I’m Shea Howell and I’m with the Boggs Center in Detroit and I’ve been working on water issues since the early part of the Detroit bankruptcy process, makes it about six years now.
Water Security in Detroit
Interviewer: We’re going to be talking about water security and insecurity faced by Detroiters today. Can you tell us a little bit about what you mean or what you understand by water security?
Shea: Well, I think water security is a difficult term because it takes our attention away from what I think Detroiters have really fought to make clear that water is a human right and it is a sacred trust. Those two notions have been the foundation of the struggles around water. Since then, we have seen the term water insecurity or water security emerge which is really a polite way of saying some people are being denied a basic human right. They cannot have access to the water because of their financial limitations.
Interviewer: Can you clarify on those two terms that you raised, sacred trust and human right?
Shea: Well, I think in some ways they should be self-evident that a human right means you should not have to do anything to qualify or justify for access. Basic human rights are defined by the United Nations Charter and one of those is an access to water. The United States, of course, has not endorsed that Charter. We have been very slow on the global scale of understanding what human rights are.
I think one of the important things about the Detroit struggle is it is raising for people to openly have conversations about what is a basic human right, what are our obligations to each other to make sure that all of us have at least some basic quality of life. As to the sacred trust, I think that one of the things that has happened in industrial societies is we have looked upon the earth as a disposable commodity. In some cases, as an infinite commodity. What a sacred trust raises for us is this notion that we have a responsibility to preserve water, not just for ourselves, but for all future generations.
That this is a living thing that requires care and thoughtfulness and some protection from us. That’s why I think one of the major contributions of the struggle at standing rock was this notion that we are not water warriors, but we are water protectors. That idea of protection flows from, no pun intended, it flows from his idea that water is sacred, that it is a trust for all humans, for all life.
Water Shutoffs in Detroit—Historical Overview
Interviewer: One of the things that we really want to focus on is the ongoing shutoffs in Detroit. I’d like to start at the beginning, can you recount or reflect on how this started to unfold or emerge around you and this was way back and 20 08 or so?
Shea: Well, that was the first big wave. I think some of the things to think about are that Detroit has not had control of its own water since the late 1970s, not because of anything anybody in Detroit did, but because of industrial pollution and the fact that there was a very racist Federal judge who simply refused to let Coleman Young have control of the Water Department. It’s been a long problem about how we have effective municipal control over a basic unit support system that has been paid for over almost two centuries now.
Interviewer: This was the EPA’s ruling.
Shea: This was the EPA is ruling and judge Feikens and that’s a long and complicated story but the essence of it is pretty clear. The Federal Government appointed and was really basically responsible for the control of the municipal water. In that, Detroit’s water was the citizens of Detroit buy their water from or pay for their water as individual households.
Now, when I first came to Detroit, we’ve got a water bill once every three months and that was a very modest bill. As time went on, those bills escalated and as time went on, we moved from this quarterly payment to monthly payment. Going into 2000, we started to see a significant increase in the water bills. Part of that was because the population by 2000 was almost one-half what it had been at the time when the Federal Government took over the Water Department.
What that means is you have an infrastructure built for 2 million people that now has to be supported by, at that point, it was less than a million and now it’s only pushing it to 700,000. What that meant is that water bills just to keep things at the level where they were had to almost double. As you probably know, water bills have gone up almost 120% in a decade.
That makes Detroit as a city, one of the highest water bills-paying places in the nation. The problem with that is the Detroit buys its water as individual households, the suburbs buy the water as municipalities. The municipalities then make their charges to their residents at a different rate. What you have are differential water rates where people in Detroit are paying sometimes $150, $200, $300 water bills. People in Lavonia, for the very same water, are paying $11 water bills. You can see that disparity in the grass that was done in mapping the water crisis but it’s a dramatic difference.
Interviewer: What happened with bankruptcy?
Shea: Well, the Water Department was not terribly effective. It was not terribly well funded. People frequently fell behind on their water bills. In the bankruptcy process, one of the first things that happened is that the day before the Emergency Manager took power, the Federal Court released the Water Department from Federal oversight which meant that it could then immediately be listed as an asset in the Detroit bankruptcy process.
