Shanmin Sultana, Hafsa Usman, & Manna Chowdhury, of Replenish Detroit

Detroit Water Stories Interview with Replenish Detroit, Part-1

Dr. Rahul Mitra: It should give you– awesome. Great. Shanmin and Hafsa, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us today and to tell us a little bit more about the role of Replenish Detroit in the water crisis and COVID crisis that we are seeing here in the city for a few months. Well, the water crisis goes even longer than that, as you guys know. Maybe, we could begin by you telling us a little bit about Replenish Detroit. What is it? What are you guys doing? 

Shanmin: Replenish Detroit is a campaign started by Wayne State University students. It was started around January of 2020. Our mission is essentially to address public health issues that stem from social issues, one of the main ones being the water affordability crisis in Detroit, as well as the lack of access to hygiene items that stems from that issue. We started in January. We had done research on the topic. 

Originally, we were planning to work overseas in building water wells in Pakistan with a non-profit organization. Then, we had actually been talking to a few mentors, including Dr. Abdul el Sayed, who was a scholar-in-residence at Wayne State University in the fall semester, and he had recommended looking into the Detroit water crisis, since it is in the city where we study and where some of us work in and is so close to home, and there hasn’t really been a student organization or group of students addressing this issue. We decided to pivot in January to a more local focus and focus on this issue that affects thousands of residents in Detroit since 2014, when it started. 

Dr. Mitra: Hafsa, do you want to add anything to that? 

Hafsa: Yes. We notice we benefit a lot from being so close to Detroit and working so close. We’ve had donations shipped to our house that we donate to local food pantries. We actually go ahead and draw those donations in. We really can’t do that if we’re still an international-based organization. It’s important to notice these issues close to our home, like Shanmin said, where we work, where we study, because as myself before January, I wasn’t really aware that the Detroit water crisis existed, and a lot of other Wayne State University students don’t know as well. I think advocacy is one of the most important points of our organization as well. 

Dr. Mitra: Let’s take turns maybe on this, so maybe Shanmin first, and then after that, Hafsa. You could tell me a little bit about your personal history with this organization and this movement. How did you get involved in this to begin with?

Shanmin: Sure. I’m going to be an incoming junior at Wayne State, and I had transferred to Wayne State University in the fall of 2019. Myself and Manna, who is our Director of Internal Affairs for Replenish Detroit, we had decided to co-found a student organization called Paani, which was a non-profit that we wanted to work with originally overseas in Pakistan. 

We had founded that in, I’d say, end of October 2019, and then we had sent out an interview board application to interview people to join our team. That’s how we met Hafsa and, at the time, the three other board members. One of our board members has graduated since then. We formed a team of six students that were leading the student organization, and we were very much in the process of still building it up and recruiting students on campus, advocating for water issues globally that were happening overseas. 

Then, like I mentioned before, in January, we had talked to a couple of mentors, including Dr. Abdul al Sayed. I know I talked to you as well, Dr. Rahul Mitra, after our diversity conference as well. That’s when we learned about this issue. The Paani non-profit that I used to work with– I worked with them from 2018 to 2019. They’re very established, and they get a very steady amount of donations every month, and they have a whole system in place to build water walls. 

We felt like maybe, our efforts could be better used elsewhere where a cause hasn’t been addressed yet, like the Detroit water crisis. Like Hafsa said, advocacy is really key, and we felt we could do that if we are working on an issue that’s in the city where we study, and then be a place-based org, meaning we are working very closer within the place that we’re trying to address the issue. Then, we can also see the, I guess, fruits of our labor with our own eyes and make these community partnerships, like we have with the Brightmoor Pantry, for example. 

Dr. Mitra: How about you, Hafsa? 

Hafsa: I actually didn’t know Shanmin and Manna before. I believe it was January when they sent out board applications to Wayne State students, and I noticed that Paani was about Pakistani sanitation and hygiene issues, and my family’s from Pakistan. I thought it was very interesting to see an organization– I firsthand hear stories and accounts from my family about these issues. I thought that I would apply. 

I applied for a director of finance because I have worked in similar positions in the past. I thought it would be interesting to take on a similar role. From there, I met Manna and Shanmin and Jasmine and Yasser. In January is when we sought to pivot from Pakistan issues to here in Detroit. We were all on board with it, which– After, I feel like we really saw our organization take off, because before then, we were doing well. We advocated for sanitation and hygiene issues in Pakistan, and we had fundraisers. After that, we really were able to work with localized organizations and the Brightmoor Food Connection Pantry– you, Dr. Rahul Mitra. We were able to really make connections here. 

