My name is Reverend Roslyn Bouier. I’m the Executive Director of the Brightmoor Connection Pantry which is located in Brightmoor, in Detroit.
Water Security as Privilege
Interviewer: We’re going to be talking about water security and insecurity today. Can you tell us a little bit about what water security means for you?
Rev. Roz: Water security for me personally is privilege. That’s what that means. It means I have the privilege of being able to take a bath when I want to, I can run water out of any faucet, any spigot, of my house. I have the ability to rest assured that I can get up at any given time and get a glass of water. Security, by virtue of the word alone, states stability. It invokes the concept of having access to something—having unlimited access. Security means stability, and water security is uniquely different from every other [type of] security, I’ve come to learn. It’s a scary thing to know that, at any given moment, I could not have water to drink. I could not be able to do the things that I take for granted, every second of the day. As we were saying before the interview started, it’s nice outside. In my mind, I thought, “Man, I would love to go bike riding today.” Knowing I could bike-ride and still go home to be able to take a bath, not be concerned about whether or not my water is going to be on—that’s privilege, and that’s what water security is. Water security right now is a privilege for me.
[For the] community, water security looks different, doesn’t it? For families that come to the pantry, water security looks entirely different. I’ve come to learn that what I think water is needed for, everyone else doesn’t see it that way; and so that makes me more conscious of how I view water security. I have clients that come in, and all they want to be able to do is have enough water for their children to drink at least one glass of water a day! You got people in the community, who see water security as “My water bill [is] being paid, and I know I [have] got at least one more month [of water].”
I don’t think about it by the month, though, I don’t think about it by the day. I don’t even think about it by the hour. I take it for granted, because I have the privilege of knowing that I’m going to have water. Water security has become a privilege now. Everyone doesn’t get that, and it should never have gotten this far.
You asked me, what does water insecurity look like?
Water insecurity is when you’re insecure about something, you’re fearful, you’re afraid. You feel less than [others]. You are ashamed. Insecurity usually means unease. It means that I’m looking at limitations of something. I can’t be secure in the fact that I’m going to have enough to last, whether it’s food or the security of a loved one.
Water insecurity shows up so entirely differently in the community. It can look like not having water in your home, but having water in someone else’s home. Water insecurity says that I don’t have the luxury of washing clothes today, so I have to go around and look for clothes, because I’m not going to have clean clothes for my kids or for myself today. I can’t take the chance of over-exerting myself, because I need to make sure of the water reserves I use for the children, or for cooking, or for washing hands.
When you have infants in the home, water security says I can make bottles of it and can use as many nipples for those bottles as I want. It means that I can afford to change diapers when diapers need to be changed. It means that children get to take baths at home, and go to sleep clean. Kids get to wake up and go to school feeling empowered because they don’t have to go around the city to try to clean themselves.
Water insecurity looks entirely different for other folks than it does for people in this community, especially Brightmoor, because it also means you’re criminalized. Water insecurity becomes a punishment. It’s a criminal act. It is a narrative. Water insecurity looks “different,” and it shows up in the form of race, class and gender when it really shouldn’t.
Water is a resource. Water should always be a resource. Resources are meant to be used by anybody that has a need for them. That’s not what water security looks like in Brightmoor and throughout the city of Detroit. Water security means I get to do whatever I want and that’s a privilege; water insecurity reminds me (because I do have water at home), and says, “Do you feel good about yourself tonight when you go to bed? Have you done all you can do to assist others? Can I sleep at night with myself?”
About Brightmoor and the Pantry
Interviewer: Can you tell us a bit about the Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry, how long it’s been operating, and who you serve.
Rev. Roz : The Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry is located in Brightmoor. We are funded by a generous grant from the Fisher Foundation. We’ve been in Brightmoor for over 10 years now; we’re going on our 11th year. Since the funds come from Fisher, we have to meet their parameters and guidelines. The folks that shop in the pantry are residents of Brightmoor; they have to live in Brightmoor. Brightmoor’s zip code is 48223 and some in 48219 because we know 48219 goes to Eight Mile and Lahser. So, we don’t cross Grand River. We go Grand River, Six Mile back over to Davidson, over to Southfield freeway then we shoot up to Telegraph.
