In addition to the interview with Garfield (see the main article here), freelance journalist Sandor Slomovits contacted a few other people who have been associated with the Ecology Center in the past fifty years and asked them to discuss the history and accomplishments of the organization. To provide a multifaceted picture of the EC, he got in touch with people who worked at the EC during various points in its history, and who held different positions and served in a variety of capacities, from staff and leadership, to volunteers.
Michael D. Schechtman was for two years, between 1971-1973, the second Executive Director of the EC. He is now Executive Director of the Big Sky Institute for the Advancement of Nonprofits in Helena, Montana. He moved to Ann Arbor in September of 1970 to begin a Masters program in what was then called the School of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan. When asked how he became involved with the EC he replied, “I volunteered with the recycling program and became co-chair of the recycling committee, and when Bill Kopper, the Center’s first Executive Director, decided that he did not want to continue in that capacity, I was approached by Center staff to apply for the position.”
During Schechtman’s tenure the name of the organization was changed from ENACT Ecology Center to the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor. This important rebranding of the organization from a student initiated nonprofit to a true community organization helped the EC to expand in a variety of ways. The City of Ann Arbor provided land for the EC to expand its recycling operations to include glass, newspapers, aluminum and metal cans. There was significant growth in volume, and the sale of the recyclables (especially glass) was a significant source of earned income for the Center. “Although not successful under my tenure, there was a very considerable effort by the EC to gain passage of a local bottle bill that would require a monetary deposit on beverage cans and bottles.”
The Teaching/Demonstration Organic Garden on U of M’s North Campus had started before Schechtman was hired, but it blossomed in the years that followed. Volunteers got to take home produce and educational tours took place regularly. The EC also conducted many community seminars on environmental topics, including a session on environmental law given by renowned law school professor Joseph Sax, and a presentation by Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet. “Cecil Ursprung, the EC’s Business Manager, and I regularly attended city commission meetings, and meetings of the planning commission (so the EC could voice its input on community planning, transportation, and urban growth issues). We actively supported the passage of Teltran, a millage to expand public transportation, and we vigorously opposed the Briarwood Mall development.”
When a fire destroyed the building at the corner of Huron and Main, the EC took the lead to create an interim park on the site. It was a very big undertaking, which included securing approval from the owners of the property, as well as the city; developing a physical plan for the construction of the park; raising funds for the costs; and securing donations of many materials.
Even though he now lives and works far from Ann Arbor, Schechtman continues to follow news of the EC. “The spirit of volunteerism always was a very special part of Ann Arbor, including the University’s faculty and students, and the community at large. The EC was a magnet for volunteers, and we had a half-time staff person who recruited and oriented volunteers, and matched them with program opportunities that needed volunteer involvement. Most striking has been very successful involvement with the residents and the city of Detroit on a diverse array of environmental issues. The size of the staff and scale of operations also is quite striking. The EC has had many victories on tough issues. I find the caliber and scale of the Center’s work very impressive.”
Ann and Tom Hunt were early adopters of the Ecology Center. They, and eventually their children, volunteered and contributed in many ways to the work of the EC. Ann was on the Ecology Center Board for a number of years in the early 1980's, serving as treasurer and on the finance committee, and worked on establishing an Ecology Center Endowment Fund. She and her husband bought and donated to the EC their first computer, an Apple II, sometime in the 1980's, and Tom wrote a computer program for printing labels. Ann recalls how her family came to be involved.
“On a hot day in early October 1971, my husband Tom and I, with our 4-month old daughter, Jenny, in a Gerry Carrier, participated in the Ecology Center's 1st (and only) Walk-a-Thon. I cannot remember just how long it was, but the route started in Ann Arbor and included the Botanical Gardens, returning to town via Geddes Ave. By the time we reached the part of Geddes Ave that is now the pathway down to Gallup Park, we were pretty hot and thirsty. And there was Mike Schechtman, the director of the Ecology Center, manning the last rest stop on the route. We were the last people on the route, too, so Mike walked in with us, enthusiastically talking all the way. We were hooked!” The next year, in 1972, the Ecology Center switched gears to a Bike-a-Thon and Ann helped with the planning and then rode 25 miles with her daughter Jenny on her back, while her husband drove their car as a support vehicle. From then on, we were committed to the Ecology Center.”
Their whole family, which grew to include four children -- Jenny, David, Diana, and Susan -- got sponsors and rode in the Bike-a-Thon for 20 more years. They each tried to ride 100 miles in every Bike-a-Thon and got as many sponsors as possible so they could raise funds for the EC. All told, Ann worked as a volunteer on the Bike-A-Thon (BAT) for almost 30 years.
