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New Michigan Environmental Council chief has deep roots in civil rights

LANSING — The Michigan Environmental Council, one of the state’s most influential environmental advocacy groups, has named a new leader.

Conan Smith has been named CEO of the 39-year-old policy group in Lansing. He takes over for Chris Kolb, a former lawmaker who is now Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget director.

Smith, an Eagle Scout who worked for the council years ago, returns to the organization following a career in nonprofits and Democratic politics in Southeast Michigan.  He served 14 years on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and 12 years as executive director of Metro Matters, a Southeast Michigan nonprofit. Additionally, he lectures in intergovernmental cooperation at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

The Michigan Environmental Council describes itself as a coalition of more than 60 organizations leading the state’s environmentalist movement. The nonprofit had a budget of more than $2.3 million in 2017, and its team of lobbyists are a major voice on environmental issues at the Capitol  — from toxic pollution standards, recycling policy, to land conservation and parks, sometimes sparring with Republican lawmakers over regulations.

In his first interview in his new position, Smith told Bridge Magazine he aims to tackle segregation within the environmental movement, while focusing on environmental justice. A growing body of research shows that low-income and minority communities frequently face disproportionate burdens — health risks and lower quality of life — from pollution from power plants, factories and elsewhere.

“My life has really been centered around civil rights,” Smith said.

Smith’s grandfather, Albert Wheeler, was the first black mayor of Ann Arbor and first black tenured professor at the University of Michigan; he wrote the civil rights clause of the Michigan Constitution. Smith’s mother, Alma Wheeler Smith, chairs the Michigan Civil Rights Commission following a long career as a Democrat in the Legislature. Until 2017, Conan Smith was the husband of state Rep. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor.

Bridge recently met with Smith. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bridge: Do you see a diversity problem in the Michigan environmental movement?

Smith: Yes. Like many race problems in Michigan, it's twofold. One, we are segregated. There are amazing organizations rooted in our core cities that are doing environmental justice work. But we don’t pull those organizations into the broader environmental movement. Second, I believe — though we don’t have good data yet — boards and staffs of environmental organizations around the state don’t reflect Michigan’s diversity. If our organizations are led by people with a certain perspective, that's also going to be reflected in the programming.

Bridge: What drives this segregation among environmentalists?

Smith: The issues that environmentalists have tended to work on have become highly racialized in a certain context. We think about poverty being racialized, right? Some people might say “poverty is a black issue.” Well, we know poverty isn’t a black issue — but that’s how some people see it. Environmentalism is racialized as a white issue. The idealized environmentalist is a hippie white tree hugger somewhere. In reality, public opinion research shows people of color tend to have deeper and more intense feelings about the environment than whites do. We got to break down those barriers. It starts by acknowledging this is happening.

Bridge: But how did those barriers get cemented?

Smith: Our movement has its roots in advocacy that hasn’t been sensitive to the needs of people of color. You think about the development of the National Park System — it was rooted in displacement of Native Americans from their lands. That holds deep. We as a community have to acknowledge where we came from.

Bridge: Does this lack of cohesion among environmentalists transcend race? What about identity politics?

Smith: One-hundred percent. We used to talk about the tree huggers versus the hook-and-bullet crowd. And that distinction still exists, even though we share the same values and mission. I want people to self-identify along a set of environmental values. I don’t care what label they put on themselves. We need to figure out a way to be more tolerant and inclusive.

Bridge: How do you plan to do that?

Smith: You know, PFAS  [a group of hazardous chemicals increasingly being found across the country] is a unifying issue across the state. It’s a scourge that affects every community. If you don’t know it yet, you’ll know it soon. It’s all of our problem, and it’s an opportunity to have conversations in communities where we haven’t had as deep a presence in the past.

Bridge: Does the state’s messaging on natural resources affect our perception of who is an environmentalist? Pure Michigan ads, for instance, try to draw folks to the state by touting our natural resources. In years past, it seems like they didn’t feature many people of color enjoying the outdoors.

Smith: I remember when they launched the Pure Michigan ads. I damn near cried. It was the best thing I had seen celebrating Michigan as a place — as a home. The values spoke right to my heart, I wanted to be a part of that. I think the Pure Michigan still holds that ethos, but we do need to do a much better job in when we advertise Michigan to reflect our diversity.  I think they're attentive to it. But it also sort of plays into the segregation we have. If Pure Michigan puts out a disproportionately white-oriented ad promotes our natural resource economy, it plays into our movement’s challenges.

Bridge: Do the emotional ads help when you’re lobbying for certain environmental policies — to make a case that protecting natural resources doesn’t necessarily conflict with economic development?

Smith: Absolutely. Natural resources have always been at the heart of Michigan's economy. We mined here. We logged here. We’re shifting away from that extraction economy, but natural resources still need to play this giant role in our economy — attracting young talent to this place. Folks who have every option to live and work. We want them to choose Michigan.

Bridge: Is this a key moment for environmental justice in Michigan? Amid the Flint water crisis, former Gov. Rick Snyder assembled a task force to examine environmental justice in Michigan. And Gretchen Whitmer followed through on one of its recommendations by creating the state’s first “Environmental Justice Public Advocate.” Last month she appointed Regina Strong, a longtime environmental advocate in Detroit.

Smith: Regina and I worked together years ago. I’m super excited to see her in that position. It’s really exciting to have someone who owns that space within EGLE [the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy]. I’m looking forward to partnering with EGLE and the Department of Civil Rights on a strategy to elevante environmental justice issues.

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