Also, their parameters are that folks would have children of ages zero through five, because the foundation originally established this, saying there’s grant funding to assist with early childhood development. The motivation was that children learn better when they’re full. The pantry was established for children, for folks to be able to get food for the children, for early childhood development, to help push them to school. Well, we know that children grow up; I have households where there are children beyond five years old, and they have brothers and sisters. We know households who look different. You have a lot of grandparents who are raising small children, because originally the foundation came to me and they said, “Well, there should be women with children in the home.” Well, I have a lot of fathers that take care of the children I have a lot of grandparents and I have a lot of neighbors. We have a lot of blended families, we have a lot of unique families. People come in here and they shop once a month, they shop by appointment. The reason the folks do that is because it provides security; we’re back to that question of security again.
Food insecurity is a tremendous issue. It is, and because people are criminalized for not having food in the home, what we do is we try to make sure that people will have the stability of knowing that they’ll be able to get five meals out of this pantry. People come once a month and shop, they shop by appointment. The pantry is like a grocery store and so we have it set up that way because it offers dignity. They’ll come in and they’ll just shop with a grocery card. That means the parents come in, and grandparents come in — whoever comes in with the children — and so it’s just like going to grocery stores!
They’ll start filling up, running through the isle, helping out to shop and when they finish they go to the back, then everything is weighed out. That’s the equivalent of checking out financially. We weigh everything out up a poundage because it’s a pound pantry. Client Choice pantries operate off a pound so it’s how much pounds is going out? Folks are leaving with 50 to 70 pounds of food a month. So, when they come in the shop, we realized that we needed to address other issues that people are coming in with. Out of that, the Clothing Closet was birthed, because people will come in and they would have need, and they would go for interviews and there would be children in the house, the summer will come, spring will come, the school uniform situation [would be there]. So, originally the Clothing Closet came about through the food pantry — just out of basic need and community, and sharing the resources. But, from that we had to realize that the Clothing Closet here is uniquely different from other clothing closets.
The food at the pantry I budgeted it to where folks can get five meals at the pantry. We can’t feed anybody for the month, although I do suggest to clients when they come a list of locations that are in Brightmoor as well, that they can pick up food at other locations. What I do try to do is a meal plan. So, folks will get five meals out of this pantry, five complete meals: they’ll get spaghetti noodles, spaghetti sauce, ground turkey, everything they need for one whole meal. The idea is if I can take five meals out of your budget, that will give you a sense of security so that you know every month I can budget around five meals. If I can make sure that people know, “I don’t have to pick up peanut butter and jelly when I go to the grocery store, I don’t have to worry about getting beans and rice when I go to the grocery store, I don’t have to worry about breakfast items,” that affords a piece of security for them. There are certain items they’re going to always get here regardless, so they can depend on that. It creates comfort, stability and their security (once again).
The other piece about the Client Choice pantry is that it is for community because people get to come in here and they come and see it. It’s just like when you go to a doctor’s office, they have an appointment slip, you come by appointment. What I do is when I do the scheduling I make sure there’re certain seniors who I know are growing gardens and they have like-minded things going on. Raise the grandchildren is one of them. I’ll schedule the seniors to come in on the same day that are raising grandchildren so they can share. It’s like the old fashioned community that we grew up in. Then I have the days where I have to schedule veterans that come in, because we have a lot of veterans that come. Then, we have a lot of folks that are coming that are not a part of the community as we know it to be. [You know, there is these days] This concept of a certain “look for community.” like what we see downtown as an example, which is very homogenized! (laughs) We know communities are very diverse! So, in Brightmoor we address that, because we want people to feel comfortable when they come in, but we also want people to be able to engage with each other and be able to be build relationships. When you come into a food pantry, by the time people get here, pretty much they’ve exhausted all of their options; it’s not the place you want to be.
So, the goal is to build trust in the food pantry and to build familiarity, because that creates comfort, and out of comfort you get security, and you feel secure enough to say, “I don’t have any water. I need a bit to wash clothes. I need formula, but I can’t take powdered formula.”
That’s what we’re trying to do, that’s the goal of this client choice pantry. Originally it was founded because there was a need to feed children, prepare them to assist in their preparation for school. That’s a wonderful idea. It’s a great plan, but in the last 10 years that’s not where it’s at now. That’s not the way. The trajectory of the pantry has changed tremendously, I should say. That’s what this client choice pantry does.
Most of the volunteers that serve here, they came here to shop, and contrary to what we hear oftentimes, people don’t want handouts. They’re not just waiting to get in line for someone to hand them anything. I’m smiling, because that’s my way of protecting my anger, alright… I’m always in spaces where I have to disrupt narratives. We have to deconstruct these narratives out here that say, “Well, if they just took care of their bills, if they just were better stewards, if they were more responsible with their funds, if they manage things better, if they would just get a job…” Right? We hear that all the time. Then there would not be a need for a food pantry, or “if people would just stop misusing their funds.” And that’s not the case! By the time someone comes to a food pantry, they’ve exhausted their means. Most of the people that sit in that chair, they’re just sitting and I’ll do good if I can get eye contact from them the first two or three times. Nobody wants to acknowledge the fact that they need to be in the food pantry, because everybody has had a life before they come here. No one planned for it, it was not in their retirement plan, it wasn’t a part of the pension program. It wasn’t a part of anything that they saw coming and it’s biting. I have to remind people it’s not by any choice or any fault of their own. That’s part of the narrative we have to disrupt.
That’s the role of the food pantry. Yes, it’s food, that’s what it all starts off with, but really what it is, is… empowering people. It’s giving people hope. It’s reminding people that where you are is not where you are going to end up at, this is not the end of it. Sometimes we need somebody to believe in us, especially when we don’t and our family has lost faith in us because we’ve lost faith in ourselves. That’s what happens at this food pantry.
Serving Residents Affected by Water Shutoffs
Interviewer: You also have a water station and a payment kiosk at the food pantry a little bit. Can you tell us a little bit about when the water crisis started developing in 2013 2014 how did you and the pantry get involved in this effort?
Rev. Roz : First I need to clarify something, we don’t have a payment kiosk we have a computer here. We have a computer that’s accessible to anyone in community to be able to go online and pay their bills. We definitely would not endorse the kiosk system, because that right there is total opposition to everything we are fighting for.
In 2013-2014, yes, the water shutoffs rolled out, unusually more harsh than in the past. It rolled out in the summertime, and it was really a hot summer. I remember in the pantry that summer, it was extremely hot. We had not expanded our space. We were just in that one side. It was extremely hot in the pantry. We don’t have air in here, and I had kids coming in, and they were saying to me, “Can we use your tap?” I talked with Minister Dixon, my assistant and we would sit down and we talked about it and it wasn’t adding up, right?
Families would say little things. What I’ve come to learn in the food pantries, you have to listen to people, because people are not going to always tell you what they need, you got to just listen to what they’re saying, right? That’s their piece of dignity, the last piece of dignity people are trying to hold on to, rightfully so. Folks started coming in and saying, “Do you have any more clothes? They would ask for more clothes. The need for specific items became greater. When it came to cooking, at that point, it became an issue of. “Do you have canned stuff? Stuff we can use in cans that don’t require water.”
Brightmoor has one of the highest populations of food pantries. I should qualify that statement, because a lot of them are not so much food pantries per se, but they’re considered food pantries because Forgotten Harvest comes, but Forgotten Harvest items, you never know what’s coming on the truck. It could be some type of vegetable this week, next week it could be something entirely different. People were coming in and saying to me, “Rev, do you know what’s going to be on the truck?” And we don’t do Forgotten Harvest here.
Then people would say to me, “Do you have water here? Will you be having water?” Some of my clients who have been here for a while, they said to me, “Do you know of any monies, funding for water shutoffs?” Normally, we would know about that if there was some funding out there. There was no funding at that time. There was no nearly no funding, there was this wraparound program, they were supposed to be coming out. I went to the foundation and asked Fisher if they knew if they had any funding coming out for the water shutoffs. And so, they did, they put some money, Fisher [Foundation] has been gracious like that.
