'Natural' choice: Recent graduate is a Fellow at the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Growing up, Erin Mette loved spending time outdoors and learning about the environment, especially attending Girl Scout camp and exploring the shores of Lake Michigan with her family.

Her passion led to an undergrad degree from Kalamazoo College in Political Science with concentrations in Environmental Studies and Public Policy & Urban Affairs, followed by a master’s degree from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. For her master’s project, she worked with Beecher High School in Flint to design an outdoor classroom and garden, with a focus in providing healthy food for the community.

Before grad school, Mette worked as an environmental educator in McCall, Idaho, Park City, Utah, and the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, helping youngsters connect with the natural world and sharing in their sense of wonder.

“Teaching was also a great learning experience—I learned so much about the different landscapes and ecosystems where I lived and felt so lucky to have the chance to teach in and explore beautiful places, as well as gain an in-depth understanding of the environment in my home state of Michigan,” she says.

Her work shifted from teaching in rural areas in the intermountain west and New England to teaching in urban and suburban areas like Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Flint; and the focus shifted from environmental science and conservation to environmental justice.

“Instead of teaching about science and the environment in places that are seen as ‘pristine’ natural environments, like state and national parks, I was trying to teach kids to connect with and care for the environment in their own backyards in places that we typically don’t even think of as natural, and beginning to understand how much more complicated that can be in places that have long been the sites of industrialization and urbanization, where the environment has actually been a source of harm for many people,” she explains.

“As I learned more about and witnessed firsthand the structural forces that have led to environmental destruction and contamination and the disparities in the accompanying human health impacts based on race and class, I wanted to learn how to change those structural forces.”

Mette headed to Wayne State University Law School, graduating earlier this year. “Wayne Law was a great place to study environmental law because so many people in the metro-Detroit area are directly impacted by environmental injustice,” she says. “In the Transnational Environmental Law Clinic, I had the chance to work on real cases affecting real people in southeast Michigan, such as an air permitting case involving AK Steel in South Dearborn. To learn from people affected by air quality issues in my own community and to have the legal tools and resources to actually do something about it, to make even a small dent in the problem, is really empowering and rewarding.

“Everyone needs clean air and clean water,” she adds. “Our legal and regulatory system, when it’s working properly, can protect these resources and ensure these basic, fundamental needs are met for everyone.”

Last month, Mette joined the team at the Detroit-based non-profit Great Lakes Environmental Law Center as an Equal Justice Works fellow—a fellowship supported by the California firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP and an anonymous sponsor.

Her two-year project will involve protecting children in Detroit and Flint from home-based environmental health hazards, such as lead-based paint and contaminated water; and she also will advocate for policy that advances environmental justice.

In the first six months, she will survey city, county and state agencies, community organizations and legal service providers to document the legal needs of families facing home-based environmental health hazards; identify families in need of immediate legal assistance accessing in-home lead testing, enrolling in water bill financial assistance programs and filing appeals of water bills and service shutoffs; and begin developing educational materials for compliance assistance workshops and legal services clinics.

“I’m eager to put to use the skills and experiences I’ve gained from law school and my prior career and education to help people in my own community,” she says. “The legal community has an essential role to play not only in ensuring that families have access to available legal resources and in remediating home-based environmental health hazards through legal counseling and litigation, but also in shaping the policy landscape of Michigan to prevent such hazards from arising at all.
I look forward to contributing to that work.”

A native of Belmont near Grand Rapids, Mette makes her home in Detroit’s historic Corktown, with her husband and cat. In her leisure time, she enjoys reading, gardening, cooking, cross-country skiing, kayaking, and traveling, especially backpacking through national parks and wilderness areas. To date she has visited 11 national parks in the U.S. and three in Canada.

Her true passion is organic farming. “I love to cook and especially to eat, so I figured I needed to learn how to grow my own food, too, which is how I ended up working on a few different organic farms,” she says.

“The way we feed ourselves has a huge impact on the environment and our health, so I’m always trying to learn more about sustainable agriculture and food production. I hope to someday have my own small farm and live out my dream of being a farmer-lawyer.”

 

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