Within, I think two days after taking office, Kevyn Orr, the Emergency Manager announced that he was going to put the Water Department up for sale as a way to solve some of the bankruptcy questions. Once he did that, this then raised the question of should Water Departments be privately owned, or should they be publicly owned? That was the first question. The second question was if he was going to sell it, what would that require?
There were two directions. One, Wall Street firms and businesses that we’re looking at the Water Department said it would be more attractive if he could get rid of the outstanding payments on water bills. That desire to get rid of bad debt or to the Water Department essentially fueled and aggressive shutoff campaign. The original notion for shutoffs was to make the Water Department more attractive for sale.
Given the racial dynamics in the area, the suburbanites jumped on that notion and said, “before we do any kind of regionalization of the water as an alternative to a private sale, we need to know that none of our pure suburban customers will be paying for any water for those deadbeat Detroiters.” That was kind of that discourse going on. As a result, you had twin pressures on the Emergency Manager to do water shutoffs. One from the notion of sale and two from the notion of suburbanites who are considering some kind of public-private partnership. That was the impetus to make it more attractive as a commodity without any discussion of human rights or public trust.
Interviewer: How did you receive the news because, by that time, you were already very much involved with the community over here? Can you describe a little bit about how this news broke around you? How the organizing community responded?
Shea: We were already organizing almost for a year around the consent agreement. Prior to the Emergency Manager, there’s been a consent agreement. I think our slogan was not very inventive, but it was “no consent.” We were already recognizing the push to bankruptcy. In that, I think the way the news broke about the Water Department was the call for proposals for sale. Which happened very, very quickly.
The call was public. The response to the call, I don’t know if it’s ever been made public, because Emergency Managers do not operate with any conventions around transparency. I think one of the corporations was Viola. What I don’t know if we ever heard, specifically, I think it was 36 separate bids were offered for the Water Department. Of course, the suburban politicians had an interest in those bids. They didn’t want the Water Department to be totally privatized either.
That would jeopardize their water rights. They wanted some control over the water rights. I think it just broke in the newspaper. I don’t think there was any announcement of any kind. We were all very concerned because immediately, it talked about the need to get rid of the bad debt of the Water Department. We know people have been since as you mentioned earlier, people have been struggling with water bills since the early 2000s.
Interviewer: Then what did you do?
Shea: The first thing we did was organize protests. I know I wrote about it. At that time, I was writing a weekly column for The Michigan Citizen. I started writing about it. We started organizing the People’s Water Board. Almost within days, we started getting calls about trucks coming into the neighborhood and shutting people off. This was a fairly aggressive campaign of shutoffs that violated conventional experience in Detroit. In the past, if somebody was coming in to shut off your water, they would knock on your door, they would tell you that they would have appropriate paperwork. If you had already gone down to Water Department to make arrangements. There was a much more civil and humane process.
With these homage trucks, they were, in some cases, people traveling through the community, they would start at one end of the block and go straight up the street. The People’s Water Board was getting phone calls about water shutoffs. Sometimes people would pay bills frequently because one of the other dynamics in the city is that people who used to own homes had lost their homes and were now renting often from absentee landlords.
We had apartment buildings where folks had been paying their water bill only to discover that the landlord had not been forwarding it to the Water Department. You’d have the whole apartment building shut off where everyone had paid. There was no mechanism to respond to any of this. The city hadn’t put anything in place to help people with shutoffs and did nothing put in place to help with bulk payment of bills. It had just shut them off, get them off the system show or financially responsible.
With that, our original response was out of emergency calls that people were receiving at The People’s Water Board. We the people of Detroit, who had organized around resisting bankruptcy.
Bankruptcy and Water Shutoffs
Interviewer: How did that head out? Bankruptcy then moved on to– Was finally resolved in 2013. 2014 was when it was finalized. We’ve pretty much had shutoffs in all of those years during bankruptcy and since beyond as well. Can you provide us a bird’s eye view of what you’re seeing in terms of how the shutoffs have progressed?
Shea: Before we go to how the shutoffs have progressed, I think there are a couple of important things. One is the shutoffs immediately after bankruptcy reached almost 100,000 people. The United Nations came in, investigated the shutoffs and the United Nations declared that this was a human rights violation. That these were being done without any effort to support people.
The next thing to think about is that we launched a court fight during bankruptcy to try and get the judge to initiate a moratorium on shutoffs. The judge acknowledged there were clear human rights violations, clear dangers to people, but said straight up, “There is no human right to water. The financial concerns of the city are primary in my decision making.” That’s what he said.