They put some money out in Brightmoor, specifically targeted for Brightmoor residents for water shutoffs, but it went through THAW [The Heat and Warmth Fund]. The problem with that is that THAW makes the parameters so high. In other words, for families to get THAW funds, your income has to be within a certain range, but even more importantly than that, and more drastically, the harshness of THAW’s parameters, I need to say that, was that people had to have social security cards for everyone in the home, for all the children! They said, “We’re going to come in and do a THAW then.” And that meant they were going to come in (and this was for just water) and they would pre-screen people to see who qualified for funds for water shutoffs. Well, your water has to be in shut off already, and they were coming that following week. I pushed back and I said, “Well, that’s not going to be a good plan, because you need to give people enough time to get everything together that they’re going to need.” And so we became this back-and-forth piece.
In the interim, we had to find something for families, we had to put a stop gap in it. And so, my great friend and mentor, Linda Campbell, connected me over the Detroit People’s Platform, a collaborative partner, which connected me with another collaborative partner, Monica Lewis-Patrick of We The People of Detroit. So, back in 2013, at that time, we were just trying to get water and community for families because the kids were looking for water. Now, the uniqueness of that statement is that they’re outside playing and so the way they’re presenting it is that they’re just playing and they just want water for these jobs… Because, remember when your water is shut off you lose your children, if you have Section 8 you lose Section 8, and so the parents were afraid to ask for the water. On appearances it looked as if the children were not being supervised, but that wasn’t the case. It’s summertime and kids are outside and parents are at work, and these kids are thirsty and they’re just trying to do what all kids do, come up with the means to the end, right? That’s when we first got wind of it. After that, we started realizing that everything in this pantry had to answer to and be revolved around water, so that changed everything in the pantry.
The Clothing Closet was no longer clothing for just folks looking for a job, and so they come in for outfits or suits (because we had the clothing closet for male and female clothes). Minister Dixon says to me one day, Rev, people started needing more clothes. It became… anxiousness. There was a spirit of anxiousness of when the underwear came in, when certain items came in. We were just laughing before you came, about socks, there was this need for socks… And so what happened was, she said to me because I was saying to them, I said, “Okay. Don’t put all the clothes out there at once because we want to make sure [there’s enough] — because we’re open the whole month.” We see a different person every day; if I see you today I’ll never see you again until next month. So, in my mind, I think I need to make sure the clothes last. She said to me, “Rev, you know it seems like people are really needing more clothes because of the shutoffs.” Then I had to stop for a minute and realized, yeah, that makes sense because when your water’s shut off, you can’t wash your clothes. So people need to get to change clothes, they need to get clean clothes for their kids.
At that same time, the laundromat that was in Brightmoor closed up. One of the local farmers took over the space where the laundromat was and made it into a food co-op, a farmers market. Here’s something interesting I need to throw in here, I want to make sure I put this out here because it’s such a unique situation in Brightmoor. Brightmoor also has, along with having the highest population of water shutoffs, the poverty level here — I was just talking to George Gaines last night at the People’s Water Board meeting last night – citywide [poverty level] is 37%, Brightmoor it’s 34% poverty level. Brightmoor also has one of the highest areas of urban gardens, local farming. As a matter of fact, I believe it’s Michigan State that’s just taken over and they’re about to do a greenhouse over here, and they have the greenway and everything, and all that requires water. We can do rain barrels and all that, but it still requires a certain degree of water to be filtered in, right? The laundromat was gone, the people couldn’t wash their clothes, but there was a farmers market. That didn’t make sense to me. Not that people didn’t deserve fresh fruit, because this is a food desert — Brightmoor is a definite food desert — but at that point, once again, I had to realize the importance of, and the superseding issue of water over everything else.
People needed more clothes because they couldn’t wash their clothes, the laundromat was closed, kids are looking for water, and then what really let the cat out the bag was people start coming to me saying they needed someplace to hide, because they’re losing their children. And that was the hardest thing. People started not having places… They would stay in the park. They would just sit around and stay around. The fear of losing your child, and the stigma of losing your child because quote-unquote, “you’re a bad parent,” because you’re already in the Food Pantry.
