Gathering Waters By Shea Howell

Thinking for ourselves

By Shea Howell

 Gathering Waters

May 31, 2015

shea25While the Michigan corporate elite gathered on Mackinac Island to congratulate themselves for getting though the Detroit bankruptcy without an uprising, the hope of the city was unfolding at the International Legal and Legislative Summit on Water Affordability, Sanitation and Housing. Held in conjunction with the International Gathering of Social Movements, 350 people from 47 states and 10 countries came together to strategize concrete ways to move toward a more progressive future based on values that respect life and the gifts of the earth.

The gathering was organized by a broad coalition of organizations pressuring the city to adopt a Water Affordability Plan and moratorium on housing foreclosures.  Local organizers Alice Jennings and Maureen Taylor provided the framework for the conference. You can view selected sessions at the link below.

Activist Valerie Jean said, “We all recognize we are at a moment when we have to make a choice. Are we going to protect our communities and make sure everyone is ok, or are we going to turn into the future city planned for us? That is the future city where they want my neighborhood, but they don’t want me in it.”

The legal and legislative session struck a clear contrast with the Mackinac gathering.  Instead of talking about the shinning new developments in the 7.2 miles “downtown,” speakers talked about the reality of our neighborhoods. They described scenes of Homrich trucks shutting off whole blocks at a time.  Mothers shared their fears of losing children when their water was shut off. Elders talked about paying bills to landlords who walked off with the money, leaving them with the shut offs. Everyone agreed the city is no more prepared to help people this summer than last.

People also told stories of resilience and generosity. Neighbors stood over shut off valves, staring down workers. People with water set up hoses to share across yards. Neighbors gathered to cook together and set up impromptu water stations.

Everyone agreed that those who are turning their water back on are practicing the kind of civil disobedience that inspired lunch counters sit-ins a half a century earlier. One lawyer said. “It is always right to stand up against a civil wrong.”

People from Highland Park, Flint, and Benton Harbor were joined by the voices of activists from Boston, Baltimore, and Sacramento. Representatives from First Nations, Columbia, Mexico, Italy and Brazil emphasized that this water struggle is global. What we do in Detroit matters far beyond our borders.

Legal strategies were supported by the recognition that legislative action is required to grantee water as a human right. Legislative initiatives discussed included establishing clear procedures to protect access to water, holding landlords accountable for payment of bills, ensuring transparency in rates, decriminalizing water reconnections, and granting municipalities the authority to create their own water affordability plans.

Everyone agreed that the courts and legislatures only change in response to direct pressure from movements in the streets.

Researchers and academics provided valuable data on national and local studies. A Boston based research group reported on efforts to document racial disparity in shut offs. Their ten year study showed that for every 1% increase in African Americans in a neighborhood, water shut offs increased 4 percent..

Roger Colton, whose expertise framed the original water affordability plan, emphasized that Water Affordability is the most sensible business approach to basic utilities. “People want to pay their bills,” he emphasized, “more people pay, when bills are affordable.” Colton also stressed affordability is more than stopping shut offs.  Affordability influences employment, education, public health and community life.

Dr. Gloria House, Detroit author, activist and professor emeritus from University of Michigan-Dearborn said, “This is a very, very impressive gathering, both in terms of the expertise and experience of people. The depth of commitment to human rights is extraordinary as people think about how to bring this commitment to life.  I am especially hopeful about upcoming legislative initiatives. But that is a slow process.”

In the meantime, organizing to care for one another is the only way to secure a better future for all.

View sessions here: