Rep. Abraham Aiyash is continuing the legacy of a dear friend by advocating for environmental justice in Hamtramck.
HAMTRAMCK, Mich.—Abraham Aiyash is a man with a voice. In other times, he’s traveled the state as an announcer for school robotics competitions. There are less robotics competitions during the pandemic, but there are other ways Aiyash uses his voice, like representing the people of Hamtramck.
Rep. Aiyash (D-Hamtramck) was elected in 2020 as a natural successor to the late state Rep. Isaac Robinson, and while Aiyash shares priorities with his mentor, he is not trying to fill Robinson’s shoes. He knows his feet are too small.
“Isaac had big shoes to fill. He was about a size 14, I’m about a size 11,” Aiyash jokes. “Looking at him as a mentor, you learn the value of bringing people into the conversation—those that are most impacted being at the center of conversations and leading those discussions to fight for more equity and more justice.”
Aiyash stressed he is not a replacement for Robinson. Instead, he’s pursuing representing his constituents from his own perspective, and that includes addressing the kind of social, economic, and environmental injustice that he and Robinson fought against for years.
Michigan’s Most Polluted Zip Codes
Southeast Michigan has several heavily polluted areas. From Chemical Valley upriver to southwest Detroit’s Mexicantown, which has become the most polluted zip code in the state in part due to a Marathon refinery, pollution in the region is thought to be a contributing factor to the high coronavirus fatality rate in Detroit.
Aiyash represents a district that includes a hazardous waste storage site called US Ecology. The way that facility has impacted his constituents reminds him of his own youth growing up next to the Detroit incinerator.
“I talked to a woman this past summer … as a young kid she’d walk up and down the street to go to school and she would always smell from the sewage system the fumes that facility used to process,” he explained. The same sort of pollution was part of his childhood. “As a kid I would grow up smelling [fumes] from the Detroit incinerator every single morning. You’d smell this horrible scent right over the freeway from where I lived.”
He worked with Robinson to shut that incinerator down, an effort that was ultimately successful, but was only one step in the broader effort to clean up Detroit’s air and water.
The risks posed by the proximity of things like US Ecology, Marathon or Chemical Valley to densely populated areas can’t be overstated, Aiyash said. And these are issues metro Detroit has been facing for years.
“We allow these corporations to emit pollutants, to process chemicals, to process hazardous waste so close to communities that are densely populated,” Aiyash said. “We don’t understand the impacts of that, but we recognize that it is no mistake that asthma rates and cancer and other illnesses that can be born out of toxic chemicals or pollution are in these areas.”
Instead of fighting any one of those locations individually like he did with the Detroit incinerator, Aiyash wants to take on the problem at a systemic level, to get broader and longer-lasting solutions for metro Detroit.
“The system still allows these people to get permits to emit pollutants to continue to process some of this material,” he explained. “That must be addressed.”
Connecting to the World
A major priority for Aiyash has been trying to bridge the technological divide. His office hit the ground running with working on solutions for those in his district to still communicate directly with him despite a lack of internet access even as the coronavirus pandemic transitioned constituent services online across the country.
But as that very situation highlights, the internet is no longer an optional tool for Michiganders but an important part of daily life. Aiyash joins other Michigan lawmakers pressing for broadened access to broadband internet.
“We know at this point that internet is an essential service,” he told The ‘Gander. “I believe it is just as important as electricity, just as important as heat in the winter, because it connects us in ways that can be lifesaving. Whether that’s telehealth or allowing your kids to go to school or giving us the opportunity to figure out how we want to work. People’s livelihoods literally depend on the internet.”
The pandemic isn’t the first time there have been calls to classify the internet as a public utility. It became a central point in the debate around net neutrality—the policy idea that would prevent internet service providers from slowing or blocking content at will—because utilities are regulated differently from other services. Back in 2016, the United Nations declared that internet access is a human right.
As Quartz explains, the virus brought that conversation back to the forefront. With people working from home, attending school through e-learning portals, and having telehealth appointments on Zoom, the internet has become integral in so many aspects of life in 2021. This acceleration of the growth of the role of the web in daily lives isn’t likely to go away when the pandemic ends.
What the pandemic has done is bring the realities of what society is and what it’s becoming into stark focus.
The coronavirus pandemic has also posed a significant strain on the mental and emotional well-being of many Michiganders, and has made seeking support more challenging.
With specialists and therapists offering telehealth services during the pandemic, an internet connection can be a vital lifeline for Michiganders who need support. Without that connection, seeking help can be all the more daunting of a prospect during this pandemic.
“That’s a serious issue, right? Because if we’re not taking care of our most vulnerable, then we as a society are essentially saying they don’t matter as much,” Aiyash said referring to mental health services. “The test of a civil society is how you take care of the most vulnerable, those that need the most support.”
Aiyash also cited the transition of Detroit and Hamtramck schools to virtual education during the pandemic. For families who couldn’t afford internet services, there was a service Aiyash calls “modern-day dial-up.” The program provided a cheap and slow service through Comcast Connect, which is too limited to provide stable streaming of live video, which is essential to the education those students need.
And since poverty comes with a host of other challenges, the lack of reliable, high-speed internet only compounds the setbacks those students face, he explained.
“If we are not giving kids the adequate speed to be able to learn as effectively as possible online, we are already putting a disenfranchised community, a community with so many set-backs, further behind,” explained Aiyash.