Flash forward 

The photos were taken on what Ophelia Owens calls the worst day of her life. It shows two of her children, ages 2 and 4, in a hospital emergency room, breathing masks strapped to their faces. The color images may lack the crisp definition and careful framing of a professional, but that doesn't keep them from packing one hell of an emotional wallop.

Owens was participating in a project involving 11 mothers of children attending Head Start programs run by Detroit Public Schools. The moms, along with two community activists, were given disposable cameras and asked to take pictures in their neighborhoods. Two University of Michigan students working on master's degrees in social work — Joe Donlin and Amanda Garratt — worked closely with the women throughout the project.

The idea was to draw attention to issues of environmental justice, showing what people of color and those living in communities that are struggling economically deal with on a daily basis. Along with the negative, these women were also instructed to capture the positive as well. Don't just show what you want eliminated, the thinking went, but also portray aspects of a community that should be accentuated and built upon.

It was in the midst of this project that she and her two youngest children began experiencing asthma attacks at the same time. The nebulizer she uses to administer medicated mist can only treat one person at a time. Faced with the horror of trying to decide which child to give care to first, she grabbed the kids and headed for the car. Gasping for air, she raced to the hospital, desperate to get the treatment all three needed. Once her children were safe, Owens had the presence of mind to capture the hospital scene on film.

Owens shared this experience recently when she and the other women participating in what is known as the "photovoice" project gathered with environmental justice advocates and others to share their photos and their stories.

What was striking about Owens and the others who participated wasn't just the emotions their pictures evoked, but also the effect taking part in this project had on them.

For Owens, it was a combination of relief, anger and empowerment.

Because she and her mother both have asthma, she assumed the condition had been passed from one generation to the next, and that her children were the unfortunate victims of bad genes. But as she began working on the Photovoice Project —funded with a $5,000 grant from the Skillman Foundation and involving the University of Michigan as well as Detroit Public Schools — holding a camera to her eye helped her take a more critical look at the surrounding environment. And what she saw in a new light was the nasty plume of smoke belching from the nearby Detroit municipal waste incinerator. She also took notice of the number of neighbors who had nebulizers.

That experience — along with a workshop put on by Donele Wilkins, executive director of the group Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice — allowed everything to click into place. There was relief in realizing that her children might not be the victims of a family medical curse. But with that realization came anger that their environment was making her and her family gasp for air. And from that anger grew a commitment to make the environment around her a safer, healthier place.

"My thing now is gaining more knowledge, and then sharing that knowledge with other people so that they can change their lifestyles and make our area a better place," says Owens. "I plan on being involved in the environmental justice movement for the rest of my life."

Which is just the kind of result University of Michigan professors Bunyan Bryant and Michael Spencer hoped for when they began this project three years ago.

Building on an approach developed by former U-M professor Caroline Wang, who devised the photovoice concept as a way to help women in rural China draw attention to the issue of safe drinking water, Bryant and Spencer began working with Detroit Public Schools and local environmental justice advocates three years ago. Projects launched during the first two years essentially laid the groundwork for this year.

"The first couple of years we were just sort of developing methods and getting everything in line," says Spencer. "This is the first year we really went public with it."

Now he hopes to build on the foundation already established. The hope is that grant money can be found to train and pay these moms and others to become educators and activists in their communities.

"What you see now, we hope, is just the first step," says Spencer.

Heather Storey-Barnes, a mother of four and Head Start volunteer who took part in the project, joins Spencer in hoping funding can be found to take this to the next level. But even if that doesn't happen, she plans to continue on.

"When you hear the word 'activist,' you think about somebody out there lobbying, picketing, living and dying for a cause," she says. "But activism can also mean being out there and spreading information by word of mouth, helping people in your inner circle know what's going on. That's how change starts."

And it's a role she's now committed to.

"I'm kind of a shy person, but those are shoes that I want to step into. Shoes I have to step into. At a certain point you have to say enough is enough. We have to stop thinking about the environment being national parks and start thinking of it in terms of where we live."

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or cguyette@metrotimes.com

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