That clued us to another strategy that had to emerge. Which ultimately took the place of Stephanie Chang, who’s led the fight on this, of trying to create, at the state level, a legal framework to enshrine water as a human right and a public trust. Former Congressman John Conyers took that fight to the Federal level. What this revealed was even when you could show demonstrable harm to people, that’s not enough to protect water as a human right. There was both a legal court strategy and now an effort at the legislative level to shift that. Then came out during the bankruptcy process.
I think the final thing is that the major thing that brought attention to the water struggle were not the shutoffs, but they were the public demonstrations and the public gatherings around them. One of the things that was documented by we the people in their book Mapping The Water Crisis is every time there was a major public demonstration, shutoffs would dropdown. Those are things that came out during the bankruptcy. The landscape afterward has revealed a couple of things.
One is the Mayor’s effort to create a water assistance plan is a dismal failure. First, the numbers of people who cannot pay their water bill continues to expand. What’s happening is not only was the original pool of money insufficient but when people sign up for this original pool of money, they end up falling behind. They say, “Okay, you’ll get water shut back on in June,” come August, you’re behind again. It’s a vicious cycle going backward.
The other thing about the current landscape is that while these shutoffs are happening, they are happening in a context that has become, in some ways, much more dire. Through the bankruptcy and probably the subsequent year or so after, school systems were able to provide support for families. Many, many schools were opening early so kids could come in and get water. They could wash off. They could take showers in the gym. There was a real effort by schools as often happens in Detroit during social collapse. Often the schools become that last line of defense to protect children.
Of course, now a year ago, that literally dried up because the school waters contaminated. The landscape in the city, on the one hand, is dire and in some cases, more dire. On the other hand, this recent cost report has been a very good new opening for conversations at the policy level in the city about water and water affordability. Part of that is because it ties water affordability to the notion that the city might have been taken for yet another ride by the suburbs because the suburbs only are paying 50 million a year for the water. The House report says it probably should be more like 250 to 300 million a year.
That disparity has caught the city’s attention. Hopeful– I understand, I haven’t seen anything publicly about the Blue Ribbon Commission that Mayor has just appointed to look out for water but we are hopeful that this will move us closer to this notion of water affordability because the reality is Detroiters are not getting any richer.
Great Lakes Water Authority— Water Access and Distribution
Interviewer: Let’s talk about the Great Lakes Water Authority, GLWA, what does the formation of GLWA mean for water access and distribution?
Shea: I am not a great fan of the Great Lakes Water Authority. One would hope that people would have some larger perspective about the Great Lakes and about the fragility of the water systems that we share in that basin but the Great Lakes Water Authority does not appear to offer within a broader sense of where it gets its name, the Great Lakes, nor does it appear to operate with anything other than an emphasis on authority. That authority means that the decision-making of the Great Lakes Water Authority is primarily in the hands of the majority suburban interests.
If there was a shared convention or a shared understanding of water as a human right, if there was a real affordability plan in the city, that would not be a problem, I don’t think. The problem is that decisions about water, in the larger sense, are being made by people who have essentially racist and disrespectful notions about people in the city. You have created a system where something that is essential to life is under the control of people who don’t respect the life in the city. That creates all kinds of problems including ever-escalating water bills and continual blocking of a water affordability plan that would be based on income rather than use.
There’s a philosophical question as well about whether or not this sort of public-private notions is a good way to go around the control of water. It’s unclear to me, at this stage, that the Great Lakes Water Authority has any sense of the dimensions of the danger to the water supply whether it would begin at the top of Michigan with line 5 all the way down through all of the fee fast-flowing in from the several– both the Air Force base along the water and looking at the interior of bases the question of what controls there are on runoff.
All of those are major issues that I am not sure the Great Lakes Water Authority has any intentions of addressing. I am using a single statement, for example, from the Great Lakes Water Authority about the dangers of this pipeline that clearly put at risk all of our water supply that goes through almost 4.5 million people if anything should happen to that pipeline in Northern Michigan. They seem not to think so much about if it’s connected from them. There’s that issue.
The Great Lakes Water Authority is not something that shows any real effort to address the two fundamental questions raised by the Detroit water struggle which is, is water a human right? Is it a sacred trust? And if you answer yes to those, how does that shift your sense of policy and process?