“Let’s Talk about the Narratives”
I mean, we need to talk about the narratives. It’s the criminalization of folks there in the Food Pantry because they didn’t manage their money well. I’m a licensed and ordained pastor and I hear my fellow clergy always make the statement, “Well, people just got to get their lives together.” It’s this religious narrative. It’s that cultural narrative that’s in community. That faith narrative: “If you live right and if you pay your tithes and if you act a certain way, God will reward you. If you don’t, you’ll be treated a certain way, and you will not be rewarded.” And so people are told that the reason there are food pantries and the reason they don’t have water is because you had to have done something wrong. There had to be something that you didn’t do, or that you should be doing.
Back in 2013, I went around to some of the other pastors of the community. Linda Campbell called me, and she said, “Maybe we can get the pastors to stand with us to stop the water shutoffs, to get the moratorium done.” People are terrified. They were just humiliated, afraid, scared. You have “fear,” and then you have “scared.” We always use those words interchangeably; and, you learn in the community what they really mean. They wouldn’t stand with us. A lot of them would not stand with us because they didn’t want to get involved. They didn’t want to get involved in the politics of that end. The Pantry had to become everything for folks that are coming to you. From 2013 onward, we had to start building up relationships because everything is about relationships. The Pantry was about building relationships inside of here and we had to learn, we had to build greater relationships outside of here because we needed a water station. And so, We The People [of Detroit] stepped up, as they would, that’s who they are. We have a water station where folks could come and get water when their water’s shut off, and now when the water is contaminated (because there’s a high population and water contamination in Brightmoor as well).
It was when people started coming to me telling me they needed places to hide. They didn’t want to lose their children. I would have people sit in front of me and say, “Reverend, is God mad at me? Am I a bad person?” That’s the hard thing to have to talk to somebody about, and try to get them to disrupt the narrative within their own selves. By then you’ve got so much internalized hate and racism and classicism and sexism against yourself, so it doesn’t take much for anybody else to push you over the edge. That’s what we see. That’s what happened. Everyone kept saying we can’t believe it, and we thought, “This is not going to last long. People will come to their senses. They’ll stop doing this, because who would want anybody to be without water? How do you sleep at night? How is that possible?” Now we’re in 2019, and people still don’t have water. It’s even worse now. (Sigh)
The hardest thing for me is to pay my bills and have my bills paid and know you don’t have your water bill get paid. Every month I think, “I’m going to have a savings account.” Every month I think, “I’m going to have some money to start it.” But when you start seeing people losing babies… It’s one thing when they physically take your children, but when you start seeing women whose children die, the babies are dying in the womb and they’re dying after birth, after they deliver, because they don’t have water… When you see people who sit here, I have to uphold this all the time: “I don’t care when you get a job, keep coming to the Pantry… because we can’t feed you for the whole month, but we can be the stop gap, right?”
So, when folks start the other socioeconomic narrative – “If people just get a job, if they would just do better with their money…” – we know that, all the studies show that you would need a wage of $16 an hour, 40 hours a week, to be able to pay $700 rent and meal. People know that they don’t get paid that. It’s not because they’re not trainable, it’s not because they’re not qualified. The jobs are just not there, especially 40-hours-a-week jobs. Then remember, the buses have been cut. We know that most of the jobs are outside of the city. Brightmoor has the highest policing also, because it’s a community that’s in the process of being gentrified. We see with this car insurance issue, most folks don’t have car insurance and they may not have their tags in place. And, I got to say again, not to justify or make excuses, but it’s not because people are bad people. It’s not because they’re not trying to do the best they can, but because they just cannot afford it. So, when you see folks who are working two or three jobs every day and they still can’t pay the bills, they’re still not able to feed their kids, they still can’t pay for the water… They’re already afraid because they’re not home because they’re at two or three jobs; so they’ve got to be afraid because they’re going to jobs that still don’t equal up to one job and have to be terrified that when they come home from the jobs, they [The Water Department] come to shut their water off, they’ll [Child Protection Services] come to take their children.
So, from 2013 on… which is where you started this question, and I’ve been trying to carry you through my day-to day-routine.