Dr. Mitra: Thank you both. Paani, it’s Urdu-Hindi-Bangladeshi word for water, of course. It’s interesting to me, really, that you began really looking at this connection of how social justice issues stem from water scarcity inequality issues in both Pakistan and Detroit and the USA, in general. Could you maybe tell us a little bit more about what you really see as some of the biggest problems as far as water and social justice issues are concerned in both Pakistan and the US, or Michigan, and really how you see yourselves as maybe helping in this context? 

Shanmin: Sure. I could start with that. To give an example that really stuck out to me is when I had worked with Paani from 2018 to 2019, one of the wells that I helped raise money for and that was built in– I believe it was the southern part of Pakistan called Sindh. There, we had built a well, and we had received anecdotes from the villagers who lived in that village, and how before the water well was built, they used to travel a mile or so just to get water from a dirty gutter that was very unsanitary. It was clearly not a fresh source of water. They would get their water from there, and that’s what they would live off of. 

Then, I remember reading an article in January about a woman in Detroit who had depended on– She was a water shut-off victim. She could not afford her high water bill, and so she, due to non-payment for water, had been shut off. She had depended on her gutter water as well. What was crazy to think is that we live in America, which is a first world country compared to Pakistan, which is not. When we think of lack of access to water, the first thing we think of is developing countries. 

There is a huge water crisis issue here in America, Detroit being one of the cities that has seen the brunt of it for the past couple of years. We know that this issue doesn’t just affect Detroit. It affects many Americans, millions of Americans. 15 million Americans every year are said to not have access to clean drinking water, whether it be a issue of affordability, whether it be an issue of living in the Navajo Nation and not having a water system in place. 

It’s important not to overlook the fact that just because we live in a first-world country, there are vast majorities of populations that don’t have access to clean drinking water. It’s a very preventable issue. With the water affordability crisis in Detroit, Detroit sees residents paying 10% of their income on water annually versus the EPA that sets the standard for affordable water and sewage rates at 4.5% of income. Clearly, they’re paying double the amounts, and that’s just a very disproportionate ask.

Dr. Mitra: A lot of universities get a lot of flak for not always necessarily being connected with their local communities, the communities around them. I think this is really something where students and faculty, especially, can do so much in terms of connecting their work and their studies with the community around them, in particular. Tell me a little bit about your process and your journey, because at the same time, even though you might be a student organization with the best of intentions to work and connect with your local communities and community groups, that’s often much harder in practice, right, than you think it would be when you first start down that path? 

Maybe, tell us a little bit about your process and maybe what you’ve been learning along this journey as you start engaging some of the people around you in the local community groups, because I know you mentioned Dr. Sayed, and, of course, we had conversations as well, but in lots of ways, we are not the community per se. Maybe, tell us a little bit about your process and trying to connect with the groups that you’ve been working with on the ground. 

Shanmin: I think– 

Dr. Mitra: Yes, sorry. 

Hafsa: I think we realized that although we work and we study in Detroit, we are not residents of Detroit, and we are not personally being affected by these water shut-offs. It’s important to also acknowledge the needs of the community. We work really closely with Reverend Roslyn of the Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry, to where we– When we raise money or we receive grant money, that is where we try to donate hygiene and sanitation-related items. 

It’s also difficult to gauge what the community needs, which is why when Reverend Roslyn says they need more Pine-Sol or they need more diapers, we work, and we order the shipments on a two-week basis. We don’t make huge shipments at the beginning of the month or anything. We try to– Every two weeks, we gauge the needs of the pantries, so that they have their supplies that they need, and they’re not– If they’re running out of something, then you can add it to our next shipment. 

Shanmin: To add to Hafsa’s comment, the reason why we have been delivering hygiene and sanitary items, of course, in light of COVID 19, but also, there was a study done by the University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability. They had found that in a study of residents who have experienced water shutoffs, they were seeing 80– They were seeing high amounts of residents that have to make the difficult decision of choosing whether am I going to pay my water bills this month, am I going to pay for food, or am I going to pay for expensive children’s diapers or hygiene items. 

