Tallulah West has a passion for all things environmental. She does all she can do to preserve our planet for future generations. Listen in as she discusses Environmental Justice and what it means to those that are impacted.
Bill Krieger: Hello, everyone. Welcome to “Me You Us,” a well?being podcast. It’s another well?being Wednesday here at Consumers Energy. I’m your host, Bill Krieger. Today, my guest is Tallulah West. She is a senior environmental analyst here at Consumers Energy. Tallulah, if you’d introduce yourself, we’ll get the conversation started.
Tallulah West: Hi, thank you. My name is Tallulah West. For Consumers Energy, I am part of the Land and Water Department, which is part of the Environmental Quality and Sustainability Group. The nuts and bolts of what I do for my job is I analyze projects, determine what their permitting needs are, and work with the team to obtain the permits necessary for the projects.
I see the projects through construction and permit close?out and provide whatever support I can throughout the process.
Bill: It sounds like a lot of technical work going on there. I usually ask people, is this something you’ve always wanted to do since you were a kid? The funny thing is, in the environmental space, many times, this is what kids dreamed of doing, so I got to ask, is this what you were thinking? Did you think, “I want to be an environmental analyst when I grow up”?
Tallulah: My dream was to find a job that I could somehow get paid to be outside. I made a successful career of it up until COVID. Now I’ve been spending a lot more time in my home office, but being able to work remotely does offer a lot of opportunities for recreation, so I’m really grateful for that. But I’d say, yeah, this is what I was cut out to do.
Bill: Great. What did you do before you came to Consumers Energy?
Tallulah: Before this, probably about the last 15 years of my career, I’ve been in the environmental compliance part of the oil and gas industry.
Whenever pipelines are built from point A to point B, sometimes thousands of miles sometimes hundred, these pipeline routes go through mountains, and wetlands, and forests, archaeological sites, threatened, endangered species habitats, residential properties, contaminated sites.
There’s all these regulations put in place at the federal, state, and local level. My job was to be the compliance monitor on the project to make sure that the contractor, their practices were in line with what was required for the permit during construction.
Kind of like the ears and eyes of the agencies, boots on the ground, leading teams of inspectors, working long days, 60 hours a week minimum for a long time, despite the weather conditions. I really enjoyed it. I love being outside and seeing construction.
Bill: That’s good. That’s a huge responsibility. If we think about what can happen, it’s good that we have folks out there making sure we’re doing it right.
Tallulah: Yes. True that.
Bill: I want to ask you a question. It has nothing to do with work. Tallulah is an interesting name. Now, I’ve seen it before, but never at work. If you don’t mind, I know we’re kind of ambushing you here with this. What’s the history behind your name?
Tallulah: My mom’s family is from Alabama. It’s a Choctaw name. It means leaping water. I’m not of Choctaw descent. I guess it’s more of a regional name for my family. I thought I was blessed with that unusual name and due to its meeting and the work I do, I think it was made for me.
Bill: No kidding. Maybe they saw something that was there all along.
Tallulah: It’s my destiny.
Bill: Exactly. It is April. We are talking about Earth Month. That’s how we met. We were talking about Green Teams and some exciting things that have gone on and some exciting things that are going to be going on all of this month. Can you tell me a little bit about your interest in the Green Teams and what you do there?
Tallulah: I’d say that my interest in the Green Team started with my desire to be more involved in the community and work in communities that needed more attention and more love other than the places that maybe typically are doing our volunteer events at. My husband and I are really engaged outside of work. Our families are really involved.
We want to make sure that our dollar is stretched as far as it can go, and that we’re touching the communities that need it most. My only intention initially with Green Teams was sending my message to say, “Hey, how about we just change it up? Change up where we’re going to be doing our volunteer events.”
Next thing, the Green Teams decided that we’re going to have environmental justice as our focal point for this year. We’ve been running with it. It’s been exciting. It feels gratifying to see this happening and knowing that I could send a message and get a bunch of people behind that idea. I’m thrilled that it’s coming to fruition.
Bill: That’s an interesting intersection when you think about diversity, equity, inclusion, and environmental sciences because many people don’t make that connection. Tallulah, can you maybe explain what environmental justice really means?
Tallulah: Environmental justice, I guess the way I would summarize it, is it’s that when there’s poor air quality, poor water quality, soil contamination.
If you look at the history of industrialization, especially here in the Great Lakes, across our state, oftentimes areas that have been compromised or the environment has been compromised, it could even be lead paint poisoning. The people that are most affected by these degraded qualities of life related to our environment are typically the poor.
It doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with what your skin color is, or what your native language is. There’s a link between the economically repressed and the environmental conditions in which they live in.
Environmental justice is about creating equity, that regardless if you have a lot of money, or if you’re a homeless person, that you deserve the same quality of air to breathe. You should both be able to turn on your faucet and have a clean drink of water that those are, to me, part of life, liberty, and justice that the life is being able to have those resources to us.
Not just here in Michigan, or in America, but all over the world. I’m starting right here at Consumers.
Bill: It all starts and we all have to do something. No one can do it all, but everyone can do a little something to help out there. I do like the point that you bring up. Many times when we talk about environmental justice, or we talk about diversity, equity inclusion, we think of certain things that make that up.
