Jeremy Orr was selected for the Obama Foundation Leaders USA Program to develop skills to better serve Detroit and Michigan in his environmental justice work. (Photo courtesy of Michigan State University)

A civil rights and environmental lawyer from Detroit is one of two people from Michigan selected for a new leadership program founded by former President Barack Obama. 

Native Detroiter Jeremy Orr is among 100 emerging leaders in the inaugural Obama Foundation Leaders USA Program. Participants will engage with the former president and develop skills to create positive change in their communities and strengthen democratic institutions. Orr, 37, is director of litigation and advocacy partnerships for Earthjustice and an adjunct law professor at Michigan State University. He specializes in ensuring access to safe and clean drinking water and has worked on environmental issues in Michigan for more than a decade. 

“We’re a city that fights back, we’re a city that finds solutions–we’re the Renaissance city,” Orr told BridgeDetroit about Detroit. “It’s really an honor to be a part of that and bring that same kind of hard-working, blue-collar fighting spirit to this cohort and talk about ways that we really revamped our city to be a hub for tech, clean energy… and climate change.”

During the Flint water crisis, Orr helped to connect the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency response team with communities to make sure residents had access to resources. Later, Orr worked on a litigation team for the Natural Resources Defense Council, helping enforce the legal settlement to replace all of the pipes. More recently, he has been involved in regulating contaminants in water.

As a participant of the six-month program, Orr will take part in virtual calls and in-person meetings with his cohorts and will receive one-on-one coaching to help develop leadership skills. Orr said it’s an honor to represent Detroit in the program, and the recent progress the city has made, compared to the last two decades when the city faced challenges with its finances and services and ultimately filed for bankruptcy while under emergency management in 2013. 

Orr said he feels the most pressing environmental issues in Detroit are affordable and accessible drinking water, and water and sewerage infrastructure. 

“It’s hard to talk about the Great Lakes state without talking about water and access to water,” he said. “But particularly in places like Detroit, in places where we’ve seen, years ago, [thousands] shut off from water in one summer, you’ve seen the cost of drinking water rise astronomically….the poor infrastructure in the city that’s leading to flooding and damaging people’s homes and property – all these issues around water and infrastructure, particularly in Detroit, are really important.” 

Orr said he’s been working on these issues for years but is excited to sharpen his skills through the program and come up with solutions. 

Previously, Orr was an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Wayne State Law Clinic. He has served on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council for the last several years and just returned from a week-long council trip in Puerto Rico when BridgeDetroit spoke with him. 

While in Puerto Rico, the council heard testimonies from residents in Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands about the environmental justice issues affecting them. Orr said it was enlightening to hear about the lack of attention given to “island communities.” 

In addition to environmental law, Orr provides his services to the community as a legal observer during protests. (Courtesy photo)

He told BridgeDetroit, “I think there will probably be some intentional action over the next year from EPA on really supporting island communities as it relates to climate resilience.” 

Orr grew up on the west side of Detroit where he said there was little greenspace or parks. His grandparents could see the Marathon oil refinery from their home. In college, Orr got involved with getting the Allied Paper Mill cleaned up. The abandoned mill is a Superfund Site and it was contaminating the Kalamazoo River in a nearby Black community. Despite the area being primarily Black, Orr noticed that none of the decision makers were from the community. The experience catapulted him into environmental advocacy. While advocating for local communities, Orr balanced being a two-sport collegiate athlete in track and football at Michigan State University. 

Orr has served as the executive director of the Detroit-based nonprofit the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, director of organizing for Interfaith Worker Justice, and director of state programs for the Peoples Climate Movement.

A few years ago, Orr said he met former first lady Michelle Obama at a speaking event in Detroit, but the program will be his first time meeting President Obama. 

The former president said in a press release that he’s inspired by the group of young leaders “who are working on the most pressing issues facing our world.

 “These leaders give me hope, and they deserve our support,” he said. 

Besides Orr, Grand Rapids resident Katie Fahey also was accepted into the program. Fahey is the founder of The People, a nonpartisan political advocacy organization and has been credited with ending gerrymandering in Michigan

The USA Program is the latest development of the Obama Foundation Leaders program launched in 2018 in Africa. The program has already had two sessions, one as an introduction, and another focused on interpersonal skills and self-compassion. Orr said he appreciates that the program is cultivating non-tangible skills. 

“I don’t think a lot about self-compassion or compassion generally,” he said. “Things like that are exciting to help us build on being a good leader because being a good leader is more than just telling folks what to do on the field, but how are you developing those leadership skills personally, to better lead people?” 

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

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