I need you to see through my eyes. I need for people to see through the lens I peer through every day. I need people to understand the inhumaneness of no water, that nobody should be regulated to just so many bottles of water a day.
“How My Lens Informs My Work”
I get to drink as much water as I want. I get to let my water get cold before I drink it. I get to take a bath and soak as long as I want. Then at the same time, I get to go out, I’m going to the kitchen, and boil water and cook. I get to wash clothes at the same time all that is gone now. Those are things we take for granted that people can’t have. Folks coming here [to the pantry], we cannot keep wash rags, we cannot keep any kind of towels because people are constantly in need of that specific item. It is not easy. It’s not an easy thing to see anybody not have the security of water.
Water is a right. I know the Head of Nestle said awhile back — the water barons on Wall Street keep saying that water is a privilege, it’s not a right. I may be getting ahead of your questions, but water is a right to everyone. Everyone is entitled to water. It just should be available to everyone — the marginalized, the least in the community, those who are the most harshly affected. If we’re going to talk about religion and the faith tradition, there’s not one faith tradition that does not lift up the orphan, the widow, the alien, the marginalized in society to be taken care of. Those are the ones that we are supposed to watch over and nurture the most. In our society, it seems as if those are the people we’re trying to eliminate.
My personal history brings me into this space, and informs me in this space. I was a drug addict for 20 years. I was a convicted felon for 21 years, just [set aside] with the recent expungement [law]. My ex-husband is a physician. And I say that because with all of that, by the time you saw me, you didn’t know that — you only knew me as you met me, right? You didn’t know my past, you didn’t know I was going to school to be an attorney. You would have never known that I took ballet for 12 years, you would have never known that my first job was teaching in Harlem Park School Systems, ballet and modern dance, at the age of 12.
If you didn’t meet me at that time, all you would have known was how you met me. When people come into this pantry, the expectation is that I get to know them for who they are, not how I meet them because how I meet you and where I meet you at should not determine who you are, that should not be the end-all or be-all of who you are and who you’re going to be, and where you’re going in life. I have to remind folks when they come in here, “You’re not who you are right now.” When you’re without food and without water, and you don’t have clean clothes for your kids, then you’re terrified that they’re going to take your children away. [You think that] People are looking at you a certain way — whether they really are or not, because you believe that, because you know what’s you’re going through.
That’s how my lens informs me in the work I do, because I understand how it feels to be nothing. People without water live in the shadows. People without food live in the shadows. You don’t want people to know that you need food, you don’t want people to know that you need water. I didn’t want people to know that I was a convicted felon for the whole 12 years I did this work. Until last April, I was a convicted felon. The idea of being in a position to do something, but me knowing who I am on paper, it’s that shame and stigma. So, we all fight those things.
The privilege I have — and have had — is since someone believed in me. So, when people come in this pantry and when they hit the bottom or whatever their world is — when you don’t have water, you’re at the bottom of your world – it doesn’t mean that you are [not a good person], but the bottom of your world is where that feels like. The bottom is always dirty and grungy. You just want to get clean, and if you don’t have water you just can’t get clean. And so that’s the lens I look through with the work I do. That’s what informs me on how I engage with people, because I know how it feels to not be seen, to lose everything and be screaming on the inside, “I’m really not this way, I’m really not this person. I need you to see me for who I am,” and not be able to be seen, because all you’re going by is what you think you know about me. Based on that, the narrative is, “You’ve got to be a bad person because you’re a convicted felon. You got to be a bad person because you were a drug addict. You’ve got to be a bad person because you don’t have water on. You’ve got to be a bad person because you need the food pantry to feed your children.”
None of that is the truth.
That’s the farthest thing from the truth. It’s just people trying to make it every day. Something’s wrong in our society that Detroit downtown has — I forgot the numbers — so many restaurants per capita, but there’s more food pantries opening up every day, and the people who work downtown in the restaurants that live in community are at the food pantries every day.
Living with Water Insecurity in Brightmoor
Rev. Roz : Did I answer a lot of your questions?
Interviewer: A lot of them. It’s not about answering the question in a specific way. It’s about the way you do them, the way you talk, the way you convey emotion, and I think that was very compelling. I thank you for that.
