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.

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