Detroit mothers reveal environmental abuses through photography

June 26, 2007

ANN ARBOR—With the snaps of their cameras, Detroit Head Start mothers are speaking out against what they see as environmental injustice that harms their children.

In the Photo Voice project, mothers are documenting the abuses through photography. Their photos have captured cases of illegal dumping in their neighborhoods by trucks with covered license plates. Some photos show air pollution from factories, as well as abandoned, unsafe buildings.

The project began five years ago by faculty in the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment and the U-M School of Social Work to draw attention to lead contamination in Detroit. The project focus later expanded to include environmental injustice, and U-M faculty wanted to help Head Start mothers make improvements in their neighborhoods.

Maizah McCann, mother of a 4-year-old boy, is involved in the Head Start photography effort because she believes her son deserves to live in better conditions.

“What makes people think they can dump here? When a kid grows up and that’s what they see, they think: ‘This is all I’m worth.’ I’m not going to accept this,” she said.

Most recently, the group included 15 mothers who documented environmental racism, which excludes minorities from environmental decisions affecting their communities, such as exposure to toxic and hazardous waste, said Bunyan Bryant, director of the Environmental Justice Initiative at the School of Natural Resources and Environment..

Communities of color disproportionately suffer from environmental hazards and toxins and Detroit is no exception, he said. With a minority population of approximately 87 percent, Detroit houses more than 40,000 toxic facilities, according to the Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice.

These factors have overwhelming effects on children who are more susceptible to the hazards due to their smaller size and developmental processes, Bryant said. Detroit children are twice as likely to have asthma as other metropolitan areas throughout the country. This environmental injustice can lead to an increased occurrence of learning disabilities, increased aggression and cancer in minority children, he said.

The mothers worked with Bryant and Michael Spencer, an associate professor in the School of Social Work.

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