Southwest Detroit has dealt with air pollution for decades. Many people who live there have asthma, which they attribute to heavy industry and trucks that roll down their streets daily.
A new short film shows how poor air quality has affected one family in Delray.
The filmmaker, Lauren Santucci, lived in Delray for about a year. She set out to show how industrial pollution affects women, specifically mothers. During the research phase of her film, she contacted Simone Sagovac with the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition. Sagovac put Santucci in touch with Thomasenia Weston, who happened to be one of Santucci’s neighbors.
“I was short of breath often, I had tightness in my chest that I didn’t really have before.” - Lauren Santucci, photojournalist
“We clicked right away, and I was very up front about what my intentions were,” Santucci says.
Besides being neighbors, the two women had something else in common: asthma. After she moved into Delray, Santucci says she noticed right away how the air quality was affecting her own health.
“I was short of breath often, I had tightness in my chest that I didn’t really have before,” Santucci says.
With a grant from the Detroit Equity Action Lab, Santucci created “Mother” and shared it through Planet Detroit. She hopes to create more films and share more environmental justice stories in the future.
Click on the player to hear Lauren Santucci’s conversation with WDET’s Pat Batcheller, and read a transcript, edited for clarity, below.
Pat Batcheller, 101.9, WDET: How did you meet Thomasenia Weston?
Lauren Santucci, photojournalist: In the research phase of the film, I was in contact with Simone Sagovac at the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition. Thomasenia was doing advocacy work at the time for them surrounding air quality in the neighborhood. Simone suggested I connect with her because she was very involved at the time, had asthma herself, was raising grandchildren that had asthma.
She had raised three generations in that house that all dealt with asthma they attribute to the air quality. And because I was interested in how women were adapting, specifically mothers and mother figures, she was perfect, and we connected right away.
What moved you to tell her story?
Initially, it was the fact that she had three generations of her family that suffered from asthma that they were attributing to the air quality in the neighborhood. But because she was starting to work as an activist, advocating for herself and her family and her neighborhood at large, I just was really inspired by her. She had so much energy, so knowledgeable, and extremely passionate about this advocacy work. It was contagious at that point after I met her.
I also have asthma, and I noticed right away once I moved to the neighborhood how the air quality was affecting my health. I was short of breath often, I had tightness in my chest that I didn’t really have before. My asthma is not nearly as severe as what they’re dealing with. But I really felt right away like it was affecting my quality of life when I was living there. So that was kind of an added factor in wanting to tell their story.
How much time did you spend with Thomasenia, getting to know her and her family so you could share their story?
We clicked right away and I was very up front about what my intentions were, and she was on board with telling that part of the story, because it is a sensitive topic. And so once I came through with what my intention was, we actually learned how close we lived to each other. From then on, I just started spending some time with her and the kids outside of filming, like going to church. It was kind of a go from the beginning. She was totally on board, she was ready to share her story. I’m just so grateful that she was so open to me from the beginning. She’s a really awesome person.
This may seem like an insensitive question, but are they able to move? Can they move out?
It’s a complicated question, but an important part of the story. It would definitely best be answered by Thomasenia.
I’m hesitant to speak for her on this, but the main thing she expressed to me when I asked her about these things is that this is her home. She raised her own children in this house. She’s lived in this house. She’s now raising her grandchildren in the home. I don’t think she wants to move from southwest Detroit because this is the neighborhood she knows. She talks often about how walkable it is, how many businesses there are close to her home. Now, because she is dealing with all of these issues, she has definitely considered picking up and going. But there are a lot of factors that make that a very difficult transition for anybody. I think that’s why she’s resorted to activism and advocacy on behalf of these issues instead of potentially moving.
Isn’t there some sort of help available to people who live in this area, especially near where the Gordie Howe International Bridge is supposed to go? She lives pretty close to the impact zone. Can she get filters or things like that?
There is a program through the city of Detroit called “Bridging Neighborhoods.” They have some environmental mitigation programs, as well as a housing swap program. That program is only for people living in Delray who are directly in the construction zone or around the area for the new bridge project. She lives just outside the direct impact zone, and does not qualify for filters, even though she’s heavily affected by truck traffic in this area.
Have you been in touch with the proper agencies about their plan to mitigate truck pollution from the new bridge?
There are plans. There are a lot of different agencies working on this. Southwest Detroit has dealt with environmental justice issues for a long time, and a lot of people have been fighting for it in different ways. The bridge project, from what I understand, has in a way opened up a kind of space for some of these community benefits to be organized or to be implemented. “Bridging Neighborhoods” is a good example of that.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the city and the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition are also monitoring the air quality at different stations in Delray, to monitor how air pollution will change over time, so they can have a clear idea of how people can mitigate that.
The city of Detroit is also piloting a truck study in southwest Detroit to determine which roads are the safest for trucks in order to mitigate pollution and other safety concerns. The Windsor Detroit Bridge Authority also has their community benefits plan that they are implementing on both the Canadian and U.S. side to reduce environmental impacts. They’re focused on planting trees, making buffer zones in parks and using energy efficient lighting. There’s a lot right now that’s going on, and a lot of it is really positive. But inevitably there are people that will be left out of that, and I think Thomasenia is an example of that.
In terms of environmental justice, there are some really positive things that are happening, and people are becoming more aware of this issue. I would encourage people to follow the work of the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition. They’ve been on the ground for a decade, working on issues like this.
Your film is part of an environmental justice reporting project. What other stories do you plan to tell?
The reason I was able to tell this story was because of the Detroit Equity Action Lab and Martina Guzman, who gave me a small grant to complete this project. She was looking for stories on environmental justice at the time, and they deal with different social issues in Detroit. Personally, when I first started this story, I was interested in how air quality and pollution would affect reproductive health in the neighborhood. I heard a lot of anecdotes about people who were struggling with this and were really feeling the brunt of it. And so because it’s more of a silent issue, and a more intimate issue, it would take a longer time to engage and dive deep into that story. But that’s something I’m really interested in and it’s another aspect of how women are affected by pollution and air quality.