We really, really admire the work of other local grassroots organizations, like We the People of Detroit, like People’s Water Board Coalition, who are on the ground delivering water. We try to send our volunteers there as well. To complement those efforts, we work with the Brightmoor Pantry to provide these items that go along with protecting individuals from COVID-19 and their families as well– and trying to mitigate the economic difficulties of not being able to afford water, as well as COVID-19 that has exacerbated that issue as well. 

Dr. Mitra: When COVID hit, I think the way it affected Detroit and Detroit residents was definitely unnerving. Of course, you were students at that time as well, and you had your classes as well. Maybe, tell us a little bit individually maybe what was going through your mind when suddenly, you see this global pandemic happening here in Detroit. Were you surprised? Were you shocked? What was going through your head? 

Because prior to COVID, you were very much focused on water deliveries. Maybe, how did you use that to pivot again from water, but really thinking about this in terms of hygiene products and delivery? Maybe, you can both take turns talking about how it affected you personally, and then how it affected your thinking about what you needed to do. 

Hafsa: Personally, I lived on Wayne State Campus. Although it was kind of a shift moving back home, I knew that I was privileged in the sense that I could come back home, and I had a reliable internet. I had reliable housing, and a lot of people don’t really get that same opportunity. I think I was disappointed as any other college student was, but it wasn’t a huge a shock. It wasn’t all that bad for me. 

I don’t know if I was surprised, but it was really heartbreaking to see what was going on in Detroit and seeing the events unfold in Detroit, because COVID hit our nation as a surprise, but Detroit, it hit really hard. Being a public health major, I knew that there are a lot of public health issues in Detroit. I couldn’t say that I was all that surprised. 

As an organization, water is linked so closely to sanitation and hygiene. This is also the point where a lot of water groups– They have been advocating for returning the water, turning back on the water before, but this is when it really started to gain traction. Governor Whitmer and Mayor Mike Duggan actually authorized turning back on the water, which was important, which was great, but it’s important to realize that these issues were going on before, too. 

It was also a slow process. A lot of Detroit residents, they still don’t have water, and we’re months into this. The bureaucratic process is very long. It’s very tedious, and we have to realize that real people get caught up in this. We actually had a sneak-in that we wanted to do, and we had a plan for, I think, right at the beginning of April, the end of March, and it just totally did not get to happen. We have certain events that we want to plan that we’re thinking about doing after, maybe in the fall or whenever life starts to get back to normal. Right now, we’re trying to focus on just getting people the supplies that they need. 

Dr. Mitra: What about you, Shanmin, how did this, the onset of COVID, impact you personally, and then your thinking about what Replenish Detroit had to do? 

Shanmin: I commute to Wayne State University, and so I remember when COVID-19 hit, I anticipated it. We were looking at the news and seeing other colleges and universities across the nation close. It didn’t come as a shock to me, but it was definitely a shift. Then, it also did change the trajectory that we had anticipated for Replenish Detroit. Like Hafsa said, we wanted to do a couple of events. 

During the month of March, we had been collecting hygiene items on campus from students to donate to the Brightmoor Pantry. I remember the day that the stay-at-home advisory started. That was the day Hafsa went down to deliver the items, and I remember thinking to myself, wow, that’s amazing that she could go down there. I was really scared for her, I remember. She’d successfully and safely delivered those 60 hygiene items that we had collected. 

Then, I know at first, we were a bit discouraged, because we were going to do a second round of hygiene drive on campus to collect even more items. Then, when COVID-19 hit, we were talking with Reverend Roslyn over the phone, and she was saying how she had to turn away visitors, actually, who came to the pantry looking for Pine-Sol cleaner, looking for bleach. The pantry just could not keep up with the high demand, especially at the beginning of COVID-19, which they weren’t prepared for. 

We knew that we had to change our approach. That’s when we decided to start a GoFundMe campaign in the beginning of April, and we had raised about $235 on the GoFundMe, and we used that to purchase bar soap and bleach for the pantry. Then, we knew we had to continue to somehow find sources of funding. Hafsa and I applied for the Detroit Community Resilience Prize from the Desai Sethi Foundation, so we secured almost 5k from that. 

