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4835 Michigan Avenue
Detroit, Michigan 48210

Jacob Corvidae

By Amy Kuras
March 28, 2014

There's a perception that "green living" is a status symbol for Prius-driving, Whole Foods-shopping, yoga-practicing affluent suburbanites. For people further down the socioeconomic scale, things like taking the bus and turning down the heat aren’t discretionary activities undertaken to earn an environmental halo but simple matters of survival.

However, it's precisely activities like weatherizing homes, accessing solar power, and using LED lights that are the kinds of things that can make the difference between having enough money at the end of the month and getting socked with ruinous utility bills.

That's exactly the kind of connection EcoWorks (formerly WARM Training Center) is trying to make. People see sustainability as something that either won’t affect their day to day life or is yet another thing that can get added to the to-do list along with everything else they should be doing but aren't. In fact, sustainability can improve people's lives in both large and small ways, and sooner than they might think.  "People see sustainability as this distant abstract thing, but we're actually talking about energy bills, or whether or not their kids have asthma," says Jacob Corvidae, interim executive director of EcoWorks. "A lot of people think polar bears are great, but people don't make major life decisions on the basis of a polar bear.

Bringing sustainability and green living to low-income communities is something that Corvidae has been involved with personally and professionally for a long time. EcoWorks's original mission was to teach people how to weatherize homes, which would provide job skills for the people who got certified for it and the cost savings of an energy-efficient home for the people who used their services. Over time, their work has expanded to a variety of projects aimed at creating a more sustainable community. One that's currently very relevant with the current burst of blight removal is Reclaim Detroit, which trains people to deconstruct, not demolish, houses. It takes more time and money than traditional demolition, but components of the home can be reused in new projects or in products as simple as end-grain cutting boards. Great Lakes Coffee and Two James Distillery both have used wood taken from Reclaim Detroit homes in their interiors.

They are also promoting an affordable community solar program that would bring solar panels into neighborhoods and allow people to power their homes off the grid. And finally, they recently launched a website called Actioniirs. Users set a target for green activities and get information on how to reach it. They can track their progress team up with friends to see their collective impact, or compete with neighbors.

Corvidae came to EcoWorks through social justice work, and was moved to start working toward sustainability issues in 1990 when he read a life-changing book about climate change. "I had an epiphany that this trumps all of it – sustainability is not this sort of vague environmental issue, it is directly going to affect every social justice issue I care about. The populations that are most vulnerable will be most affected.

Detroit is a great laboratory to try new things, Corvidae says, because the cost of living is cheap. Moreso, because of the difficulties the city has faced, people are eager for change. "People regress and become lesser versions of themselves in conflicts, but it's also true conflict is what drives every major transition in our lives," he says. "If the status quo works, people stick with it. If conflict drives regression, it also drives transformation.

The word is getting out about good things that are happening here around sustainability. Corvidae goes to an annual conference in Portland, and at first when people would hear what he was doing in Detroit they would openly laugh at him. Now, increasingly, people are interested and actually want to consult him and other green leaders in Detroit to get input on their projects, he says. After all, getting buy-in to a sustainable project in Portland or Austin or even Ann Arbor is not that difficult, but making projects work in Detroit poses enough challenge that successes here can be successes almost anywhere. "We have in Detroit conditions that will work across the country," Corvidae says. "It's where the ship of ideals beaches on the ground of reality. I think it's an amazing place.

All photos by Doug Coombe. 

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