Fellows Blog


Toxic Tour

I was still half asleep at 9:00AM last Friday when I heard:

“I used to be like that… you know, one of those guys who throws their McDonald’s trash out the window.”

Now that got my attention.  Sheltered in my bubble of likeminded green enthusiasts, this was the first time I had ever heard someone admit to this kind of behavior. 

Driving up and down 75, I am always taken aback when I see bags of trash along the highway, especially in rural northern Michigan- litter always stands out more in country setting. Somehow, sadly, we’ve come to expect it in cities. In addition to feeling stunned, I usually become enraged.  It is one of the few moments in life when I feel pure and utter hatred for my fellow man. Luckily, there is never an identifiable perpetrator. Why such a strong emotional reaction to seeing a bag of Taco Bell nestled in a patch of grass?  Maybe there’s something about demonizing the litterer that makes me feel superior; “What a terrible person! I would never commit such an abhorrent act. The earth sure is lucky to have me here.”  That’s a possibility. Maybe I am more like the smug, self-congratulatory variety of environmentalists than I thought. You know the type that has to tell the world about every single good deed they’ve accomplished and how they just can’t understand people who prefer to sleep in on a Saturday morning than wake up early to volunteer. Sure, that could be true. Lord knows I’m as desperate for approval as the next person. While there may be elements of truth to the former statements, in the end I think the combination of arrogance, laziness and lack of forethought that goes into the act of littering is so universally offensive that I would be surprised to learn that more people don’t have a similar emotional response.  Because really, what is so hard about waiting until the next rest stop so you can toss your garbage into a waste basket?

“I’m very different now.” The ex-litterer, Charles, explained. As it turned out, when the economy collapsed, Charles was laid off and ended up going through a green jobs training program; the experience changed his perspective on how we as a society interact with our natural environment. In Charles’ words, he “did a 180.” Today, he works for Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ) which is how we came to meet. 

Charles acted as our guide on the DWEJ’s, “Toxic Tour,” an eye opening, albeit depressing, trip to some of the most hazardous sites inside the city of Detroit. On this four hour-long journey we learned about the history and politics of the city’s largest sources of air pollution. Major offenders include:  Zug Island, the Marathon Oil Refinery, Peerless Metals, Sybill and perhaps the worst of them all – the Detroit Incinerator.   

By the third destination, my throat hurt. Even with the cool temperature and high winds, the smell at these locations was exceptionally unpleasant. People who live in Southwest Detroit’s Delray neighborhood say that the rancid odor that permeates their home causes nausea, headaches and dry heaves. Residents in Detroit’s 48217 zip code (Michigan’s most polluted) cover their cars with tarps to keep soot from chipping the paint.  More recently 48217 residents have become concerned about the link between pollution and adverse health conditions. Many inhabitants acknowledge a rise in cancer, asthma and heart diseases, yet they assert that people simply do not have the money to move to an unpolluted area. 

After spending multiple hours taking in the unsightly underbelly of Detroit’s industrial landscape, Green Garage and Earthworks Urban Farm –destinations on the latter half of the tour- were a sight for sore eyes.  Additionally, it was encouraging to learn that the GM Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant is home to the largest photovoltaic solar array in Southeast Michigan.

The feeling in my throat cleared up shortly after the tour. The fact that many of us were thrilled when the tour came to an end is a testament to how generally unpleasant these place are to be around, let alone live next door to. Aside from a sentimental attachment to what used to exist in these neighborhoods, it’s doubtful anyone would choose to live near any of the sites mentioned above. People live in these areas because they don’t have a choice.

While the content of the tour was undeniably disturbing, I left feeling motivated to share the information with others. Ironically, Charles, a man whose former self I would have loved to hate, reignited a sense of altruistic empowerment that I lost somewhere in law school.  

Later on that night I asked myself, where did my green values come from? Maybe it was the famous pollution awareness campaign that featured this guy (btw, his name was Iron Eyes Cody):


Or maybe it was my mom who insisted on using those embarrassing netted cotton reusable bags;“Can’t we just use the bags from the store like everyone else, mommmmm????”

Either way, where I once thought of this value as something obvious and intuitive, Friday’s experience made me remember that someone had to teach it to me as a child, just like someone had to teach it to Charles as an adult. Thank you Charles, for reaffirming my confidence in peoples’ ability to change.

Help others. Help yourself.

