Tag: We the People of Detroit

These Young People are Fighting for Water Justice and Building Community in Michigan and Ohio

Matt Harmon is FLOW’s Milliken intern for communications

Photos courtesy of We the People of Detroit

By Matt Harmon

Gathered in the gymnasium of the Flint Development Center, young representatives from the community organizations We the People of Detroit, the McKenzie Patrice Croom Flint Community Lab, and the Junction Coalition of Toledo spoke to an enraptured caucus on August 12 on their respective organizations, their summers advocating for water and environmental justice, and what adults can do to support them and their efforts.

To say these young people have had busy summers is an understatement. We the People of Detroit representatives Jatonah and Brooke participated in the We the Youth Water Testing Project. Over the course of eight weeks, Jatonah and Brooke went door-to-door and collected water samples in two Detroit neighborhoods to test the residents’ water for lead. While the city maintains the water itself is safe for drinking, officials acknowledge the fact that corrosion in water service lines and in household plumbing can result in elevated lead levels.

According to research from Bridge Michigan, Wayne County has 3,025 service lines and expects to replace 100% of them due to their being either lead pipes or galvanized steel service lines that are, or once were connected, to a lead line. A state rule change in 2018 following the Flint Water Crisis has given counties 20 years to replace these lines, but local municipalities are already requesting extensions, so the work Jatonah and Brooke were doing this summer was of the utmost importance.

“I was discussing with one of my teachers, and they were really surprised. They didn’t even know Detroit was dealing with a lead problem and especially that there were youth all over Michigan and in Toledo working against this problem,” Jatonah said.

Addison, Ben W., and Ben S. with the Flint Water Lab are part of this team of young people working to detect and remove lead in Michigan’s drinking water. The McKenzie Patrice Croom Flint Community Lab is the first community-based laboratory of its kind in the world. It is run completely by Flint residents, including high school and college students, and provides free water testing for lead and other metals, while also connecting residents to social services and keeping the City of Flint accountable for the changes it says it is going to make.

Ben W. started working in the Water Lab in March. As a chemistry student at the University of Michigan—Flint, he said his time at the Lab was valuable in getting hands-on experience in this setting and helping the community.

“It was a really great opportunity for me to be able to not only learn all of these instruments and know how to use the actual science of testing water in real life, but it also gave me this experience of doing it for the community, which I thought was really cool … It gives people like us, and people within the community itself, the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of water testing and the ability to learn the science behind it, and that’s what I really love,” said Ben W.

When Ben W. refers to working with the community, Joel and Aleyah at Junction Coalition knew all about that from their own experiences gained this summer. Junction Coalition was founded with the purpose of creating a better life for residents and business owners in the Junction neighborhood of Toledo. The organization works to build healthy relationships between local, state, and the federal government and its citizens.

Joel works at Junction Coalition as a gardener at their community garden on Bloom Street, “Bloom on Bloom,” as they call it. As food justice and water justice are inextricably linked—you need clean water to produce clean crops after all—Joel said his role transcends gardening and is really about community building.

“One of Junction Coalition’s main pillars is environmental justice. Our main goal is to provide a voice for that neighborhood. Part of that is taking care, including cutting grass or planting flowers around neighborhoods or even taking care of the houses … Part of my job besides gardening is to make sure we’ve got people in those houses and they look nice, so we do painting and carpeting and all that, mostly to show that the people in this neighborhood take care of its neighborhood. That way, it gives us more of an incentive to go to the city and ask for something we might need from them,” said Joel.

Through the program, Aleyah noted she was able to participate in the community building Joel mentioned while also engaging in her own professional development.

“With the Junction, we are helping the community and learning at the same time. For instance, they’ll have people come in and talk to us about college to get us ready for our education. Yesterday, a lady came in, and she talked to us about our taxes because that’s something we’re gonna have to know how to do when we get older,” Aleyah said.

As for the collaboration across organizations, all of the youth representatives were in agreement that their missions were intertwined. From experiences with learning how to respond to common excuses for why someone doesn’t want their water tested to lessons on how to build community through their work, each member of the team shared stories that showed their aligned activities.

“We all have the same goal, and we’re working towards it together—and things just fall into place when you’re trying to get the same thing done,” said Ben S.

It was clear from the audience’s questions and comments that the older members of the caucus had great respect for the young people and what they were accomplishing through their respective summer programs.

“It’s heartwarming to see young people who are providing service to the community, that there are still a lot of young people who care about the community and care about the safety of community and feel that have something to offer, so thank all of you for what you’ve done and what you’re doing,” said an adult audience member before a rapturous applause.

