Leading the Greening of Detroit — and what you can do in your own backyard.

I am Rebecca Salminen Witt and for over a decade I have had the privilege of seeing first hand what a small, dedicated environmental organization can accomplish with the support of its friends. 

I am the President of The Greening of Detroit, a 20-year old organization devoted to greening the City of Detroit through planting projects, environmental and outdoor education, advocacy and by building community capacity. We have our roots in planting things that make our city greener, but we have expanded our programming over the years to include education and job training, advocacy and capacity building for our community partners.

When they meet me, many people ask what motivated me to become a leader in Detroit’s green movement. I have to say that, when I started this career, I wasn’t really thinking about saving the world. In fact, it was a much more basic instinct.

Fourteen years ago I looked at my infant daughter and I knew that I had a greater responsibility to her than merely providing a warm home and a good role model. I felt a real need to make sure that her world was a place where she could grow strong and tall in an environment that would be able to support her throughout her lifetime. 

I also knew that for me, the best place to uphold that responsibility wasn’t 25 stories up in a high-rise, trapped behind a desk and staring at a computer monitor. I needed to touch the soil, I needed to be connected to the earth and to lead people who would dedicate themselves to making change. I also knew that if I was going to make that kind of commitment, I wanted to do it in a place where my work would be immediately noticeable. It wasn’t easy or popular but I took a big gulp, squared my shoulders and left my law practice behind to lead The Greening of Detroit.    

Back then, our programming was mostly tree planting, with a few kids programs thrown in at the request of our partners. Today, we provide literally 20x the programming that we did in 1996. And while we still plant trees, our programming has expanded in ways we couldn’t have imagined back then. Who would have thought that our planting skills would hold the answer to feeding Detroit’s families? That those kid’s programs would blossom into an environmental education program that would reach 10,000 children each year? Who would have guessed that our skills would be in such high demand that we would form a training program to pass them along to a workforce that will earn nearly $1 million next year? Who could have predicted that a small group of people would care enough about the environment of this city to make such a noticeable difference in such a short time?

The small group of people reading this post right now has that very same chance today. We are a powerful force for good in our cities, throughout our rural landscapes and all over the world. Have no doubt that through your actions and your support of groups like The Greening of Detroit you are making a real, tangible, visible and lasting difference right here, right now. Take this opportunity to consider doing something a little bit extraordinary this year.

The first step is the easy one, just make the decision to make a difference. Start small by stopping to pick up the next piece of litter you see in your parking lot or reusing that disposable coffee cup a few times before throwing it in the recycle bin. Go big by finding an environmental group like The Greening of Detroit to support with your time or treasure. Make a donation, join a committee, or make their story yours and help spread the word.  If you’re not a joiner, don’t underestimate your ability to make a difference all on your own.

A woman I know mounted a one-woman book drive to collect used books for donation to a local elementary school where most of the students had never owned a book. She collected enough books to send every child in that school home with not only one book, but two. One woman made a real difference for 543 children and saved over 1000 books from the landfill. 

We all have that responsibility to create a world for our children where they can grow up strong and tall. Now’s the time to take a big gulp, square your shoulders and join us in making the difference we all want to see.

Rebecca Salminen Witt is the President of The Greening of Detroit, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting planting, environmental education and environmental advocacy in the City of Detroit. You can contact Rebecca here: rebecca (at) greeningofdetroit (dot) com; www.greeningofdetroit.com.

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