If you look at the work that we do here at Consumers Energy, we talk about the diversity wheel. That covers a lot of things. We have referenced GreenCon, which is an event that took place back in March. If you could talk a little bit about some of the activities that took place at GreenCon. Then afterwards, let’s talk about some things that are happening here in April as well.
Tallulah: GreenCon was a huge success. We were thrilled to have Regina Strong from EGLE. She’s the environmental justice advocate with the departments. She’s been in the environmental justice realm for about 30 years. We were thrilled to have her. We also had business leaders from the communities. We had some fantastic volunteer events.
We kicked off our huge event in Jackson, which is always a big success. Then for the rest of the season going from the spring to the summer, we have environmental justice events lined up in Grand Rapids, Flint, going all the way to Belle Isle, Saginaw, Dearborn, Lansing, and my favorite place in Michigan, Idlewild.
Bill: Never been to Idlewild. What’s that like?
Tallulah: Oh my goodness. I was thrilled to learn about Idlewild. It was maybe on public Television. Idlewild is known as the Black Eden. It wasn’t just known as the Black Eden to Michiganders. This was back, the heyday was about the ’40s and ’50s, ’60s. It was the Jim Crow era.
Because of the Jim Crow laws that were in place, that not only Michiganders were going to Idlewild. People from all over the Midwest, from Chicago, from Toledo, from Detroit, from Toronto, from all over the region, they built summer homes there. There was many hotels, nightclubs. Some of the best performers of that time performed there.
It was a wonderful place that African American, Black folks, can go to enjoy the outdoors and congregate together. What happened was when the change of the Jim Crow laws and African Americans being able to have the opportunity to travel more freely, it left Idlewild in a little bit of disrepair because people just didn’t have to stay in one confined space anymore.
You can go to Miami now, and you can go to Savannah, Atlanta and enjoy what everyone else has been able to enjoy for years. I had the opportunity to go to Idlewild with my husband before COVID. There was a music festival taking place.
It was so wonderful to see all these beautiful people kayaking, canoeing, riding four?wheelers around town and taking in the natural environment, and celebrating the history of the space. It reminds me of Detroit in some ways, that you have a notion of what the magic of this place was.
When you drive down the streets, you can see where the old clubs were and the old hotels were. You’re reading historical plaques. You’re seeing the families and I thought if I ever had the opportunity to help bring some resources to this community, I would do it in a heartbeat.
When I came to Consumers and learned about the DNI group, what the Green Teams were doing, the volunteer opportunities, and how there are grants available, like planet grants available and things that can enrich the community, I knew I had to get involved and try to make it happen. I urge you to go to Idlewild yourself and learn about the magic yourself. It’s a wonderful place.
Bill: Idlewild sounds like a great place to visit, learn a little bit more about our history. Michigan has always been known as the winter wonderland or the water?winter land if you look at all the old license plates and things like that. This is a place to come if you want to go swimming, or go fishing or ride something, or whatever.
I definitely want to go check that out and look at some of our history there. The other question I have is, if I’m interested in participating in some of these events that are going on, how can I do that?
Tallulah: You can go on to the volunteer portal and sign up there. What’s great is if you sign up through the volunteer portal, that if we’re able to get five volunteers or more, we’re able to generate money to go to nonprofits in these communities of the work that we’re doing. It’s a double win for that opportunity.
Bill: That’s excellent. If you work here at Consumers Energy, and you’re interested in helping out in any of these events, definitely go to the volunteer portal. You can check that out. If you don’t know how to get there, I know, Dana Johnson and Carolyn Bloodworth, and lots of other people know how to get there. Check that out.
If you don’t work for Consumers Energy, I would urge you to talk to the folks where you work and see if there’s something that you can do to help out in your area. Now, you talked about having a speaker at the GreenCon in March. You mentioned that she’s part of EGLE.
Many people don’t know this, but that’s the old Department of Environmental Quality DEQ, which used to be the old DNR if I’m not mistaken, is that right?
Tallulah: Yes. It stands for Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. I’m not sure when the switch happened. It was maybe about two years ago. Here at Consumers, that’s the agency that we deal with to stay in compliance with the state requirements, to protect our environment.
With my department, we do a lot of work in wetlands and streams, and rivers. We engage with them on a daily basis. They’re very much a part of our work here at Consumers. To have someone from EGLE, come to speak to us, it was a real honor.
One of the things we know about being an energy company is that we can see the data of the facilities that we have and the communities that are adjacent to those facilities. I was impressed about how Regina was able to talk about the history of Consumers and utility companies and how it’s impacted our communities and where we’re going to be at in the future.
We’re moving to EVs. We are shifting from coal?generation power, and going to be relying heavily on renewables. It’s important that we make sure that everyone is included. We aren’t leaving people out of this change.
Bill: It’s a big change. It can be a struggle for some folks. I’m glad that we’re looking at that. It’s interesting if you do look at the history of the company. Some of the things we’ve done environmentally, the AuSable River Marathon that comes up, the Canoeing Marathon, and all the work that’s been done at those different power plants so that people can still access the river.