Interviewer: Do you think most people are even aware of the fact that GLWA pretty much now is in charge of the water distribution and rate-selling for most residents or do they still associate it with DWSD?
Shea: I think most people, and part of this is because of the confusion the Mayor pushes, most people think that Detroit Water & Sewerage Department is in charge of things which obviously they are not. The Mayor likes to talk about how independent they all are but all you have to do is look at the efforts of the city council to limit rate increases in water and see that it just takes the heat that they might actually exercise authority to have people say, “Hello, we got Emergency Managers here if you guys aren’t careful.” This effort to diminish the city’s capacity for self-determination is in some ways enshrined in GLWA. I don’t think most people recognize that. It’s complicated. It’s not easy-
Interviewer: Wouldn’t it be unfair that there’s a lack of trust presently between DWSD and the GLWA?
Shea: Well, I don’t know if there’s a lack of trust. I think they are predictably unfriendly to residents and I think that’s what people expect. People do not think going to pay your water bill is fun-calling, people do not think that they’ll receive good customer care, people do not believe that their bills are accurate.
Part of our organizing around the shutoffs was to go to water stations where people were paying their water bills and within three minutes, people would come up to us and say, “I want to tell my story. Here’s my thousand-dollar water bill. I have been trying for two years to get the city to fix this. Now they are telling me it’s a shutoff.” I think that what people trust is that the Water Department won’t help them very much.
Boggs Center and Water Issues
Interviewer: Touching here just a little bit, let’s talk about the Boggs Center which is a lot of Detroit’s history in the region, how’s the Boggs Center involved in this ongoing issue of water?
Shea: Well, the Boggs Center emphasizes two things. One, the importance of creating visionary alternatives to the crisis that we face, and two, the importance of place-based organizing. We joined in the resistance to emergency management because we thought it violated both of those efforts. Our primary emphasis has been to do everything we can to work with people or members of the People’s Water Board, for example, but to work with people to push this notion of a real water affordability plan based on income. We think that is the most responsible way to ensure that water as a human right is enacted.
The second thing we’ve done is we’ve very much encouraged the development of an alternative thinking about water. We’ve encouraged in the urban gardens, for example, water catchment systems, we’ve long argued that rain gardens should be a part of the city policy much like the city of Norwalk has done where residents, by building rain gardens, are able to get money from the city off their water bills because they are participating in a program to help with runoff.
We’ve long argued that the use of greywater and different kinds of water systems for, not just gardens but for other activities, would be a wise thing to do. We’ve tried to push this notion of alternatives.
Our third effort in that is to try to publicize as much as we can so that other people can see these alternatives as the way to go. For example, in the Riverwise Magazine that we help put out, one of our stories is about the Brightmoor bicycles where the kids figured out how to do with rainwater filtration system while pedaling their bicycles and charging their electric batteries around. Those are really visionary imaginative ways to think about how to get water to people.
Interviewer: How do you do this? You’ve talked about disrupting other standings and pushing for alternative plans, do you do these through workshops? Do you do these through community need meetings? Are you doing these through lobbying? can you, maybe, recount a few recent events or programs that you did initiate?
Shea: The Boggs Center primarily emphasizes ideas in written form. We write and publish and put out leaflets, put out magazines, put out books, books chapters. There’s a whole written element of it. We do a weekly newsletter that includes these kinds of ideas that we’re talking about. We hold public meetings, we hold events, we participate in workshops and other public meetings around the city, those workshops.
This coming June and July, we’re acknowledging the 100th anniversary of James Boggs who’s writing about technology was some of the first writing in the country, being critical of the use of technology over human activities. We’re going to spend about five days. We’ll teach it, we’ll be calling a– teachings and workshops and block parties, whole series of publications, we’ll go along with that, but it’s an effort to put out ideas around different ways of thinking about where we are today and where we want to go.
One of the things I said just yesterday is, in 1973, when I met James Boggs, the very first question he asked me is, “What are you thinking about the 21st century?” I thought, most people, they were thinking all far ahead and say, “What are you thinking about 1984 because of Orwell’s book?” Jimmy was already in the 21st century, and though he died long before he got there, that notion of, how do we think about the future is part of what’s critical to The Boggs Center.