One of Hunt’s favorite memories from her years of volunteering at the EC is The Sagging Saddle Award for most dollars raised in the Bike-A-Thon. “Someone in the Ann Arbor Bicycle Touring Society donated his old broken bicycle saddle, and we had it made into a trophy for the Center. The idea was to award it each year to the person raising the most dollars.” Jenny Hunt and Don Jones shared the honor the first year it was awarded, in 1982. Their picture appeared in the Ann Arbor News. The Saddle went to various people over the years and was finally retired. The EC gave it to Jenny Hunt, now Jennifer Chisholm, several years ago, and she is going to loan it back for display at the 50th anniversary celebration.
“The many, many wonderful Ecology Center staff members over the years were, and are, dedicated and determined. I can't list names because there are too many and I don't want to miss anyone. Suffice it to say they are the reason I was an active volunteer for so long.”
Bryan Weinert worked as Operations Coordinator at Recycle Ann Arbor from 1984 to 1988—when it was still a program of the EC. He left the EC to take a newly created position at the City of Ann Arbor—Manager of Resource Recovery—the first ever recycling-related position at the City. He retired in 2009, but returned to work at Recycle Ann Arbor in 2013, first on a part-time basis, and now as full-time Director of Strategy.
“I got involved with the EC in late 1983 shortly before our first child, Caroline, was born. (Incidentally, Caroline [Freitag] is now a full-time class teacher at the Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor, and responsible for starting the recycling program at the school when she was a 5th grade student there). My wife, Layale, suggested that we become recycling block coordinators in our neighborhood, and that we attend the EC's annual meeting to learn more about their work.
The early days of my job [at Resource Recovery] were built mostly around lining up collection volunteers to supplement our one full-time collection driver, and to slowly grow the geographic area served by curbside collection from roughly 50% single-family coverage to 100% of single-family households. During my tenure we did go city-wide with monthly collection, hired additional drivers and processors to handle the growing volumes of recyclables collected, and expanded our business recycling program. I also endeavored to keep the connections between Recycle Ann Arbor, as a "boots on the ground" enterprise, and the larger EC, as an educational and advocacy organization, coordinated and collaborative.
There is NO question in my mind that the relationships that I was able to build with EC and RAA staff and key recycling advocates in town were far and away the most fulfilling and inspiring part of my work during those early days of the recycling movement in Ann Arbor. Everyone on staff was there for the right reasons, and was passionate about growing the movement. There was an abiding affection among the staff and a desire to transform our community (and the larger society) toward maximum recovery. In addition, major decisions at the EC and RAA were made by staff consensus and everyone within the organization was paid the same, regardless of position or title. I facilitated the decision-making process at RAA, but agreements were owned by everyone. While sometimes frustrating, the process inevitably led to stronger decisions and an enduring sense of unity and equality among the staff.
My greatest frustration was the need to survive and grow with limited financial resources, and at salary levels well below what employees deserved. And while that was frustrating, there was also an integrity and power in people remaining committed to the cause even though underpaid.
Two fond memories come to mind—one is the sharing of a case or two of Falstaff beer for our weekly (late afternoon) Wednesday RAA staff meetings (a "perk" that would unheard of today), and the other is our annual "Baler Bash" that was held at the Ellsworth Road site around Halloween, providing an opportunity to celebrate together with fellow staff, family and friends.
The EC gave me a shot at my first real job, and it ended up not only changing the direction of my life, but also providing me with an everlasting affection and loyalty for an organization and a cause that continues to rock the planet today!”
Tracey Easthope began working at the EC in 1990 and, after 25 years, cut back to part time in 2015. She now consults with the EC as Senior Strategist, and one of her areas of focus recently has been the history of the organization. Her work at the EC is an example of the organization’s attention to statewide and even national issues, rather than just local ones.
“I have a degree in Public Health from U-M where I studied community organizing, health behavior, and health education, with an interest in environmental issues. I applied for a job at the EC not long after I got out of graduate school. My main focus at the EC was the Toxics Reduction Project, working with community groups across the state that were fighting toxic pollution. We created a state-wide newsletter called the Michigan Toxics Watch to raise awareness about pollution issues in communities across Michigan. I worked with community members in Grayling around contamination from the military training facility there, in downriver Detroit with activists concerned about companies like BASF discharging to the local Mongaugon Creek, with communities like Detroit and Hamtramck trying to shut down toxic incinerators, or with communities fighting schools built on old landfills, or the Alpena community fighting a huge polluting cement kiln. One of the longest running and largest projects I worked on was with community activists near Dow Chemical's global headquarters in Michigan, who were fighting to win cleanup of the largest dioxin contamination site in the country. I worked in many poor communities and communities of color, like in Flint fighting a demolition wood waste incinerator. We also worked with our labor allies in the UAW, focused on plants that were both actors in the workplace and the community. This is a short list. There are many others.
