#22To22 — Meet the Women Leading the Fight for the Right to Water in Michigan
Written by: Doreen Akiyo Yomoah
In 2014, I wrote a post on my personal blog about the Flint, Michigan water crisis. Four years later, people still lack access to safe water. The local, state, and federal governments have failed the residents of Flint, a city 66 miles northwest of Detroit.
While in the mid-20th century, Flint was thriving thanks to its lumber and automobile industries, the state of Michigan has also always been plagued by racial tension, with residents of colour significantly impacted by the systemic white supremacy through which the United States was built. By the late 20th century, Flint had become a victim of urban decay, disinvestment, and increased levels of crime.
These residents were already suffering a tough economic and social climate when in 2014, the city switched its water source from Lake Huron, Detroit’s reservoir, to the Flint River. Almost immediately, people began complaining of illness and rashes. Doctors found high levels of lead in child residents as a result of the untreated water from the Flint River corroding the city’s old pipes. In addition to the impact on their physical and mental health, Flint residents have also been threatened and displaced from their homes for being unwilling or unable to pay poisonous water.
While the right to safe and affordable water is a basic human right guaranteed by international law and one that is essential to realising the right to life, the US government has declined to ratify, or officially adopt, laws that were introduced to keep all people safe and healthy. Even in the throes of the crisis, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder failed to declare the water crisis a state of emergency early enough, a move which could have saved lives, and prevented children from lead poisoning.
However, where the government has failed to take sufficient action to protect the lives of its residents, several female activists have mobilised to help people access safe water.
One of these women, Monica Lewis-Patrick, dubbed The Water Warrior by The Detroit Metro Times, is helping to lead the fight. A former policy analyst, Lewis-Patrick is the president, CEO, and co-founder of We the People of Detroit, a non-governmental organisation (NGO). The NGO fights for Flint and Detroit residents to have access to safe water, whether or not they are able to pay their bills. The organisation also has a hotline which people can call to get emergency assistance, and delivers water to those who are unable to get to one of the four water stations that the organisation runs.
The prevalence of lead levels in children’s blood had been on the decline in the city from 2006–2014, when it spiked dramatically due to the crisis. However, in 2016, after the city switched back to Lake Huron, lead levels in children began to decline again.
Organizations like non-profit Parents for Healthy Homes*, led by Grand Rapids activist and mother Tabitha Williams, are also responsible for helping to fight childhood lead poisoning. While not directly related to water poisoning, children in Grand Rapids, a city in the western part of the state, are also suffering from lead poisoning due to lead paint dust in houses. Parents for Healthy Homes is parent group, supported by the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, an NGO which promotes environmental justice and improving children’s health by eliminating unsafe housing. Parents for Healthy Homes “aims to keep children safe from the hazards of lead and other environmental contaminants”, provides leadership training classes, advocates for change with public policymakers and officials, and provides social support for parents struggling with the effects of lead poisoning in their homes.
Of her advocacy, Williams told mLive that “When we as a community get together, we are strong, we are powerful. We want our kids safe and lead-free. When I think of this work, I have hope, hope for change in our community.”
Melissa Mays is another Flint water activist. She founded Water You Fighting For, which provides residents with water, organises protests, lobbies policymakers, files petitions and lawsuits, and educates the public on the crisis. In 2017, Mays told Salon:
…The shower smells of chemicals. It burns your eyes, your nose. We have two shower head filters, and it still burns. I have nine cavities now, because lead replaces the calcium in your bones and your teeth, so I have teeth falling out of my head and a lot of cavities.
Houses and apartments getting their water shut off. Children with high rates of lead poisoning. Adults suddenly plagued with cavities. People relying on donated bottled water to complete daily household tasks. This sounds more like the beginning scenes of an apocalyptic drama film, not reality in the Global North in the 21st century. Nobody, anywhere on earth, should be subjected to these living conditions. Certainly nobody in the richest economy on earth should lack access to water and housing, regardless of how much they earn or what race they are.
Although Flint has since switched back to Detroit’s water supply, the damage has already been done: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatriciation, told NPR that the Flint River water was “innately more corrosive than the Great Lakes water source. And the critical corrosion inhibitor, which is mandatory for all drinking water systems to use … was not added to that water”. Consequently, even after switching back to the former water supply, the city’s pipes continue to leach lead into the water.
Respect for human rights cannot stop at lip service. Governments are responsible for making sure that people have access to a decent standard of living. In the case of Flint, this means that officials should have taken appropriate precautions before switching to a water source that would poison its residents.
As the values of social and environmental justice become more ingrained in the public psyche, more and more people are beginning to recognise that one’s right to a decent standard of living should not depend on how valuable your contribution is deemed in a capitalist system, but something that is innate and held by every human being.
Flints Water Warriors have worked tirelessly to not only address the situation, but make sure that the officials who made the deadly decision and who continued to remain passive in the face of a crisis are held accountable. In other word, #OurWaterOurBodies are simply that.
They are ours.
Doreen Akiyo Yomoah is part of the Women’s March Geneva team. In her day job, she works at an international organisation. Her interests include feminism, critical race theory, and environmental issues.
*An earlier version of this story stated that Parents for Healthy Homes was an NGO in Detroit. It is a parent group supported by the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan in Grand Rapids.