When we talk about visionary organizing, one of the things we’re really asking, “What are the forms of conversation, of writing, of ideas that get us to see we have a responsibility, not just for today, and not just to fix what was wrong to mark yesterday? Where are we going to be in the next 30 years? Where will human beings want to live? How do we think about that systematically for 30 years and 50 years, and a hundred years down the road?”
Interviewer: Part of that broad agenda, something that you have highlighted that people in our conversations, is the need to enable people, community members to tell their own story and you do this with Riverwise as well as through some other forums. Can you elaborate a little bit on that?
Shea: Just yesterday at the Riverwise meeting, we were talking about the theme for the upcoming Riverwise for being– for the summer of 2019. Here it is, Riverwise. Look at that, what do you think of that? Look at the back, cool, huh? What we were saying about the theme is, Detroit wants to be seen, not watched. What we’re trying to do is create this notion of– much of the life of Detroit is not seen by the dominant culture, and certainly not carried in the mainstream media.
What does carried in the mainstream media is this notion that we’re all living in terribly victimized circumstances, and we need to be watched via the Green Light Program, and the surveillance programs, all of that effort to control people as a way to try and position as people they are not going to rise up and raise questions of, let’s say water affordability.
That notion of Detroit wants to be seen, but not watched is an effort to say, there are stories on the street like the Brightmoor young people. These are high school kids in a community school who created a water filtration system that could be used almost anywhere in the world and provide safe drinking water. You would think that kind of story will be on the front page of a newspaper to say, “Look at the brilliance in this community,” but it’s not. That’s the story that we insist on telling, and it’s a story that is replicated in many, many ways.
Just yesterday at the meeting, since we were talking about community issues, the guy who distributes some of the Riverwise has written an article, and it’s called “Just Walk Away.” It’s the story of his experiences as a man who was married for 35 years, saying, “I do not understand why anyone would engage in hitting their partner? What is this? What kind of person are you that you would do that?” He raises really interesting questions about when we feel anger emerging, how do we deal with that?
That’s a conversation that people have all over the place, but no one takes that in the mainstream media as a serious conversation that should be elevated as a way for us to think about, “Why aren’t we learning to just walk away when we get angry? What’s going on with us? How do we learn to think about that differently?” Practices of restoring justice, practices of de-escalation of violence, all of those are things that are happening at the community level. They get almost zero coverage, as the story being told. Instead, what you hear are stories of carjackings or some kind of crime in the community.
You have the situation where what the mainstream media and the corporate powers are doing is trying to accelerate our fear of one another. We think, by telling the stories of imagination, of creativity, of care, what we encourage is our understanding of our connection to each other.
Interviewer: How does Riverwise enable Detroit community members to tell their own story on the issue of water?
Shea: One of the things that Riverwise is doing is, we are encouraging subscriptions or not subscription, how do we encourage subscription? Submissions. We would like people to send their stories. One of the things we discovered is, many community people would like help in telling their own story. The convention is, you would go and interview people, but what we’re trying to do instead is give people the support to advance their own story-telling capabilities.
We’ve created a series of workshops, and we held something like 30 of them last year where we go into various community settings, and we take people who are great writers, who had some experience in helping others learn to write, and they conduct workshops, writing workshops. You’ll see in this current issue of Riverwise, there are both reflections on the teaching process in those workshops, and also some writing that just come out of them.
Sometimes, we do workshops on how do you do fact-finding, how do you do storytelling, how about poetry, how about fiction, how about talking about life developments? There are all different approaches that we’re using, but when you start reaching out in the community settings, you get people who come and who write and who begin to tell their stories in their own voice.
Of course, we still use interviews and do that sort of thing, because not everyone wants to go through the process of telling their own story. We do want to make that the primary emphasis, that people should be able to frame their own life in their own voice, in their own perceptions, on their own terms. Riverwise is really dedicated to doing that. That’s the primary way we do it.
Interviewer: Tell me a little bit more about how the Boggs Center or perhaps you would personally as a community organizer, How do you engage and reach out to all of the different other organizations and non-profits and community groups who are also trying to address this issue of water?
Shea: The primary way any of us reach out to anybody, is we show up. I think the main thing about organizing is showing up. Being there. If there’s a demonstration, be there. If there’s a conference, be there. If there’s a concert to raise money, be there. If you can’t be there, send money. If you can’t send money, send more people. Whatever way to support those ongoing activities.