One of the harsh realities of getting older is the challenge of finding time for volunteer efforts. Unless you work for a company like Trott & Trott that makes it easy to get involved, it can be difficult to figure out how to get started, not to mention where to find the time.  This is a sentiment I hear expressed amongst my Generation Y peers who, by and large, put most of their energy into building careers and starting families.

Some of the most popular volunteer sites in southeast Michigan are soup kitchens, food banks, Habitat for Humanity, and tree plantings.  While I personally enjoy getting my hands dirty at a tree planting, I understand that others might not like this kind of activity, or building a house, or stocking boxes at a food bank.  If this is you, there are still plenty of opportunities to give back to the greater community.  Volunteering doesn’t have to be a painful experience.  In fact, it can (and should) be fun! Those focused on their profession ought to look into giving back through pro bono opportunities.  More seasoned professionals might consider setting aside a couple of hours per month to devote to coach someone just starting out in the field.  Speaking as a grateful mentee, the dialogue I have with my mentor, Ed Cherney, is one of the most valuable components to my Challenge Detroit experience. In fact, this mentor-mentee relationship has inspired me to rejoin the group Big Brothers Big Sisters so I can pass on the support and encouragement to someone else in the community.

And if giving for giving’s sake is not enough of an inducement, then maybe you’ll be motivated by learning that a number of studies show that volunteering has vast physical and mental health benefits, including lower rates of depression, heart disease and cancer.  Whatever the incentive, just do it!

This blog post was contributed by Caroline Gersch, Fellow

Much more than a law firm

When notified of my placement at Trott & Trott in Farmington Hills, I was thrilled! Of all the companies with which I interviewed, Trott & Trott was far and away my top choice.  As a recent law school graduate with a mountain of student loan debt, having a reliable job on the horizon -and one at a law firm- was music to my ears.  In the three months that have since passed, I am amazed at how much I’ve learned in so short a span of time.

Not only do I have the opportunity to accompany attorneys to court and learn about substantive law from orientation sessions, I  also research the changing world of government regulation.  Further, and thanks to my talented supervisor Roy Sexton, I am gaining invaluable experience marketing and business management, areas that are critical for achieving success in any industry.  I find this work requires constant reference to the knowledge I acquired while attaining a Masters degree in psychology- group dynamics, semiotics, and identity formation.

Trott & Trott is very generous in exposing me to all aspects of their company and providing ample opportunities for professional growth.  Last month I was privileged to attend a business symposium at the Birmingham Community House titled, “How to work smarter” which provided useful tips in the areas of sales, marketing, HR, and IT.  Just last week I spent the evening at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Detroit Branch where David Zin from the Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency spoke on issues affecting state fiscal policy.  The seminar was geared towards teachers and educators and provided helpful suggestions for how to educate our youth on economic concepts that encourage fiscal responsibility. Doreen Hoffman, whom I accompanied to the event, is managing partner for Trott Recovery Services; Hoffman regularly speaks to audiences on financial literacy.

From what I have witnessed, Hoffman isn’t the only one volunteering her time. Most of the employees at Trott & Trott make it a point to give back in some form or fashion.  Philanthropy is a value strongly encouraged by the firm.  Trott & Trott is constantly providing a wide variety of ways to help the community; whether it’s a blood drive in the cafeteria, adopting a family for the holidays, or sending a team to volunteer at Starfish Family Services, charitable initiatives are always taking place within the office -and there is something for everyone. Trott & Trott’s commitment to volunteerism seems to have a great impact on the way that people feel about their workplace.  From the conversations I’ve had around the office and at town meetings, the staff are happy and fulfilled.  I, like my colleagues, am thrilled with my surroundings. In the months to come, I look forward to enriching my understanding of law, business and marketing principles.

This blog post was contributed by Caroline Gersch, Fellow

At Home in New Center Commons

It took less than a minute to know I wanted to live in the house in which I currently reside with my partner.  Touring the house and street, I kept waiting for “the catch” that would bring this seemingly too-good-to-be-true deal back to earth.  After inspecting all 2,000 square feet of the historic home, taking a stroll down the walk-only cobblestone street on which it sits, and learning about the community garden for local residents, I was sure there was no way we would be able to afford the rent.  To my surprise, the amount the landlord requested was well within our budget.  Without hesitation, we enthusiastically agreed to lease the house for the year.  This was certainly a step up from our 400 square foot apartment in Grosse Pointe Park.

