An interview with Joel Howrani Heeres, Sustainable Communities Coordinator at ECO Works Detroit (formerly WARM Training Center).

What is the mission of WARM Training center?

WARM Training Center is actually now called ECO WORKS Detroit. ( We’re in the midst of transitioning into the new name and just announced it last week. We decided on the name change because WARM Training Center didn’t really reflect the breadth of services that we do. We do provide training, but we do a lot of other things. The choice was hard because we have a lot of recognition in the community and we’ve been around so long, but one of the things that came out of our year-long strategic planning process. With the new name comes our new focus on sustainability initiatives.

ECO Works Detroit provides opportunities to learn the practice of sustainable energy and resources. With our new name comes a new focus for the mission. ECO Works Detroit’s main goal is to help people learn about energy, water and the resources they use. We want to help people figure out how they can go about their daily lives reducing their usage of energy but also improving their quality of life.

Our organization has been around for 31 years. We started as a center for worker cooperatives, where we helped people develop worker co-ops for auto mechanics, home energy efficiency co-op that helped people do home repairs. Now we’re more focused on the energy and sustainability context. Energy, education, workforce development in weatherization and deconstruction training, projects like Reclaim Detroit to create an economy around deconstruction rather than demolition, and green consulting on home and business energy audits, as well as sustainability planning for local governments and communities.

What kinds of projects have you been able to accomplish with the help of a Semseter in Detroit Intern?

Megan Miller (Winter 13) helped do follow up with energy consulting clients with energy audit, air ceiling jobs,  and other work with businesses and nonprofits to help them reduce energy usage at their location and organization. We don’t often do much follow up to ask what savings they were able to have and understand what are the actual impacts of the work we’re trying to do. Megan also created a report and presentation for us, and ended up staying on with WARM to help with our new solar energy program. The new low-cost solar energy program is offered across the state.  MI Solar Works is a partnership between our organization.

Most recently, Mary Hirt (Spring 13) helped develop an ECO Works Detroit program website called Actioniirs – a web tool to help people make better decisions around sustainability for their own lives. The idea is that there are tons of choices about what you can do to make your life more ecologically friendly, and aspects of social media and make this sustainability app fun and social. You can challenge people and help other people do sustainable projects. Mary helped us develop the back end database of all the sustainable actions that get suggested to people. It’s like a cross between a LEED green building standards, and girl scouts, and OK cupid. The site suggests green actions tailored to your lifestyle, preferences, and goals. People can still go sign up at to try the beta site.

How has Semester in Detroit helped further your organization’s mission?

Semester in Detroit has definitely benefited our organization. It’s always good to have new energy, blood and thoughts come into an organization. We always appreciate the perspectives of U-M Folks who come in and an interesting perspective they bring. They bring resources of the university that are substantial and really benefit our program. One example is that Mary Hirt, who is also really involved in sustainability work on campus, will help us roll out a pilot of the actioniirs website on campus. That’s just one example of the connections that are at the U-M. We’re involved with the Detroit Climate Action Collaborative and the school of natural resources, who is now doing a masters project on the greenhouse gas assessment of the Detroit climate action.

What would be a dream partnership between ECO Works and the University?

It would be really interesting to work with U-M helping them work with WARM on how to design a truly sustainable block, neighborhood, or community. How do you put a lot of principles that WARM lives by, how would you look at a city block and actually locate them into a design project. There would be urban planning aspects, design, engineering and architectural aspects.

What advice would you give to University of Michigan undergraduates interested in learning more about the city of Detroit? Don’t assume that what you see in the media is the whole story of what’s going on in the city. There’s a lot of grassroots efforts that have been going on for years that don’t get a lot of the attention new flashy things going on. Look beyond the news. Know the history. Don’t assume. Read Origins of the Urban Crisis, Arch of Justice. Another really important thing to note about the history of Detroit is that the topic of race is intertwined into every single aspect of Detroit history, whether you recognize it or not. Maybe it’s better that we recognize it, talk about it, confront it because it’s such a huge part of Detroit.

What advice do you have for students considering a career in social justice? First of all, find something that you’re passionate about and pursue it. Don’t take no for an answer. It’s really important to listen to people, truly listen to people. Even if you feel like you have a lot of great ideas, start off by asking people questions and listening to what they have to say before you share your thoughts. Truly listening is a skill that a lot of people don’t really have.


Learn more about ECO Works Detroit at and test out the Actioniirs beta site at 

Interested in hosting a Semester in Detroit intern this Winter 2014 (Jan-April)? Please see our Community Partner application. The deadline to apply is Monday, October 28, 2013