Our main way of supporting this is to show up when we can, participate when we can, make it as known as wide as we can, about events happening, and being there. That’s the only way I know to organize in the city. I think that the water struggle has shifted somewhat, with this. Hopefully, we’ll begin to see some changes in terms of the city policies. I’m actually pretty hopeful about that.
Interviewer: What gives you the best hope?
Shea: My best hope would be that the city would create a water affordability plan, and begin to systematically, not only make sure everybody has water but to systematically restore the infrastructure, which personally, I’ve got this person. Anybody who looks at this for even half a minute, realizes we are living on borrowed time, with the infrastructure that we’ve got. We are close to a dire collapse of systems that are so old, that they cannot continue to function.
Some of these aren’t just 50 years old. Some of these are almost a hundred years old. There are places in the city that are carrying sewage and carrying water through wooden lines. I mean, this is not a sustainable pathway to the future. My best hope is that we will begin a serious infrastructure replacement process. Flint has had to do that out of emergency circumstance. We should be able to do it out of forethought.
The Poor People’s Campaign and Water Affordability
Interviewer: Is that documented somewhere? The wooden lines? I’ve heard that.
Shea: The reason you’ve heard, the place I heard it was when they were putting the cue lining in front of the public library, they were digging down to put those fiber cables in, and they hit the wooden line. That’s the story I heard. Where I heard that, I have no idea at this point, but it’s not hard to imagine. Those are very old buildings, and those streets haven’t been dug up in a very long time. They were simply paved over. Why would they not be?
Interviewer: What happens at a public demonstration? Since part of our goal is to do—you know we are doing myth-busting over here, right? For most people who have never felt the need to protest or demonstrate, the idea of a public demonstration can seem very radical. What actually happens in one of these public demonstrations?
Shea: Well, it should be radical. People should think about whether or not they want to do that, but historically, the primary way to get powers, that’d be, to shift, is to have bodies on the street. Bodies on the street don’t guarantee anything, and bodies on the street generally do not mean any sort of dangerous activity. Most demonstrations include mothers with babies and strollers and elders in wheelchairs.
There are all kinds of people, but they are people who are saying, “It’s important that we be counted collectively, to show the powers of being, what we want, what we think is right, what we think is worth.” At least committing some of our time and energy to. Public demonstrations are just that. They are the public demonstrating what they think is correct. Generally, the best way to do that is not signing the internet petition, it’s showing up.
Sometimes, if showing up doesn’t do anything, people will escalate those demonstrations to create larger inconveniences. Especially because it should be quite obvious that we want that public demonstrations are so threatening; the media rarely covers them. All you have to do is look at the Poor People’s Campaign of just this most recent year, I guess 18. It was acknowledging the 50-year anniversary from ’68. There were over 40 states that participated in weekly demonstrations. I don’t think I saw more than two film clips in mainstream media about any of those demonstrations. Even though they happened for 40 days.
The absence of coverage is a problem. Also, I think the willingness of the corporate power structure to isolate those demonstrations from each other is a tactic that they have refined since the ’60s. I think that tactic is losing power because of the power of social media. More and more people are going to demonstrations and sharing those on social media, and they’re demystifying the idea that this is somehow a crazy or dangerous thing. It is your right as a citizen. More importantly, it is your responsibility as a citizen, to demonstrate for what you want. Come, it’s fun.
Interviewer: Glad you mentioned the Poor People’s Campaign because that is one campaign which is also really showing its connections to water affordability as well. Can you talk a little bit about that one?
Shea: I haven’t been involved in this one at all, other than to speak at the beginning. I was involved in the last one, the first one. This one has been, like the last one, has been very much supported by Welfare rights. Welfare rights is a major part of the People’s Water Board. The Poor People’s Campaign has taken a strong stand on water affordability, and water as a human right, and as a sacred trust.
I think Reverent Barbara has spoken about this several times. He’s been to Flint, he’s been to Detroit, he’s talked about water. It’s a part of what the national landscape is pushing, in terms of, just because people are poor, does not mean they should not have access to these basic responsibilities of life, which include food, water, housing, education, the capacity to live a life with some dignity.
Interviewer: Going back to your recollections about the water shutoffs after bankruptcy concluded, are there any particular instances, whether in terms of resistance moments, or whether in terms of helping communities, that stand out to you, that motivate you, that still guide your thinking?