Then, the Pollination Project was another grant organization we had received $500 from, and that’s the money we’ve been using for the past, I’d say, three months delivering waves of hygiene and sanitary items to the Brightmoor Pantry. We’re really glad that despite COVID-19 forcing us to be separated physically and having us working from home, we were able to change our approach and still be able to support the community in whatever ways that was possible.

Detroit Water Stories Interview with Replenish Detroit, Part-2

Dr. Rahul Mitra: We’re recording. Great. We’re joined right now by Manna Chowdhury, who’s also part of Replenish Detroit. Manna, maybe tell us a little bit about you. You’re on the phone right now, so we don’t have your picture in the group chat. Tell us a little bit about your role in Replenish Detroit, and how you really joined, not only this organization but really got interested in issues related to water and hygiene products and things like that. 

Manna: Definitely. My name is Manna Chowdhury. I’m an upcoming junior this fall at Wayne State University. My major right now is criminal justice with a minor in history. I just became interested in Replenish Detroit through Shanmin. She was a part of this other organization in the University of Michigan. She pitched this idea to me where we can start building wells internationally in third-world developing countries. 

Eventually, that morphed into Replenish Detroit, in which we help out with the local problems within the City of Detroit. As of recent, we’ve been making trips to Brightmoor Pantry because we’re in partnership with them. We’ve been delivering diapers, Pine-sol, hand sanitizers, and other necessities we might need. 

Dr. MitraHafsa. Sorry. I’m trying to keep track of all the people over here, which is not always easy. I apologize if I confuse someone’s name. Hafsa earlier, Shanmin mentioned how our first delivery happened to be on the day that the danger really for COVID first became really clear for a lot of people. There you were where your first delivery of products. What was going through your head? 

Hafsa: It was actually really interesting because I was also moving out of my dorm that day. I was going to be in the area anyway, so when the hygiene items were in the faculty administration building on campus when I tried to go in, it was locked. I had to call all campus police to come unlock it, and I thought that they would just unlock it and then leave, but there’s actually a police officer who unlocked it for me, and he went up to the room with me, sat in the room. I had to disinfect every item. It took about 20 minutes, and he was just sitting there the whole time of. 

I felt bad. He wrote down my name, my access ID. Then, when I was done, we left the building. He escorted me all throughout the building. I didn’t expect this level of security, but that’s when I really didn’t have a full idea of what was going on. When I went down to the pantry, this was the first time that I met Reverend Roslyn. It was a new area, too, so I wasn’t really sure where I was going. 

Reverend Roslyn was really nice. She came out into the parking to meet me. I went in, and I stocked the items. It was really awesome seeing how full the pantry was. It was just amazing to see that the pantry was doing so much good work in the community and that I knew that our hygiene items would be used. It was pretty cool. I was scared but seeing everything that was going on and seeing what was happening, it was rewarding to see that. It paid off. 

Dr. MitraWere you wearing a mask? Did you have gloves on? This was so early in those days. Were you scared of touching items or even touching people in the pantry? 

Hafsa: I was wearing gloves, but at this point, masks weren’t really widespread, so I don’t think I was wearing a mask. I don’t think I was really scared. I try to make sure to disinfect everything. There were some cases on campus, and apparently, there was someone in the faculty administration building that had COVID. I was just worried of spreading it to the items, and then possibly that could spread to the pantry room, which could really hurt a lot of people. Not for my own safety, but for everyone else. 

Dr. MitraYou guys told me a little bit about the different grants that you applied for, and then, you were fortunate to get. Tell me a little bit about some of your subsequent deliveries and work with the Brightmoor Pantry. Again, this is really where anyone can chip in, but maybe it’ll start with Hafsa– Sorry, with Manna, because she’s not on screen right now. 

Maybe you could tell us a little bit about as you go to the pantry, and you see the work that people are doing over there, what goes through your mind in terms of what is happening, and also, in terms of what more needs to happen? 

Manna: My initial visit there, I was actually very amazed. It’s nothing like I expected. I have actually never seen a pantry before then. Going in, I didn’t really know what to expect. It was really amazing going in and seeing how much materials they’d already had, and how dedicated Reverend Roslyn and everyone that works with her is. It was also very important especially during this time. It was nice because what they had in the shelves, that wasn’t just it because they store all the extra stuff in the back. 