Rev. Roz : It’s the shame that people experience unnecessarily, this inhumanity towards each other. Because anytime, anybody can say that water is a privilege and not a right. And I would strongly suggest that they come into community, come and deal and see with folks, with everyday what I see.
I had a woman come in today. She doesn’t have any water on. She has six children, oldest is ten and goes all the way down to an infant, and the infant needs formula. I know that she doesn’t have water on because she’s one of my clients who gets water, but I’m out of water. I don’t have any water left in the pallet. Water delivery will be on Friday. Her problem was that last week she couldn’t get here, because that’s the other piece… People have to come together with other folks [since] just having the resource for gas money [can be hard], or being able to be in a car that they don’t feel afraid to be in at that moment — not because that person is bad but because they don’t know whether they’ll be stopped or pulled over and whatever else that may go with it. Because they don’t know if they have tags or because their car insurance has lapsed or whatever.
So, anyway, she came in and I’m out of water and she also need baby formula. For a moment, I slipped into my comfortability [zone]. We had baby formula, so I went into the back to get some. We have powdered baby formula, and then we have the liquid baby formula. They’re in smaller bottles, for newborns. For older babies, they could take a couple of bottles and put them together within a bottle. But I brought her out the powder because I can give her cans of powder in individual packages and it will last longer, so she’d have more to stretch.
She paused. She didn’t say anything. And then, this is what she said to me, “You need water to mix with these, right?” And anyone else would have said, yeah, you do, because that’s the truth, you do, you need water to mix with it. But that was her code language to remind me, I know you didn’t mean it to get real, but I don’t have water for this bottle. I need the formula that has already been put together. I need the formula that I don’t have to mix. Then, I felt bad because in my privilege, I forgot that she couldn’t use powdered formula and her baby still has to eat. That’s her water resource spot, but we don’t have water. And I only had to remember that for a second; she has to remember it every day, all day. Even when she has water, the water bottles, there’s only so many bottles that the water that can be allocated with the powdered formula. Because otherwise – she has other kids, they need water — they need water to cook food, they need water to clean with.
Interestingly enough, last summer, at the height of the water shutoffs, the city mandated that the sanitation workers had to get hepatitis A shots. Because you have to get rid of your waste some kind of way; if you don’t have water, you throw it out with the garbage. I find it so interesting that the city is more concerned about the sanitation workers, which they should be… Brightmoor is concerned about community gardens, farmer’s markets and spaces where laundromats should be. But all these are things that’s really privileged, that’s really based off of the things you do when you have water security.
Your whole conversation has been about what water security and water insecurity look like. Water security says, “I can get any kind of formula that’s for my kid.” Water insecurity says, “I have to be able to work within these guidelines.” Then remember, you don’t have a livable wage, so you’ve got to juggle the money you have — you may only have $40 or $50 left over, so that means I need to use that for a laundromat, versus buying bottled water and gas to get to it.
So, all of these things [go on] and yet water is still not a right. I don’t understand how we call ourselves humans. “Human kindness” is such an oxymoron, isn’t it? Being human and kind should just go together and they really don’t. Not when you’re shutting people’s water off.
Water Affordability as the Solution
And so, you’re saying, “Well, what’s the answer? How do we do this?” I stopped you when you said about the computer kiosk, because we don’t have a kiosk in the pantry — we have a computer that clients have access through Wi-Fi. The kiosk, remember, is based on the payment plan — everybody gets pretty much the same payment plan, It’s the 10/30/50 payment plan. We all know how the payment plan goes and you make your payment.
Here’s the reality: you can’t make a payment on something you don’t have. You just can’t do it. So, we’re fighting for water affordability. And water affordability is based on your income. So now, we’ve got to disrupt another narrative, just to get that into play. What you do is you keep people fighting amongst each other. The water affordability plan says it’s based on everyone’s income. Now we see the city, the state, and the federal government — the powers that be — having folks point their fingers at their neighbors. Because, if you’re making money, and you’re income’s more or “if you have income” — a stable income — then your water bill is going to be based on your income, your [water] affordability is based on the income, versus someone who doesn’t have income, who’ll be paying substantially less.
