Our project gathers oral histories with and from Detroit residents, centering the medium of “uneasy storytelling” to examine what water security means in postindustrial urban contexts.
Oral histories are a form of narrative interviewing, whereby narrators recount how their lives have been impacted by past events and continue to be shaped by their ongoing reverberations (Dunaway and Baum 1996). By focusing on this intersection between private lives and public events, the goal is to (re)construct historical knowledge, providing a front-row seat (as it were) to past events. In particular, oral histories can provide hitherto unseen glimpses into the perspectives of individuals who might have been marginalized or erased by the official or mainstream account of history, such as women and minority groups (Davis 2007).
Our oral history project seeks to include multiple voices — Detroiters who directly experienced these shutoffs in their homes or schools, those who have witnessed its impacts in their neighborhoods and families, and activists and policymakers who have mobilized to help those in need (to mention but a few). To help reach these voices, we have been attending community meetings, delivering workshops, and talking with community leaders to engage more fully with the issues at stake.
Uneasy storytelling may be defined as a mode of eliciting and analyzing oral histories and narrators’ life-stories that prioritizes collaboration and turn-taking, deep introspection, humility, and willingness to listen to/from all sides, foregrounding different perspectives and voices (Mitra et al. 2018). Far from seeking to mitigate the unease that often accompanies environmental injustice, uneasy storytelling cultivates it to invite broader participation, emphasize reflexivity and connect history with ongoing lived experiences.
We are exploring, for instance, tensions between institutional discourses that subject water to market forces and grassroots discourses that emphasize it as a public resource vital for human life, situating these discourses vis-à-vis political economies of urban citizenship. Moreover, we recognize that such “water stories” are inevitably shaped by the natural features of water, geographies that characterize this urban site, and material infrastructures that dictate its access and affordability.
Eventually, our goal is to use this research to amplify grassroots voices and solutions, and help enact policy change to provide water security to all Detroit/Hamtramck/Highland Park residents. This work does not begin or end with Detroit alone, as water insecurity is a problem faced by residents across the United States, but we believe that Detroit can provide a useful grassroots-led model for communities everywhere.
Davis, Olga Idriss. “Locating Tulsa in the Souls of Black Women Folk: Performing Memory as Survival.” Performance Research 12 (2007): 124-136.
Mitra, Rahul, et al. “Playing with Urban/Suburban Narratives of Water Access in Metro Detroit: ‘Uneasy Storytelling’ as (Auto)Ethnographic Inquiry.” National Communication Association Conference. November 9, 2018. Salt Lake City, UT.