I feel like it’s important for them to keep up and for us to be a vessel to some degree to provide some of the materials. It was very nice and very fulfilling. I wish because the pantry will be bigger if that’s possible because there’s so many people. I remember in my last visit, I saw a bunch of people coming in. It’s crazy to think that the small pantry can fill everyone’s needs. 

Dr. MitraJust to piggyback on that, and not to interrupt anyone else, but before we add to something else, what have your interactions been like at the pantry? Do you guys just go deliver stuff and walk out of the door again, or do you get a chance to talk to people there? What happens on your deliveries, and how has that been interesting for you? 

Hafsa: It’s- [crosstalk] 

Manna: Go ahead. 

Hafsa: It’s not really that long because we have to unload everything before the volunteers come in. There have been limits of around 10 people. Reverend Roslyn likes to have us get in, unload, and then later the voluntaries can come in, so she’s not breaking any orders. What we do is we come in, we have boxes in our car, and we’ll unload them. We’ll take them in, and we’ll put them on the shelves. 

There’s some other volunteers there, and they always thank us for what we’re doing. They’re always busy. There’s not people just standing around. They’re very driven in what they do, and they’re very organized. That’s what I’ve noticed.

Manna: Just going off of what Hafsa said, yes, that’s what I understood from that, too. On some visits, like our last one, we’re able to talk to Reverend Roslyn. A lot of the conversation revolved around what they need next or what’s happening with the pantry. She’s usually very busy because she’s a very important lady. We haven’t gotten the opportunity to really just sit down and talk. 

Dr. MitraHave you guys had discussions amongst yourselves about how this experience has maybe shaped you individually or as a group? 

Shanmin: Sure. Among us five board members, we also ask our general members of Replenish Detroit, who are just students at Wayne State to join us if they’re willing and able to on these visits. The past three visits, we’ve had a couple of volunteers from our members. I always follow-up with them personally and ask, “How’d it go?” Especially, if it’s their first time, and they always tell me how sweet Reverend Roslyn is first off. 

Then, also how it was really nice being able to contribute to the community because some of them are saying they were looking for opportunities to help during COVID-19, but they just didn’t know where to start. Just being a part of Replenish Detroit, knowing that we’ve worked with the pantry before. We are a collaborative partner on their website, and so we’re very close with them. 

We know what they do and they know us. Just having that relationship in place makes it more valuable because we get to actually connect with Reverend Roslyn, for example. I’m always on calls with her whether she’s in her car driving to the pantry and asking what are the needs of the pantry, or, “How are you handling all the visitors?” “Are there more this week?” “Are there less this week?” It’s been very fulfilling what I’ve been hearing from members who are going. 

I personally have not been able to go just because I live with an immunocompromised family member, and so we’re very strict on who goes and who doesn’t outside in general, but it’s just been nice to hear from members who are going and board members as well. Then, also hearing from Reverend Roslyn. I have a call with her at least once a week, sometimes twice a week, and hear from her like how is it going and how have our shipments been used? 

To give you an example, in the beginning of May, the first week of May, we had a visit and we had delivered about 50 units of Pine-Sol cleaner. We weren’t sure if we should make another order for that because we had been delivering it consistently, but talking with Reverend Roslyn, she said there was one jug left. It’s nice to hear that that need is being fulfilled and that visitors are finding what they’re needing, compared to at the beginning of COVID-19 when Hafsa had delivered her first delivery in the end of March. Reverend Roslyn was telling us how the pantry could use some more help and was struggling a little bit with meeting their needs. 

Dr. Mitra Anyone else? 

Hafsa: I– sorry. 

Rahul: Go ahead. 

Hafsa: When I go to the pantry– I think last time I went like Shanmin was saying, it was 50 bottles of Pine-Sol on it. It usually doesn’t even all fit. I had to drive to Northville to another– I had to drive to Yasir’s house because he said his car was full of diapers, he had a minivan, and I had to pull my seats down and it was about 50 bottles of Pine-Sol, and driving with it was kind of scary because everything was just moving around. 

I met members there and they also had similar experiences where it was their first time going to the pantry, so they were not really sure what to expect, but they all felt great about it. They really liked contributing and it was really awesome just seeing general members there, and also some that I hadn’t even met before. 

ShanminYes. Our members, they’re very enthusiastic in helping, and even a lot of members like myself that expressed how they can’t go down to the pantry for certain reasons, and so we’ll often share petitions organized by other local organizations petitioning to ask to keep the water on after COVID-19, or restore water to households that still haven’t had their water, and so we often share petitions and there. 