Shea: I think there’s no question about Charity Hicks’ life and death, and her call to wage love, has been central to everybody’s fight around the water struggle. I think Valerie Jean’s testimony at the people’s tribunal, where we tried Governor Snyder and emergency managers on human rights violations. Her testimony about standing on top of her shutoff valve, and saying, “No, you’re not going to shut this off,” is certainly something that we should all look to as a source of inspiration.
I think Kate Levy’s work around documenting all of the forms and resistance, and all of the forms of creativity and resilience in the ways people have tried to respond to the water crisis is really important. I think Tawana Petty and Monica Lewis Patrick’s presentation, almost every time they got a chance to speak about water, is to talk about how, when they were distributing water in the neighborhood, one of the things they saw were hoses running from one house to the other.
Where people who could afford water, and had not been shut off, were sharing with others. I think of the nun who told me that she had been doing laundry and sharing her bathroom with her next-door neighbor for two years because they were people who could not keep their water on, but they were able to depend on her as a source of water. I think talking with teachers who have had to do this dance of not acknowledging that they know children without water because to do that means they have to report the family to Protective Services, because to not have water is a form of neglect on the part of parents, and put your children at risk.
Teachers who say, “We can’t acknowledge this, but we’ve all sort of decided, let’s just come early and open the gym and the showers.” Those are moments that stand out to me. I think the testimony by the UN was really critical. I think the other thing that stands out is the International Water Gatherings, where the very first one, I think we had 40 states, maybe 49 states. I can’t remember the exact number now, but it was a demonstration of the clear recognition on the part of people who are living in community, that water is something we need to pay attention to. That certainly stands out.
I think the delivery of bottles of water to Detroit, by the indigenous community in Canada, and by the coal miners in Appalachia, who had experienced living without water because of pollution, are important images for me. To see the connection of people recognizing that when governments fail you, you still have people you can count on to help you through whatever that crisis is. That’s not usually an image you see in the mainstream. I have a lot of great images, actually.
Interviewer: Was there a particular experience that you were there in the moment of it that stands out for you? Whether in terms of delivering water or whether in terms of being a part of a collaborative?
Shea: Pretty much all of the above that I have just talked about. The interesting thing to me is the number of young people who stepped up to deliver water in the neighborhoods. There are a lot of young people who said, “Yes, I’ll do this.” If you look at, every now and again, you get a call from Monica that– Or from We the People that, “There’s been a truck or there’s a truck on the way, could you show up for the morning?”
Typically, you can count on 15 to 20 people to show up, some of them are 12 and 13, some of them are 80, and people just make a line, and they put the water in, and they store it and make sure it’s in a place so it can go out. I think all of those are real signs of how people are responding to a crisis in ways that say, “How can I help?” Rather than, “How can I make money?”
Interviewer: How did you first get involved with the People’s Water Board?
Shea: Gee, I don’t know. They’ve been around, it feels like forever. I don’t know if we were– If the Boggs Center was formally a member before the bankruptcy water shutoffs. I think when the bankruptcy water shutoffs started happening, a call went out from the water board, “Let’s be sure we’re all members,” kind of thing, as a way to strengthen that organization. The Boggs Center signed up, just as did many other organizations, at that moment, out of the crisis.
Certainly, they’ve been around a very long time, and you may not know, this is a whole other saga, but during the Detroit works, Detroit Future Fiasco, it was a foundation-funded, shrinking of Detroit, so-called community engagement, terrible process. During that, one aspect was to create a community conversation around environmental justice questions. What happened is, environmental justice organizations stepped into the vacuum of real leadership and said, “We will set the parameters and host a conversation around environmental questions, and you guys from the city, and the foundations, can come and listen to what’s happening.”
That could be a long story in and of itself. I went to the environmental justice– Here’s a vivid memory of Mama Lila, whose memorial is tomorrow. The meeting was organized by various topics, land justice, air, water. I went to the water justice one, and somebody from the city, from the water department, was there. Very nervous, obviously expecting to be yelled at. Lila reached over and touched this guy’s knee and said, “You can relax, we’re not here to yell at you, we’re here to make sure you understand water is a human right and a sacred trust.”