Eventually, the conversation moved into what the young people want adults to keep in mind and do to support the youth’s own activism and work. Brooke said she wishes adults would take a moment to envision a life beyond the one they’re currently living, where the problems they’re being faced with, but might not know about, no longer exist.

“I feel like not enough adults are getting the right amount of knowledge on the situation, and they’ve been living in these areas for years, and because they aren’t aware of this, they feel like nothing’s wrong. I had one person say, ‘I’ve been living here for years. It’s fine.’ But it’s not fine,” said Brooke.

“Another thing that adults could do is spread awareness and ask the youth, because even though we’re young, we have a lot experience with issues that people from the ‘90s, people from the ‘70s, people from the ‘80s haven’t really dealt with—so we could just communicate because there’s things you know that we don’t know, and that we know that you don’t know. It’s conversing,” said Jatonah.

Addison recognized the urgency of issues like water justice and said adults need to take responsibility for their inaction and empower youth to make the necessary changes to our system.

“For a long time, a lot of environmental issues have been a thing where it’s, ‘Oh, the next generation can deal with this. It won’t affect us.’ But it seems like a lot of people in our generation are realizing, ‘We can’t wait because it’s affecting us now.’ We need to be the ones to make the change, because if we kick it down the road any longer, there’s no coming back,” said Addison.

Clean Water and Public Health are Inseparable

Uniting to Stop Water Shutoffs and Meet Water Infrastructure Needs During the Pandemic

“Water is a Human Right” photo courtesy of Common Dreams

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

By Liz Kirkwood

In these challenging times, we are always seeking genuine good news to share. And fortunately, Governor Gretchen Whitmer delivered some urgently needed relief in her March 28th Executive Order restoring water service to the thousands of Michigan households shut off from access to safe water and a $2 million fund to help these communities.

What we know is that water and public health are inseparable. Without water, we simply can’t fight this pandemic, let alone meet daily household hydration and sanitation needs. Much more work lies ahead to ensure everyone has access to safe, affordable water. Frontline communities like Detroit continue to be hardest hit by growing coronavirus cases, and we encourage you to support outstanding organizations providing households water, food, and community advocacy, including We the People of Detroit,  People’s Water BoardGleaners Food BankBrightmoor Food Pantry, and Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition

While restoring water won’t happen overnight, Michigan’s leadership gives us hope because it is part of a nationwide trend to pause and, increasingly, ban water shutoffs. A 2016 nationwide assessment of water shutoffs for non-payment revealed that an estimated 15 million people in the United States experienced a water shutoff, a shocking 1 out of every 20 households. To date, 12 statewide orders restoring water service, which apply to private and public water providers, have been issued by the governors of California, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Four of these states are in the Great Lakes Basin.

Accessing safe, affordable water is a struggle for too many people in this water-rich region that contains 20 percent of the planet’s fresh surface water. Many urban and rural communities already here are burdened with the highest water rates in the country, compounded by significant job losses, lack of diverse employment opportunities, shrinking populations, and crumbling infrastructure. The current public health crisis will only exacerbate this unacceptable problem where local ratepayers are expected to pay a disproportionate amount of their income for water service.

What we know is that water and public health are inseparable. Without water, we simply can’t fight this pandemic, let alone meet daily household hydration and sanitation needs. Much more work lies ahead to ensure everyone has access to safe, affordable water. Frontline communities like Detroit continue to be hardest hit by growing coronavirus cases, and we encourage you to support incredible organizations providing households water, food, and community advocacy, including We the People of DetroitPeople’s Water Board, Gleaners Food Bank, Brightmoor Food Pantry, and Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition.

Securing Our Water Future and Demanding Justice and Equity in Rebuilding Our Water Systems.

This difficult time gives us a unique opportunity to decide what our water future looks like — a future that makes sure that the federal response to the pandemic and our water infrastructure crisis is both people-centered and rooted in justice. To this end, FLOW continues to work with People’s Water Board, Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, and Michigan Environmental Council on equitable financing solutions to rebuild our crumbling drinking water, sewer, and stormwater infrastructure in Michigan. Every $1 billion in water infrastructure investment creates an estimated range of 20,000 to 26,000 jobs and can have far-reaching economic benefits, tripling in size with total demand for goods and services reaching an estimated $2.87 to $3.46 billion, according to the Clean Water Council.

In addition, FLOW also is partnering with a chorus of leading regional and national organizations and coalitions, including the Healing Our Waters (HOW) Coalition, Food & Water Action, and the U.S. Water Alliance, to demand the next federal coronavirus stimulus package contain robust instructure funding to end water shutoffs, promote job creation, and reinvest in our water systems like we did some 50 years ago.