But after a while, it became clear that it would be better if we didn't make toxic products to begin with. Cleanup is hard, expensive, and sometimes it can't ever be cleaned up, so it’s much better to go upstream and change the way products are made so they aren't toxic. So, I started to work on what we call 'market campaigns,’ where you appeal directly to companies to reformulate their products to make them safer. There are many tactics used to influence companies, including testing their products and making those results public, or organizing their large customers and getting them to demand changes to their products. We started emphasizing focusing on the design of products from the beginning so they are safer for people, workers, and the planet. I also started working on Green Chemistry, a set of principles to guide the development of new chemistries so they are safer from the outset. This is a revolutionary way to think about designing the basic chemistry that underpins all the stuff we use every day. I worked on promoting Green Chemistry in Michigan colleges and universities and in Michigan businesses.
One of the biggest market campaign efforts I've been working on is in health care, to green medical products, furniture, and flooring used in health care. We've made great strides there.”
Rebecca Meuninck has been the Deputy Director of the EC for the past four years but has a long association with the organization.
“I started at the EC in 2000 as an intern while I was an undergraduate at UM School of Natural Resources and Environment (now School of Environment and Sustainability). I've worked in many positions at the EC over my tenure—Intern, organizer, campaign director, and now deputy director. In 2009, I came back to work at the EC after taking a few years off to pursue my Ph.D.
I am very interested in the intersection between the environment and human health. As a student, I studied environmental justice and anthropology. The EC is the premier advocacy organization working on environmental health issues. In particular, those related to toxic chemicals and human health. My focus has always been on toxic chemicals and human health, but the strategies we use change over time. In the beginning of my career at the EC I was doing more community-based environmental health work and also focused on health care institutions and greening their practices. Eventually my work began to focus more on public policy at the state and federal level related to our chemical regulatory systems. I've also been working with our consumer products focused campaigns, with our Healthy Stuff project which tests everyday products for toxic chemicals and pushes manufacturers to use safer chemicals in their products.
My work in public policy is full of many highs and lows. In 2016, for example, our country's major law regulating chemicals in most consumer products was finally revised after 37 years of being out of date and weak. While we were happy that TSCA reform (Toxic Substances Control Act) finally happened, the law was not as strong as we would have liked and we cautioned that a weak EPA administration would be very problematic in implementing the new law. Flash forward to today and we have about the worst possible scenario under this EPA administration that is more worried about corporate polluters than public health.
Sometimes the biggest victories happen like a slow burn over a long period of time. I feel this way about our work to end childhood lead poisoning. This is something that will take concentrated effort over many years. However, we have seen a concentrated effort in the wake of the Flint water crisis to put more energy, resources, and policies into place to prevent lead poisoning in the future. We still have a long way to go but we're now on the right path.
One of the joys of my work is getting to work with so many passionate and extraordinary people. That includes our staff and our partners at other groups of course, but one of my very favorite programs is our Health Leaders Fellowship. For five years we have been working with a select group of health professionals (doctors, nurses, dietitians, public health pros, etc.) to train them on how the environment impacts people's health and provide them with a toolkit of civic engagement skills to advocate for people and the planet in their communities, their hospitals, and in the public policy sphere. This year I've been working with a group of fellows to address the PFAS in water crisis in our state. They have spoken out in their communities, consulted their patients, and provided testimony to lawmakers about this critical issue, and solutions Michigan must pursue now to protect our health. I am so inspired working with these tremendous advocates for environmental health and it keeps me inspired to do this work which can be challenging at times.”
The University of Michigan’s Role in the Founding of the Ecology Center
The University of Michigan, which played a significant role in the founding of the Ecology Center, continues to maintain an interest. In the fall of 2017, LSA Professor of History Matthew Lassiter taught an experimental class called "Environmental Activism in Michigan" in which eight undergraduates conducted archival research at the Bentley, digitized historical videos, arranges videotaped oral interviews with historical participants, and built an online website. michiganintheworld.history.lsa.umich.edu/environmentalism/
Two of Prof. Lassiter’s students, Meghan Clark and Hannah Thomas, did much of the work building the website.