That’s what people talked about in the circle. Lila set that up. I may tell this story tomorrow, actually, in her memorial because I hadn’t thought of it until just now. That was way before shutoffs, way before any of this incredible community activity. By then, the environmental justice community was already clear about a perspective on water. They were thinking of ways to make that enacted.
As you know, as early as 2005, nearly a decade before the water shutoffs, members of the People’s Water Board had advocated for the creation of the water affordability resolution, which was adopted by the city council. That is a long-standing push, and that comes from the People’s Water Board. I think they should be given all the credit for that notion as an important thing. It’s a long-standing notion in the city.
Interviewer: I’m glad you brought up Lila because we will be there tomorrow. I want to ask you if there’s– You just mentioned one of the very important and useful experience, but is there something else about Lila that you want to talk about, maybe in terms of her impact on you or something about her that you will always cherish forever, or her role in the broader water struggle?
Shea: What I said at her funeral service is something I would not want to get lost. I think it’s something that I’m one of the few people left to know of this. During the first Gulf War, under Bush the first, there was a lot of organizing, of course, against, opposing that. At the same time, there were a group of young men, they were called The Lost Boys of Somalia. These were young men who had been displaced by war, who had traveled, I think, 1000 miles in African desert mostly, without shoes, they had looked after one another. They range from about age, the oldest was maybe 16, the youngest was maybe nine, 10, it was quite an age range.
These boys had gotten themselves to some UN center. The only name they knew was Rosa Parks. They had known about Rosa Parks. Somebody in the UN contacted the Rosa Parks Institute and wanted these young men to be able to be placed in the United States because they had nowhere to go. Lila said, “Send them here, we’ll look after them.” That was an act of tremendous courage, to take these kids. What she then did, along with the Boggs Center, which wasn’t the Boggs Center then, but along with us, but what she did was say, “Let’s hold an open team forum where these boys can tell their story about what war really means to people.”
That’s what we did. We held a big forum that was in Martin Luther King Center, sponsored by Rosa Parks, and at that time, I think it was Detroiters for Dignity, and We the People, and SOSAD, and we brought all these young people together, and it began with each of these boys describing their experience of war. That was an act of extraordinary courage and extraordinary commitment to a different way of thinking about how we should live. That’s a story that I very much value from her.
Interviewer: Thank you so much. I guess I’m just going to close with this. Water shutoffs, unfortunately, are not unique, in the sense that we’ve seen them happen in other cities, and they’re also happening in Detroit as well. In that broader context, I guess, what makes what’s happening over here special perhaps, and I don’t mean that in a positive way, obviously, but– How would you basically think of Detroit’s water shutoffs?
We hear, given the fact that unfortunately, other cities also shutoff connections to their residence. Are we a Vanguard of sorts? Is this where the resistance begins? Is this where we start saying that, “No, this should not be common policy, so to speak”? What is the broader implication of Detroit’s water shutoffs in the context of really, what’s happening around the world?
Shea: I think the broadest implication is that probably, within 15 years, studies are saying that as much as half of global population may not have access to affordable safe water. Now, we need to stop and think about that. What does that mean for all of our lives? If you can afford water or if you can’t afford water. What kind of world would that be, and is that the direction we want to head? Where only some people get water, and others don’t? If we’re headed that direction, we know we’re talking about a world of greater violence, greater force, greater inequity.
What Detroit is offering is to say, “Wait a minute, there are alternatives. We can figure out ways to equitably, thoughtfully, and imaginatively make sure everybody is looked after.” Now, it might mean we can’t water our golf courses, it might mean that we can’t all have a swimming pool, but it might mean everybody can be guaranteed a life of dignity. That’s what’s behind the water affordability plan. That’s what’s behind this notion of water as a sacred trust. Other cities have recognized that. Philadelphia, Baltimore, have both adopted water affordability plans based on the Detroit research and model.
We’re offering a perspective that will help us move to a future that is more equitable, that does recognize our responsibilities. That’s why I think Detroit, when you use the word Vanguard, certainly, Detroit, because we were one of the first cities to be shaped by the brutality of industrial life, we’re one of the first places to also then be abandoned by the industrial life. That gives us an advantage, that we’ve had a longer period of time to think about, what are the questions then, of how to create life for everybody? How do we do this if you don’t have corporate money behind you? We’ve got lots of answers.
Interviewer: Thank you.