Let us all work together to not just pause, but permanently ban, water shutoffs and demand equitable and sustainable solutions to fund and rebuild our water infrastructure. Consider signing this citizen petition authored by Food & Water Action urging Congress to stop water shutoffs during the pandemic crisis. Your voice makes a difference.

At the same time this crisis is exposing how fragile many of our societal systems are, it also is forcing us to identify what matters most: our health, our water, our natural and human-built communities, and our future resilience in the face of climate change impacts. At FLOW, we remain more committed than ever before to protecting and upholding these things that matter most to our shared future.

We’re All in this Together

Photo: FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood (third from left) and family takes flight over Route 40 and celebrates the view of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (Fitzroy range) on the way to the town of El Chaltén in Argentina.

Dear Friends of FLOW,

I hope you and your loved ones are healthy and safe in these very trying times.

It’s hard to believe that it was only two weeks ago when many of us awakened to the deep impact that a global pandemic would have on our everyday lives. I realized just how serious the coronavirus outbreak was while my family and I were visiting the town of Pucón, Chile. The United States had just announced a European travel ban, and we immediately worried about travel bans extending across South America and the possibility of being stranded.

We jumped into high gear, forgoing the last weeks of our three-month sabbatical in Argentina and Chile, and secured seats on one of the last international flights out of Argentina. Six thousand miles later, we arrived in Traverse City, thankful to be safe in our home and grateful for the unforgettable friendships and experiences we gleaned, and the time we spent in the wilderness of Patagonia.

I write this note to you from my remote home office, while self-quarantining, to let you know that FLOW’s staff and I are back together (at least virtually—all from our homes), and more dedicated to our work than ever before. Because what could be more important than ensuring access to safe, affordable drinking water for all during a public health emergency?

We cannot beat COVID-19 without access to safe water for all of us. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer recognized this when she announced “a water-restart plan” to restore water to thousands of shut-off homes. Turning on the tap for some 10,000 households, however, is not happening fast enough, leaving the most vulnerable families at high risk of infection. A sobering op-ed about the crisis and water shutoffs by Elin Betanzo and Sylvia Orduño lays out the complexities and dangers involved in restoring water service. And this new article by FLOW’s Interim Legal Director Janet Pritchard lends additional perspective.

Thankfully, the People’s Water Board (PWB), We the People of Detroit, and other frontline partner organizations are delivering water, gallon by gallon, to affected families in Detroit, Flint, and elsewhere. Read more from the PWB’s demand letter to the Governor, urging immediate help and a future ban on all water shutoffs.

Water is a public health issue. Water is a human right. This is what the pandemic tells us.

The health and well-being of FLOW’s staff, our board, our volunteers, our supporters, our friends, our partners, and all of our communities is our highest priority. We responded to the pandemic by closing our Traverse City office on March 16, and our office will remain closed through at least April 13, pursuant to Governor Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order.

But our work continues. It continues every day. We are developing legal and policy solutions for Michigan’s water infrastructure crisis and addressing the COVID-19 emergency needs, fighting Line 5 to prevent a catastrophic Great Lakes oil spill, educating about the importance of groundwater and the need for septic system pollution-control legislation, elevating the role of government in safeguarding our natural resources, and much, much more.

We’re also busy revising plans that we were making to connect with you in person over the next several months. You know how much we love to gather together and celebrate the gifts of our water. While we have to pause these gatherings during this time of social distancing, we will continue to celebrate with you remotely. This April 22nd, for example, is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. So stay tuned for our writings on this and other causes for celebration.

In the meantime, let’s lift up our neighbors, families, and ourselves as we confront this global challenge together. Let’s find the solace of not only our human compassion, but also of open spaces and open waters. Let’s tap into the mystery and nurturing balm of nature. With spring knocking on our door, I am reminded of the late poet Mary Oliver’s words: “I don’t know lots of things but I know this: … when spring flows over the starting point I’ll think I’m going to drown in the shimmering miles of it.“

We are all in this together. We must center our lives around protecting each other and those resources that sustain us, foremost among them our water.

Yours in solidarity,
Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

PS – To lift each other up, FLOW invites you to contribute your compelling water photo and story to us for possible publication on our website or Facebook page. Please send your high-resolution photos of water to us at jacob@flowforwater.org. Identify yourself and who (if not you) took the photograph, confirm that you authorize FLOW to post the photograph, and if possible tell us when and where you took it. Feel free to tell us a little story about the photo, too. Thanks!

COVID-19 Pandemic Highlights Michigan’s Failure to Provide Clean Water for All

Photo courtesy of People's Water Board Coalition

Photo courtesy of People’s Water Board Coalition

Story update: Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order on Saturday, March 28, stipulating that people who have lost water service because of non-payment of bills will have that service reconnected. The order comes with a $2 million state grant attached that will be administered by the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and sent to communities to reconnect service, which Whitmer deemed essential to help fight the spread of the coronavirus. Communities will be required to provide a 25% match for the state grant.