We have to disrupt that narrative, also, where people are being told, “Do you want to be paying for your neighbor’s water bill? Do you want it to be that they’re just running water, or they’re spending money on hair weave and spending money on cellphones and not managing their money well? Do you want to do that?” Then my question comes back again: Aren’t we humane? Are we not supposed to be each other’s keeper? If I have water, and you don’t have water, shouldn’t I feel bad? Shouldn’t it bother me that I can have a choice of which spigot to get water from today and you have no spigot to get water from? In a community, in a world where we say that we believe in America being a place where everybody can survive and everybody has a chance, we need to make sure the playing field is level.
That means I should be able to clean up before I go to work in the morning. I shouldn’t have to stop at the gas station on the way to work to wash up. Kids shouldn’t have to stay home, because the parents are afraid the teacher’s going to notice that they’ve got the same clothes on today and that they’re dirty, and they’re afraid that the kids are going to be taken from them.
Water affordability is the answer. I have a hope in there. That’s our hope. That’s the goal. I was talking to Monica recently, and Deb at We The People, and we were talking about how it’s moved more further along now than what it’s ever been. I believe Stephanie Chang just introduced a bill on the House floor about water affordability. That’s what we’re pushing for. That’s what we know to be the truth. We’ve seen it, because in Philadelphia it’s working. It’s working well! The push back just keeps being, “Well, that means we got to go on to the state constitution, and we’ve got to open that up, and we’ve got to do this.” Okay, but is that harder than for people to be without water? I think not. I think whatever we need to do to meet that need is what we need to do.
That’s the hope. That’s the goal. That’s the plan. That’s what we’re pushing for. That’s what’s equitable. That’s what’s just. That’s what God of any faith tradition says: to treat each other fairly and justly and humbly.
Even if it’s just the Creator of the universe, and we give no name. We know that there would never be an expectation that some have water and some do not. That just can’t be and that’s what we see right now. It’s a classist system. There’s the racial system and there’s gender — it’s all class, race, and gender, it’s always social economics.
I have to tell the folks that come in here and say, “Well, is God mad at me?” I tell them, “Nope. Social economics.” That’s all it is. It’s social economics. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it doesn’t mean you have to be a member of a church, it doesn’t mean you have to serve on the usher board, it doesn’t mean you have to tithe. It doesn’t mean you have to do anything. It doesn’t mean you need to constrict your sexual orientation to one area. God loves all of us. It doesn’t matter what our faith tradition is, it doesn’t matter what our sexual orientation is, it doesn’t matter whether we go to church or don’t go to church. None of that matters. The expectation is that we love each other. Love in action is justice; justice is what love in action looks like. And in a just world, everybody would have water. Everyone would have access to water. That’s what we should be fighting for. We could talk about bringing Detroit back. Making Detroit bigger and better than ever. It sounds like to me that “Make America great again” thing. It’s the same thing, different code language — same end results: some people get to stay, some people don’t.
And I need to say this also. When you’re a convicted felon, you can’t get a job, you can’t get housing, and you can’t get food stamps. You’re conscripted to go back to jail. Well, we know the highest population of incarcerees right now is women. Interestingly enough, white women is the highest percentage. Well, you’re going to lose your children when you go to jail. To get your children back, you need to be able to have a job, a place to live, and a way to feed them. So, we need to look at what’s really happening in our society, what the real goal is about water because it’s a form of genocide. It’s a way of eliminating people, it’s a way of ostracizing and disrupting neighborhoods, and to keep division going. But then, the biggest piece — and the biggest tool — is to guarantee laborers later on. Flint is right now about laborers, because when you had to drink lead in your water, three and four generations down the line is when it will show up the worst. That means that’s laborers. It’s not by chance, things that happen. It’s not like it’s just, “Well, we just need to get this plan in place.” I keep hearing them say down at the Water Department and the Great Lakes Water Authority, “We’re going to make it more equitable, but if we do it overnight then it will be where people can’t afford it.” No, that’s not true. We can do anything we choose to do.
One thing we can definitely make a choice in is not taking people’s children and not sentencing people to death because when you don’t have water, that’s a death sentence.
That’s what that is. That’s a death sentence.