Other members will share news on the development of the Detroit water crisis, and so it’s nice to also work behind the scenes as well, even if you’re not able to contribute on the ground. 

Dr. MitraThe name of your organization for me is interesting, “Replenish,” because it evokes a lot of those issues related to renewal, development, and things like that. Maybe tell me a little bit about what replenishing means for you guys either in the context of water, or COVID, or just Detroit. What does “Replenish” mean for you guys? 

Manna: I think– [silence] 

Dr. MitraYou’re there? Manna? 

Shanmin: Oh, I think she got cut off. 

Dr. MitraThat’s fine. Well, why don’t you guys go ahead? 

Shanmin: Sure, I could start. Replenish Detroit, in January we had decided to pivot our organization’s focus from global to local water issues, we were asking members on our group chat, “What should our name be?” We definitely wanted the name “Detroit” in our name because that’s the city that we’re working with. I guess our logo, if you look at it, it has a city and it has water falling from the sky sort of filling up the buildings of the city, so because water advocacy through our social media awareness or our petitioning et cetera is essential focus of ours right now, we wanted to include that in our logo and so that’s where the water came from. 

Replenish seemed like a fitting name, but not just in terms of water because we know lack of affordable water is an issue in Detroit, but there are so many other issues. We know that as students. We know that food deserts are an issue in Detroit. We know that like Hafsa said how inadequate housing, they are all issues. As we’re studying in our university, we want to be able to address some of these issues through our resources that we have on campus, and students who are learning about these issues as well in their classes whether it be public health classes or sociology classes, as I am a sociology major, and being able to apply that not just in the classroom, but outside of the classroom as well. 

Hafsa: I took a class. It’s an honors class, basically, it’s a history of Detroit. It was really, really interesting because there are so many things about Detroit that I didn’t even know and so many discriminative policies have really affected Detroit now. To me, Replenish Detroit, it kind of symbolizes a city that has been exploited really by its government and taken advantage of. 

Like Shanmin said previously, the water bills are 10% of resident’s income, and so I think that water rights are very central to Detroit, and also the public health crisis that is going on. A lot of people see Detroit as having a lot of public health issues and I think it’s important to realize that you have to take everything in a very broad scope and realize that there are so many issues that go into this public health issue, so air pollution and a lot of the central ones is water rights. That’s what it means to me. It means really at the core getting Detroit back to its residents. 

Dr. Mitra Was that the class that Tracy Newman teaches? 

Hafsa: No. It’s taught by Professor Deacon, Deacon Cross. 

Dr. MitraOh, okay. Because I think Tracy Newman teaches a class very similar, History of Detroit or City of Detroit, and I actually did a talk there about the Detroit water stories project in that class, so when you mentioned that class, that set in a way ding-ding-ding. [chuckles] Okay, very cool – I’ve been trying to call Manna, but her number is not working. In that case, we’ll just move on. We’re towards the end of our talk right now, in any case. Maybe to close up with one question for each of you. As you are– Oh no, I actually just backtracked, because I do have one other question before our closing out question, because I know you guys mentioned a lot of plans for new programming and new initiatives post-COVID. 

Governor Whitmer is lifting the stay-at-home restrictions. Of course, there might be a second wave, but let’s be thankful, let’s cross our fingers and hope that there isn’t, [chuckles] but what are some of these other plans and programs that you have in mind that you’d like to do, that you think is really important? 

ShanminSure. One of them, we have, we’re planning a kids’ virtual science session, which the focus of it will be handwashing and the importance of hygiene and understanding to cover your mouth when you sneeze or when you cough or understanding how fast germs spread and how far they spread. That’s one virtual event that we’re planning with the STEMinista Project group at the Michigan Science Center, and so it’s going to be via Zoom and be very intimate. 

We also will be introducing the Detroit water crisis a little bit, so our target audience is fourth to eighth graders. These girls who are in the STEMinista project have learned a lot about I guess very complex issues, whether it’d be public health issues in the city of Detroit and in America in general, and so there we talk with the STEMinista group and they would like us to explain this issue a little bit and ask them, “What do you think about that as youth? How do you feel knowing that maybe you live in a city or live near a city that people don’t have water especially in light of COVID-19, but even before that and even after that?” 