“The executive order directing water utilities to reconnect water access to all residents in Michigan and to restart all water systems is mission critical to ensure we can stay healthy and fight against this global pandemic,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “Frontline groups including People’s Water Board Coalition, We the People of Detroit, Flint Rising, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO), Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition and others deserve special recognition as the heroes for their tireless advocacy seeking water justice in the State of Michigan. In addition to this emergency directive, we at FLOW are committed to seeking the ban of water shutoffs and other long-term policies to ensure that everyone has access to safe, affordable water. Water is a human right.”

Both Emergency Relief and Long-Term Solutions Needed

By Janet Meissner Pritchard, FLOW interim legal director

The coronavirus pandemic threatens the health of all Michiganders. And for those who already faced water insecurity, such as many families in Flint or the more than 9,500 households in Detroit whose water has been shut off due to inability to pay soaring water bills, these health risks are worsened.

People living in households without access to safe and clean water are unable to wash their hands regularly to help prevent transmission of the coronavirus and protect themselves. This increases the risk of spreading COVID-19 to others, too. And public water stations set up by community groups like We the People of Detroit to provide emergency water for shut-off households are drawing fewer volunteers to staff these sites, due to fear of contracting the virus.

The pandemic also deepens the economic insecurity of these households. Low-income, hourly wage workers are more likely to be impacted by workplace closures brought by the pandemic. When restaurants and other businesses stop, the paychecks to workers do, too.  Without access to safe, clean running water in their homes, these already financially stressed households also pay much more for water by purchasing bottled water–if they can find it in local shops during this time of shopping panic.

Ordering Restoration of Water Services Is Not Enough

On March 9, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department announced a moratorium on water shutoffs and ordered water services to be restored to shut-off households. But, as of March 23, only 679 homes had service restored. 

This unacceptably slow pace is, in part, because homes that have been without service for weeks, months, or even years have considerable problems with lead service lines and residential plumbing characterized by corroded and burst pipes, water heaters lined with dangerous deposits, water-borne microbial contamination in the lines from stagnant water and raw sewage, and lead contamination in plumbing and fixtures. If these plumbing risks are not corrected prior to restoring water service, “every home with an extended shutoff is like its own Flint water crisis waiting to happen.” 

In the face of these multiple challenges, metro Detroiters, led by the People’s Water Board, held a press conference last Friday, March 20, calling on Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to take emergency action. Their letter to the Governor specifies several measures, including the provision of public water stations and sanitation products, that must be put in place immediately to address the current health emergency for households without clean, safe water.

The letter also points to steps needed to provide a long-term solution to these persistent problems of water insecurity. No family in Michigan should be without easy access to clean, safe, affordable water now or at any time.

The waters of the state of Michigan are valuable natural resources held in trust by the state to ensure safe, clean, accessible, and affordable water for all people and communities. Under the common law public trust doctrine, every landowner or lawful occupant of land has a right to access the water flowing through or beneath that land to serve his or her basic needs, including drinking and sanitation. When modern water works and sewerage systems were built to serve our cities, local laws required people to forego digging private wells or septic tanks and hook up to public service lines instead. But the water flowing through those lines is the same water still protected by the public trust. This is why FLOW is working with the People’s Water Board and other groups to find long-term solutions to Michigan’s water infrastructure crisis.

FLOW’s Response to the Persistent Water Infrastructure Crisis in Michigan

FLOW’s work to ensure Clean Water for All aims to identify, develop, and explain a set of policies through which the state can address Michigan’s water infrastructure funding shortfall (estimated to be over $800 million annually) to ensure safe, clean, accessible, and affordable water for all people and communities, consistent with the State’s public trust duties.

FLOW is working to:

  • Research and analyze the best funding and financing options to keep Michigan’s water safe, clean, accessible, and affordable.
  • Build relationships with other environmental and community groups—including the People’s Water Board, Michigan Clean Water Action, Sierra Club, and the Michigan Environmental Council— working on these issues in Michigan, and with water infrastructure and public financing experts, government officials, and lawmakers who can help to identify and implement equitable solutions to our water infrastructure needs.
  • Ensure a legal framework around water infrastructure that is grounded in public trust and good governance principles.
  • Identify, explain, and generate widespread support and consensus for the adoption of policies to ensure sustainable, accountable, and equitable funding for water infrastructure in Michigan.

Learn more about FLOW’s work to ensure Clean Water for All of Michigan here.