices program. And you might find young people speak truth to power. Don’t be afraid of your voice. What you know and your view of the world is going to always make people mad. But one thing I learned is I was making people mad anyway. I might as well own it and use it for good and so own your voice. Use your voice for the betterment of people and….um…it’s a huge surprise.

Ricky Ackerman [00:12:01] I think there’s a few pieces of advice, and I guess I kind of think about it as well, like what do I wish someone would have told me? Immersing myself in a different culture had a big impact on me, and I don’t know if that’s like advice, I can give someone to be like, “Hey, go.” But…but I do think there’s a lot of power in living in an unfamiliar place in a place that you didn’t grow up in, and not to say that someone who grew up and lived in the same place their whole life. But I think when you come from a place of privilege, it’s especially important and…and going into those spaces with a from a place of humility is really important is just…just openness. I think, the difference I see in white men, especially in how they approach the work, is whether they’re going into it with an openness of listening, like genuine listening or an…an idea that they already know. What…what they think is the best and I don’t know. I don’t know necessarily how to, like, tell someone to develop an open mindedness. Right. I think some of it comes from experience and putting yourselves in different situations of uncomfortability. But I think that’s what you how you have to approach things is just recognizing that you don’t know a lot and that you have a lot to learn from everyone you encounter. The other side of it is recognizing the limits of…of the education systems we’re brought up in. I think questioning, you know, the underpinnings of a lot of what we learn as…as kids, as high school students, as college students who we learn it from and where those lessons are coming from is really important.

Learn More About the Partnership for Resilient Communities

PRC Oral Storytelling Project Production Credits and Attribution 

  • Project Producer, Felicia T Perez 
  • Sound Producer, Vanessa Vancour 
  • Sound Editing Assistant, Escenthio Marigny 
  • Transcriptions, Dr. Lydia Huerta 
  • Illustration and Music, graceuarts 

Additional music credits (credits do not imply endorsement): 

  • “Emergency Siren” by onderwish CC0 1.0
  • “Fire” by mmutua CC by NC 3.0 segment of original audio sample used
  • “Matchbox Strike and Light” by jaredgibb CC0 1.0
  • “Sewing Machine” by j1987 CC0 1.0
  • “Water Stream” by sterferny CC0 1.0
  • “Construction Soundscape” by ajexk CC0 1.0
  • “Neighborhood City Street” by rifualk CC0 1.0
  • “Street Protest Sound Effect” by spanac CC by 4.0 segment of original audio sample used 
  • “Royalty Free Mexican Mariachi Background Music No Copyright” by MFCC
  • “Car Horn” by keweldog CC0 1.0