Fighting pollution and poverty in Detroit

A collaboration between a nonprofit group and University of Michigan students may result in a recycled product that employs the Detroit’s homeless.

Cass Community Social Services is a Detroit agency that has been “fighting poverty and creating opportunity” since May 1, 1881. During the Great Depression, members served hot meals to families in need.

Treads Motor City Sandals will make sandals out of old tires - complete with the ol' English D. Photo: University of Michigan (umich.edu)

More recently, the organization teamed with University of Michigan design students to design a product from something recyclable and that is easy to make.

The result: Treads Motor City Sandals, a small business that could employ and support its customers and the jobless in the city. Using old tires and recyclable materials, future employees will follow the method developed by the design students to produce the sandals.

The brand is part of the agency’s Green Industries program, a series of small-business, eco-friendly ventures. Using Green Industries as a tool, the organization is finding new ways to help the needy and reduce the city’s ecological footprint. In the past, the organization has designed a workout facility that manually produces electricity and turned old tires into mud mats. Now it wants to take the fashion world by storm, for a good cause.

The Rev. Faith Fowler, a University of Michigan alum, is the executive director of the organization.

Fowler explained two things about her group’s mission: “Number one is to do things that are good for the planet. The industry part applies to the record highs in unemployment. People have barriers in getting jobs. We employ 65 people in our green industries. We just added two new programs, which have about 10-20 people.

Tian Lian is among the six students who were involved in bringing the sandal idea to life. They had plenty of ideas, but the sandals made the most sense, he said.

“After going through 30-40 different ideas that ranged from an artistically-styled corrugated cardboard magazine holder, a modular photo frame, a roll out garden, and other similarly random ideas, we finally settled on sandals,” he said. “It gave us the most room for innovation in design, engineering, and marketing.”

Things didn’t always go smoothly. Working late into the night, the sandals were always coming out right-footed Lian said. But armed with diverse backgrounds, the students soon solved the problem.

The group is now building the manufacturing line in a warehouse and setting up the molds for the final design.

“This is really where it gets exciting because we’re getting a lot of support from companies and organizations within the university,” Lian said. “Our current proposed plan has the line being in place by end of March and the line operational by end of April.”

According to the Homeless Action Network of Detroit, there are around 14,000 people who do not have a home in the metro Detroit area. Over half of these families have children.

There is plenty of work ahead for the Cass crew. They plan to incorporate geothermal energy into the agency’s buildings. Expansion of shelters and warehouses includes solar panels to generate energy.

“We believe we can fight pollution and poverty at the same time,” Fowler said.

Timeline of Cass Community Social Services’ work in Detroit (may take a few moments to load):