Back in 1977, when General Motors was headquartered in what is now called the Cadillac Building, the auto manufacturer initiated a series of renovations to update single-family homes located just north of Grand Boulevard.  The result was “New Center Commons.”  Our house, which was built in 1909, was one of the many residences to receive updating.  While these houses went through a process of internal modernization, GM made it a point to preserve the distinct historical features that make these houses so attractive.  Our guests from the suburbs are consistently shocked when they tour our home.  And when we share how much we pay in rent… jaws hit the ground.  “We should move here!” friends exclaim to which we respond, “Yes, yes you should!”

We have spent many a night on the front porch enjoying the peace and quiet of the pedestrian-only cobblestone street while sipping hot tea.  It feels like we’ve taken a step back in time.  In these moments of zen, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a horse and carriage, or even Model T, roll by.  There is a sense of timelessness that exists on Pallister Street.  Yet, we are reminded exactly where we are when we relocate to our back porch which is graced by a view of the majestic Fisher building.

This blog post was contributed by Caroline Gersch, Fellow


The Inaugural Program Celebration

It’s raining in here, I thought as I walked into the atrium of One Campus Martius.  Truth be told, that’s the second time I’ve had that thought upon entering the Compuware building.  I’d been there once before, only a few weeks prior, and should have remembered the giant glass waterfall that dominates the open space.  But I didn’t, and a sense of childlike wonderment filled me again.  And like a child, I stood and stared. I thought about how many people had to work together to create such a magnificent piece of art. I later found out that what I was gazing at was the world’s largest indoor hanging waterfall, measuring just over 14 stories tall. It’s no wonder AIA Detroit’s Urban Priorities Committee rated the building’s entryway as one of the top ten interiors in Detroit. I asked myself, how did I fail to set foot in this remarkable space while living in Detroit these past few years? Alas, this isn’t the first time I’ve had this thought since beginning my fellowship with Challenge Detroit.  To be sure, Challenge Detroit continues to introduce me to parts of my city I had no idea existed.  Again and again, I realize that I don’t know my city half as well as I thought I did.

Picture of Fellows

The Fellows are recognized, including Caroline Gersch, center.

Last Thursday, October 11, Challenge Detroit held its Inaugural Program Celebration on the top floor of the Compuware building.  We were directed to gather in the “Arctic Room,” a genuine misnomer since the atmosphere couldn’t have been warmer; toward each other, our honored guests, and the city we love.  Program Fellows mingled with representatives of the 30 host companies, participating nonprofits and other supporters over cocktails and scrumptious hors D’oeuvres. Not only did I have the privilege of interacting with both of my esteemed mentors, Edward Cherney of Tip Capital and Roy Sexton of Trott & Trott, in a social setting, but also had the opportunity to shake hands with a host of other influential entrepreneurs.

Amongst the many conversations, I heard expressions of gratitude conveyed on behalf of Challenge Detroit fellows to participating companies, nonprofits and donors.  The room was abuzz with strangers, linked by their love and passion for Detroit, sharing stories, forming friendships, and hatching business partnerships. Tanya Heidelberg-Yopp of Compuware gave an enthusiastic welcome to the crowd.  Appropriately, her energy seemed to match the magnitude of the building in which we sat.  Next, we heard personal anecdotes from some of the Challenge Detroit fellows on what drew them to the city or, in the alternative, why they chose to stay in Detroit rather than move to nearby hotspots like Chicago or New York.  Finally, Michael Finney, MEDC President and CEO addressed the crowd.  Finney decided to speak “off the cuff,” though you wouldn’t have known it from his poise and eloquence.  Sharing his optimistic perspective on where he thinks Detroit is headed and what we can do to help the city thrive, his words and presence electrified the room.

I felt  incredibly inspired in the presence of so many bright and creative community leaders; individuals who deeply care for Detroit and its citizens, and helped turn Doyle Mosher’s dream into a reality.  What’s more extraordinary is the philanthropic spirit embodied by each and every one of the participating host companies, nonprofits, and supporters who were so eager to give their time, energy, and capital.

I am incredibly grateful to be a member of the inaugural group of Challenge Detroit fellows and feel saturated with good feeling for our mission.  As with the rain in the lobby, I am reveling in the downpour.

Contributed by Caroline Gersch, Fellow