We kicked off GreenCon in March. We’re talking about Earth Day, or Earth Month, for the month of April. What are some of the things that we can do throughout the year?
One of the things I struggle with is that we have days and months dedicated to certain events, people, or things. These are things that we should be thinking about throughout the year. What are some other things that maybe we can do throughout the year to support these initiatives?
Tallulah: Fortunately, we live in a time where there’s the Internet. [laughs] You can do a bunch of searches. I like to start with their household. What little changes could I be making at my household that would be better for the environment?
A simple recommendation and this is based on my own experience is, let’s say you were washing, going to do a load of laundry. How many people measure out the right amount of soap that needs to go into the machine for the amount of clothes you’re going to wash? Usually, we overdo it. We think it’s going to be a little bit cleaner.
The product isn’t necessarily been made to use in that abundance. It can create more of a soapy residue on your clothes and be harder on your equipment. If you’re using the right amount of detergent, then you’re extending the life value of that container that you bought, because maybe instead of it going through in three weeks, it’ll last a month.
Then you’re not buying that many more bottles of the detergent. You’re saving money. You’re saving on plastic that’s going to make it to the recycling center that may or may not be recycled. I urge looking at your lifestyle and making little modifications that you can at home.
Bill: Newsflash, you don’t have to fill that cup up. I learned that not too long ago. It’s funny that this is what you brought up because a few years ago, my washing machine gave up. It wasn’t an old machine, either. When they came to fix it, they were like, “You’re putting too much detergent in here. It’s a high?efficiency machine. You don’t have to fill the whole cup up.”
That’s a great point. Another modification that I found was not too difficult was when we did some remodeling, we included a recycling bin in our kitchen. Now, is that something that you do as well?
Tallulah: Definitely. We are avid recyclers. You made me think of something else that is huge that we can all take advantage of is that we have energy efficiency program through work.
There’s devices available that can help reduce your water use, which not only reduces the amount of water you’re using, but it also reduces the amount of natural gas or electricity you are using to heat that water. That’s fantastic, and those items can be purchased through our store on our website.
Then also, with Nest thermostats, we have one at home. We have it set so that if it gets too cold in the house, it’ll kick on, if it gets too hot, it’ll kick on. We have a nice sweet spot for out on vacation or out of town, then it’ll adjust itself to keep the temperature low while you’re gone.
What I also like about it is if you’re traveling that you can get a notification if your temperature is too low and your pipes might be in jeopardy of being frozen. There’s a lot of advantages to that, and they’re all at a discounted rate here on the website. I really liked those ideas too.
Bill: I was an early adopter of the Nest. I’ve learned to use it more and more efficiently. It might surprise people to know I actually keep my thermostat at 58 degrees. I turn it up maybe to 62 or 63 during the day. I’m not going to lie, it is very cold in my house, but I like it that way.
The thing I do like is that if I am on vacation, when I am within an hour of home, I can turn my thermostat up or down, depending on the season, and my house will be ready for me. I don’t have to keep my house at that temperature the whole time I’m gone. I can adjust it just before I get home.
Tallulah: Yeah. I like that too.
Bill: Very, very convenient. I get this little report that tells me how I’m doing against my neighbors. I may have to turn my thermostat down to 55 or something just so I can be a little bit better. It’s a very useful product. You don’t have to be a technical expert to use it.
You also mentioned the different devices that are available for water consumption, all that. You can schedule a home energy audit, and they will bring a lot of that stuff right out to you as part of that audit. We had one done a few years ago. It was very, very helpful.
While a few pennies here and there might not seem like a lot, we did see a decrease across the board in our energy uses, whether it was water, gas, or electric.
Tallulah: To get back to what we were talking about before, I think that if it comes to what we can do to make the world or our natural world a better place while we’re here, that making adjustments to the way you’re already living seems like the easiest way to tackle that.
With our shift from fossil fuels to more renewable, clean energy, that if we can reduce our energy use, it makes it possible so we don’t have to make as much infrastructure.
That if we’re all starting to curb our energy, use our water, use whatever utilities you might be using, that it lessens the drain on the existing infrastructure and we don’t have to buy as much land to convert to solar, to wind. It starts at home.
Bill: I think that we’re probably one of the only industries where we ask people to use less of our product, which may seem counterintuitive, but it’s better for the environment. It’s better for the customer. It’s better for all of us.
Tallulah: Yeah, I agree.
Bill: A lot of great information, a lot of exciting things going on. I like the idea of starting at home and getting things done. We are getting close to the end of the podcast and so I would ask if there’s anything that you would like our listeners to take away from our conversation today.
Tallulah: I want to thank everyone that was able to show up to the GreenCon events in Jackson and our parks cleanup day. It was a huge success, and we couldn’t have done it without you. I’d love to see you at our many volunteer events that we have throughout the state of Michigan to support environmental justice, go to the volunteer portal to sign up, and hope to see you there.
Bill: Thanks again for coming on, Tallulah. We appreciate it, and we’ll be interested to hear how the rest of the year goes.
Tallulah: Thanks for having me, Bill.