“The website covers the first Earth Day in April 1970, the major ENACT teach-in at UM that preceded it in March 1970, and other environmental issues in the state of Michigan and at the national level in the 1960s and 1970s,” writes, Prof. Lassiter. “One major part of the website project covers the first decade of the Ecology Center, including its founding in 1970 by the graduate students who organized the ENACT teach-in here, and its activities in the first few years.
“I learned a lot from the research that the students in this class conducted, but the most surprising insights involved how central the labor unions and the issues of what we now call environmental racism and environmental justice were to the most progressive wing of the environmental movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. Barbara Reid Alexander, the Midwest coordinator for the first Earth Day, urged us not to neglect the strong support of Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers for the radical environmental agenda during this era, a connection she rightly argued has been "lost in recent years for the progressive agenda." Our research confirmed this interpretation of history and also found that many of the organizers of the ENACT Teach-In at U-M and of the national Earth Day made environmental justice central to their mission during the 1970s, including through the work of our local Ecology Center in Ann Arbor and of Environmental Action and the Urban Environment Conference, two national groups that have not received sufficient attention in historical scholarship. There were definite tensions as well as cooperation between the civil rights, antipoverty, antiwar, and environmental agendas—as our section on the ENACT Teach-In documents—but the conventional wisdom that the environmental justice movement did not emerge until the 1980s is wrong, and so is the historical verdict that labor unions and environmentalists cannot cooperate because of the (false) choice between economic growth and environmental protection.
During the project, we interviewed Mike Garfield and Tracey Easthope of the Ecology Center, and it was inspiring to hear them talk about the initiatives of the center in recent decades. That led to discussions of how History students could contribute more to the upcoming 50th anniversary of Earth Day, when we are planning a major commemoration at UM, and also this coincided with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Ecology Center a few months later. We came up with the plan to expand our website's section on the early years of the Ecology Center into a comprehensive separate website about its history, including attention to issues of environmental justice and major campaigns.”
That separate website has two purposes, says Prof. Lassiter. “The website will provide a history of the Ecology Center since 1970 to serve a couple of purposes. First, more generally, to increase UM campus-local community collaborations by involving undergraduate and graduate students in History and other departments in a research project designed for public audiences. This is one of several initiatives in a new History Department initiative called UM History in the Public Service. And second, the website will chronicle the history of environmental activism and policy in Ann Arbor and the state of Michigan by combining analysis and narrative with archival documents from the Ecology Center files and collections housed at the Bentley Historical Library--for the benefit of public audiences and internal use by the Ecology Center in its ongoing campaigns.
The website is in progress and Professor Lassiter hopes that he and his students will complete it in time for the 50th Anniversary celebrations in April 2020.
The Ecology Center’s Current Projects
Environmental Health—This work is designed to phase out toxic chemicals from manufacturing and the material economy. Under that umbrella, the major initiatives are:
Healthy Stuff: A project focused this year on identifying PFAS, flame retardants, and other problematic toxic chemicals in consumer products.
The Great Lakes Lead Elimination Network: A multi-state coalition that convenes to advocate and develop policies and campaigns to eliminate lead poisoning in Michigan and neighboring states.
PFAS advocacy work: This project is focused on cleaning up PFAS contamination sites, set Michigan drinking water standards, and get fluorinated chemicals out of products.
Climate and Energy—This project works to phase out the use of fossil fuels and create a clean energy economy. In that area, their major efforts are:
Promoting a statewide clean energy policy, with an emphasis on providing clean energy to low-income households, through processes run by the Michigan Public Service Commission.
Promoting the development of statewide electric vehicle infrastructure, also through decision-making processes at the Public Service Commission.
Promoting ambitious climate action efforts in the City of Ann Arbor.
Running the Health Leaders Fellowship Program, which trains health practitioners in environmental issues and advocacy (the coursework also covers Environmental Health issues).
Environmental Education—This work promotes generational transformation regarding environmental health issues. Their major initiatives are focused on:
Recycling education in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County.
Developing a new energy education curriculum for K-12 students.
Running the My Solar School Contest for middle-school and high-school students around the state.
Detroit/Ann Arbor—This work promotes environmental health and justice in southeast Michigan. They are working on:
Closing the Detroit trash incinerator and helping move the city toward zero waste.
Addressing other air pollution issues in Detroit.
Promoting regional transit in southeast Michigan.
Promoting climate action, zero waste, and better recycling efforts in Ann Arbor.