Taking Action: An Interview with Dearborn's Department of Public Health's Founding Director

The City of Dearborn is a JustAir partner taking proactive measures for public health. We sat down with Ali Abazeed, the founding director of the City’s Department of Public Health, to learn more about their innovative community clean air project.

JustAir: To start, would you tell us about your purview at the City of Dearborn Department of Public Health? What do you do there?

Ali Abazeed: I'm the founding director of the Department of Public Health in Dearborn and the chief public health officer. Dearborn became just the second city in the state to have a formal health department in April 2022 when I moved home to Dearborn from Washington D.C. to launch the department. 

We do things a little bit differently; we're focused on a “health in all policies” approach. Everything that we do as a city government—from police and fire to water and sewage to public works, parks and recreation, every part of our government—is thinking with a health lens. And that's my core responsibility: making sure those channels are being built.

JustAir: You are a very forward thinking, proactive city department—one of the reasons we appreciate the partnership. Why are you focusing on air quality?

Abazeed: One of the big reasons I decided to take this job was the air quality Dearborn faces. We often talk about the South End, and deservedly so. But southeast Michigan generally is one of the most polluted areas in the country and has some of the highest density of particulate matter in the country.

Environmental justice was a major reason why I ultimately made the decision to come home. This is an issue that we've been dealing with for decades. And if you look forward, it's probably not going to get better unless there's an equal and opposing force.

My thinking was, “what types of mechanisms, actions can we take to ensure that our residents are breathing cleaner air?” It dawned upon me: we have the full weight of government enforcement and authority. And so maybe we can hold some of these corporate polluters accountable. And in Dearborn, maybe we can build new partnerships with forward thinking partners like JustAir. I'm really excited to be partnering with you all at JustAir because we get to operate in different lanes. We have some powers that you all don't have in this arena; JustAir has some powers that we don't have. I'm really thrilled to be at the forefront of this kind of partnership in Dearborn. 

JustAir: How did our partnership begin? 

Abazeed: Dearborn was selected as one of three cities for the MINextCities program. MI Next Cities selected Dearborn as one of those three cities to think about how we can use technology innovatively to advance the well being of residents. 

My department wanted to implement comprehensive air quality monitoring across the entire city. And from there, through MINextCities, we got to know several actors in the state, including JustAir. And it's been such a healthy working, transparent, accountable relationship.

JustAir: What are you most excited about with this project or its potential?

Abazeed: We know that the air quality is poor in Dearborn. We know, for example, in the South End, asthma hospitalizations tend to be four times the statewide average, rates tend to be three times the statewide—we know those things and that's what we're working on with JustAir, is getting the data, ascertaining how bad the air is on any given day, and empowering our residents with with that data so that they're informed to make decisions. That's the primary aim of our intervention here. 

But I'm really curious about, “what else can we learn?” I'm really interested in developing new questions using the data we're collecting together. 

JustAir: You know at JustAir we work to bring transparency and hard data to the realities of air pollution and to identify who is affected. But we also know that future visions are important for driving change. In your view, what would a clean air Dearborn look like for residents? 

Abazeed: If you drive down to the South End right now and you visit Salina schools, and you cross the street, there are factory stacks ejecting toxins into the air all day, every day. And you have playgrounds in the area. In a world where environmental justice reigns supreme in Dearborn, that's not happening. 

These things don't happen accidentally. Zoning laws, restrictions, planning, all of that. Policy is not divinely ordained. Policy was made by humans. And so someone somewhere did that. And so just as someone did that, we can work to undo it. 

No one should be limited based on the pollution ejected from that factory stack across the street. No one should be limited based on the AQI that day. 

The data that we collect together is only powerful insofar as our residents are able to do something with it. If there is a child suffering from asthma or COPD and a mother or father is looking at the AQI that day, or is looking at the data on the JustAir dashboard, they can make decisions based on, “today's probably a good indoor day, tomorrow's probably a bad day to play that baseball game.” Those are the decisions that we want to enable and then we can use that data to hold those polluters accountable. 

JustAir: Do you have words of advice for other municipal governments considering air quality monitoring?

Abazeed: I believe very strongly that municipalities should borrow a page from Dearborn. We're giving you the playbook. We want you to borrow from us. And apply a public health lens that centers on the lived experiences of people and centers on improving the conditions that allow people to live their healthiest life.

The air that we breathe is central to those conditions. And so starting to monitor air quality in your city is a wonderful idea. But that's just 1A. We need to be thinking about 1B, 1C, 2, 3, 4, 5, and all of the rest, because how you use that data is really crucial.

There's a story that I love to tell people. Years ago, there was a town hall related to one of the corporations in the South End. There was a resident who showed up to this town hall, who spoke not a lick of English, and as he approached the podium, all he could muster up was putting his two hands together and sort of gesturing a choke towards his neck, basically sharing with the actors in the room that day—elected officials, corporate officials—“I can't breathe. The air is choking me.” That's what he was gesturing. 

What the City of Dearborn Department of Public Health is doing with JustAir, is we're giving that resident, and other residents in Dearborn, the material to translate that gesturing towards his neck into something actionable. 

If we can make air quality salient to that resident and we can allow people around him to have that data, that's power right there. That's how you contend with powerful interests, especially when it comes to air quality. And so that's my advice to municipalities: think about those residents, not just a static air quality monitor. The monitor is great. But what do we do with its data?

It's my sincere hope and plan that we're going to give the data to residents and they are going to be able to come back to hold us accountable, and hopefully others, in the arena of improving air quality. As I like to say, accountability is a form of care.

So this is such an important project and we want to do it right. We’re really excited.

JustAir: We are too. Thanks again for your time, Ali.

Dearborn residents can access real-time, localized air quality data and sign up for alerts at justair.app. Learn more about this project on our Dearborn page.

Nate Rauh-Bieri
February 27, 2024
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