That’s one example of programming we’re planning to do during COVID-19 hopefully in the next month or so. We think it’s really important to raise awareness about this issue among youth as well because not a lot of them know about it and there’s so much power in social media and among the young voices. If there is an issue in our city that’s affecting our residents, we should all know about it. We shouldn’t feel like it’s too complex for anyone to understand. 

I guess there’s strength in numbers. It’s really nice to see all these organizations that are working in terms of water rights and issues and we’d love to be a part of that process and inspire younger folks as well to take on public health issues that are affecting cities like Detroit as well and know that you are never too young to raise awareness about an issue or do something about it. 

Hafsa: Yes, I agree. I think we’re trying to start more advocacy-based work back when– Sorry, in the fall, because although is good to donate all these items, the central problem here is that the water needs to be turned back on for these residents. By connecting with We the People of Detroit and local organizers, we want to, like Shanmin said, raise awareness for this issue. 

The fact that a lot of people don’t know about it is one of the central points that we want to tackle. I think that from there we can start, raise awareness. Get more petitions and put more pressure on the local and the state government. 

Shanmin: One of– Sorry, go ahead. 

Dr. MitraGo ahead. 

Shanmin: I also forgot to mention we will be participating in a youth speak-out event with the Youth Task Force. They are with the DAYUM group. They’re a group of high school and college students in the Metro Detroit area who are advocating on issues that are arising out of COVID-19, or that are being highlighted by COVID-19 that have existed, such as education, justice, incarceration rates, and they invited us to participate in the speak out event, which will be I believe in July. So we’re still planning it and we’re going to have state representative Rashida Tlaib, Senator Stephanie Chang, I believe, Andy Levin, so we’ll have a couple of political leaders in the virtual event listening to why we think these issues are important, and why we need support from our political leaders and city officials to actually institute policies that will make sure that these issues don’t happen anymore beyond COVID-19, because with the water reconnections that have happened during COVID-19, I believe they ended on June 1 if I’m not mistaken. So, residents are going to go back to having their water shut off. We know that that’s just not feasible. It is such a brief respite for residents to not have their water shut off during these three months or so of COVID-19. We want to, as the hashtag goes, not just help turn the water on but keep the water on. 

Dr. MitraThe communication scholar in me really appreciates that hashtag there right there. [chuckles]  

Shanmin: [chuckles] Yes. Thank you.  

Dr. MitraWhat do you say to students like yourselves who will say, “Hey, it’s just too much to do.” Who say that advocacy is not part of the college experience. What do you say to students to get them involved in programs and advocacies like this? 

Hafsa: I think advocacy is what got us here. We have so many rights that we– It is not enough to be politically ignorant right now. We can’t say that “Oh, well this is related to politics, this is– I’m not really interested”, because at the end of the day, these are people’s lives that are being affected. Because we go to school in the city we really benefit. 

We don’t see a city– Wayne State is located in Midtown, so a lot of people would go to Midtown and then leave. You don’t really get to see outside of the city and what’s really happening. It’s important to realize that we are privileged in the sense that these issues aren’t personally affecting us, but we do not get the right to ignore them. 

Dr. MitraLet’s close out this interview with maybe one personal reflection from each of you about what this process has taught you individually so far. Maybe one piece of golden nugget. One wonderful piece of wisdom that you have gained from this entire process so far. Of course, this process will continue, but one really important piece of knowledge that you have learned. 

Shanmin: I would say that not to be afraid to speak about issues that matter to you because when we had thought of Replenish Detroit, I will admit I wasn’t sure how it would look like, whether we would be able to actually institute change or be a part of that change. We entered the field of water rights issues in Detroit later than when it started. I was personally apprehensive, like would it sound like we’re just coming in and trying to take the attention away or not, but it was completely the opposite experience we had. Just one example is making a connection with the Brightmoor Connection food pantry and now we’re a collaborative partner with them, and we’ve been able to build a sustainable relationship that we hope to continue beyond COVID-19. 

Then, as well as reaching out to other organizations asking how can we help. Like We the People of Detroit and other water rights organizations, do you need volunteers, and they’re always welcome to having more people care about the issue. That shouldn’t– It shouldn’t be a barrier to start something or be a part of something just because the issue doesn’t affect you personally, or because you feel like you’re going to be the only one who cares about it because that’s not the case. 

Dr. MitraBefore we get to Hafsa, one quick question, follow up for you Shanmin. You mentioned that you were able to build this sustainable relationship with Brightmoor. What do you credit for helping you build that sustainable relationship? 

Dr. MitraI guess not stopping once you’ve helped one time. Like I mentioned before, we had done the hygiene drive on campus to help the Brightmoor Pantry, and then COVID-19 hit, and we could have been discouraged. We could have stopped right there, but we decided to change our approach and find other ways to continue to help, even though it’s hard to do so during COVID-19, doing it safely. 

I guess just not stopping, especially, if you’re like at a lull in your advocacy work. You just have to know who to reach out to, and they were — Usually, like at least with the Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry, Reverend Roslyn was so receptive. She was so excited that there are young people who care about this issue. 

Dr. MitraFrom what I am hearing is basically showing that you’re not a one-off situation that you are going to be there for a sustained– Your commitment is going to be there for the long term is what I’m hearing from you. Hafsa, do you want to add to that, or do you want to share your piece of wisdom? 

Hafsa: Just to add I think not being afraid is so important. Because when we’re applying– Sorry, applying to these grants, it was about $5,000. I was looking at this and I was like, “Will we get this money? Are we credible enough? Have we been a long enough? Have we done enough to receive this money?” It was awesome to see that we had received the grant. It was very rewarding. 

I think that was one of the points where I knew that we are doing real work here and that we actually have a chance to have a big impact on the community. What I’ve personally taken away from this is two things. How important it is to be involved in local issues and understand what’s going on in your local community, and how everything is so connected in the sense that one issue, one social issue can have a range of impacts. 

Like housing discrimination can be related to air qualities, which can be related to public health disease. Then, that, in turn, can be related to water shutoffs. It’s all very connected in the sense that in order to tackle one issue, you have to tackle about five more because it’s all so connected. I think that that’s what I take away from it is that–[crosstalk]  

Dr. Mitra Go ahead. Sorry. 

Hafsa: You can go ahead. 

Dr. MitraJust recognizing that these things are connected can often be very debilitating for a lot of people. It’s intimidating for a lot of people to say, “Oh my God, this is such a huge problem. There is so much over here. I don’t know if I can make a difference over here.” How do you negotiate that? How do you make sense of this issue, which, frankly it’s a lot over there? Does that intimidate you? Does it inspire you? How do you make sense of that situation? 

Hafsa: I think it inspires me more than anything because focusing on one thing, we can make an impact that although we have been focusing on water rights, we have really made an impact in the community. I think it’s important to realize the limits of what you’re doing, but also, understand that there are other issues and what connects. That’s what I personally takeaway. 

Shanmin: To add that, if you want to tackle a big issue, the very first step is breaking it down and seeing where you can help. I don’t think that should deter anybody because then you will always think back and wonder like, “Well, what if I had taken that step and advocated for this issue or started something, organized something, you’ll never know if it would have came to fruition.” I am really glad as we all are for Replenish Detroit that we stuck to the issue and that we plan to continue working on this issue because it is nowhere near over.  

Dr. MitraDo you think clean running water should be provided for free by the government, or do you think there should be a price? What is a fair price for water for people? 

Shanmin: To quote one of your articles I had read Dr. Rahul Mitra in Bridge Magazine- 

Dr. Mitra[laughs]  

Shanmin: -you obviously proposed a sliding affordability rate for water bills. Basically, based on your income, that would determine how much your water bill would be. It’s not like you’re being given free water, but more so how much are you able to pay, because we understand that the water and sewer system needs money to continue to run. 

Residents aren’t asking for free water. They just want to be able to pay and be able to keep up on their payments every single month and build that confidence that, “Okay, I’m able to pay my water bills. Great. Now I can move on to other things like maybe saving up money to move to a better place, or to save up for college tuition or whatever it is.” We think that affordable water rate plan would be ideal. 

I remember during one of our meetings I had with you Dr. Rahul Mitra where we were talking about facts and hoaxes about the water issue. You had mentioned that Baltimore and Philadelphia were just two cities that had instituted a water affordability rate plan and it had worked, where residents were finally being able to catch up on their water bills and pay them on time. It didn’t necessarily hurt the economy or hurt I guess the water department that runs household water. 

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