Long before national outlets covered water shutoffs in Detroit or toxic water in Flint, Monica Lewis-Patrick, Debra Taylor, Nayyirah Shariff, and Claire McClinton were protesting, marching, and going door-to-door to inform citizens of the problem.
Their efforts helped inspire the first investigative reporting on the crisis. Since then, these four women have become de facto leaders in a movement that went on to have massive implications for race, public health, and city governance in America today.
Monica Lewis-Patrick — Detroit Water Shutoffs
In March 2013, Michigan governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager in Detroit to supervise the city’s financial crisis. By July 2014, the EM had moved to shut off water to thousands of residents — many black, nearly all poor — for back payment. Instead, the shutoff created a water crisis, whose ripple effects would spread throughout the state.
To Lewis-Patrick, who has been living in Detroit since 2009, the broad power exerted by an unelected emergency manager was all too familiar. She knew how it felt to have someone use force to intimidate others.
“I don’t like bullies,” Lewis-Patrick said.
“I was that kid, the kid who was bright but was fat. I was bullied all through junior high and high school.”
Strong women like her grandmother nurtured Lewis-Patrick and dozens of other kids in her neighborhood. “My grandma was my best friend,” she said. Civil rights icons Jesse Jackson and Angela Davis would also have a profound impact on Lewis-Patrick, who worked on Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1988.
But it was the arrest of her colleague and friend Charity Hicks, who was locked up for protesting Detroit’s water shutoffs, that galvanized Lewis-Patrick to action.
“This became personal. It was an assault on women of color,” she said.
In time, others would echo her observation.
“What was not being talked about [in the context of water bills] was the extreme poverty rate and the lack of jobs in Detroit. It was a blame-the-victim mentality with little understanding or discussion of the conditions that led to their situation,” said Peter Hammer, executive director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University in Detroit.
“The massive scale of the shutoffs meant that city government was, and still is, targeting an entire population.”
It was a defining moment in the structural racism that plagued that city.
The water shutoffs became so egregious that rapporteurs from the United Nations came to Michigan to examine human rights violations. Hollywood stars like Mark Ruffalo arrived in Detroit and marched with protesters in the streets.
But activists like Lewis-Patrick felt there was little outrage from the press.
“Every time we put a call out for mainstream media, they would never come,” she said.
The lack of initial media coverage left Lewis-Patrick, colleague Debra Taylor, and volunteers from grassroots community organizing group We The People of Detroit with no recourse but to go door to door to inform neighborhood residents of their rights to clean running water.
The elderly and the poor suffered most from Detroit’s water stoppage, and faced further humiliation when large blue lines were spray-painted outside their homes. If your water was shut off, everyone knew.
While the international media was starting to wake up to what was happening in Detroit, a water tragedy of a different sort was happening in neighboring Flint.
“Flint [activists] came down to not only support us and encourage us but also to share their stories of contaminated water,” Lewis-Patrick said. In July 2014, Claire McClinton and Nayyirah Shariff arrived in Detroit and joined forces with Lewis-Patrick and Taylor.
“We were at a meeting in Detroit … and people from Flint brought water in water bottles,” Taylor said.
“It looked like ice tea. They told us it came from their taps. I said, ‘Come on, really? This is from your tap?’”
It was. Flint residents were being poisoned.
Debra Taylor — Flint Comes to Detroit
Debra Taylor lives in Detroit, but grew up in Flint. She remembers the best of what Flint had to offer in terms of union jobs and tight knit communities.
“We lived on the south end of Flint, in the first subdivision for black people. It was built by African Americans,” Taylor said.
“A lot of us benefited from private education even though our parents were blue collar.”
In April 2014, in an effort to cut costs, Flint’s emergency manager, also appointed by Governor Snyder, switched the city water source from Detroit’s water system over to the corrosive Flint River — water that was drawing lead from aging underground pipes.
Taylor was distraught to find this happening in the city where she grew up. She says her family’s legacy of organizing motivated her to take action.
“My father was a staunch union guy, and I have many example of people in my life who didn’t allow injustice to be shoved down their throat.”
The Detroit water shutoffs and the poisoning of Flint’s water were connected, and the activists knew it. Yet the city refused to acknowledge the connection.
“Decisions about quality of life issues were being made in Lansing with little regard to the communities they impact,” said Hammer.
“Poisoned water and no water still equals death, still equals sickness,” she said.
For more than a year, Flint activists Nayyirah Shariff and Claire McClinton and other volunteers organized block-by-block, meeting in churches and sending out emails to inform people that they had a right to clean safe drinking water.
“We had no idea that we would be confronted with the poisoning of our city,” said Claire McClinton, an organizer with the Flint Democracy Defense League.
The tragedies had the two cities reeling.
Claire McClinton — Flint’s Toxic Water
Claire McClinton grew up in Flint, Mich. A former union organizer, she knew that without community activism, none of what was happening to them would have come to the forefront of public consciousness.
“One of the things we can look back and claim victory for is grassroots activism,” said McClinton.
“One of many watershed moments leading up to media attention was the community meetings to mobilize residents. There were demonstrations in the dead of winter organized by grassroots groups.”
Community organizing is physically and mentally exhausting work — it comes with little praise and less money. Help was desperately needed to attend to the scale of the Detroit shutoffs and address the health crisis in Flint.
McClinton, Taylor, Lewis-Patrick, and Shariff had already formed a relationship while protesting the emergency manager laws in both cities. So they joined forces again to fight for clean water in Detroit and Flint.
In Flint, state officials accused activists of “always complaining” when they raised issues about their brown, smelly water, said McClinton.
“Initially [in Flint] we were fighting about E-coli. Then we found out about the lead in the water,” McClinton said.
In July 2014, the four women planned an event for the people of Flint to share individual stories of the challenges they were facing. Debra Taylor helmed the assembly. After months of suffering and outrage, Taylor wanted the community gathering to inspire and raise awareness. A professional storyteller helped coach selected individuals to orate their story. Taylor made sure there was healthy food to eat. She brought local hip-hop artists Mama Sol & Tha NUTS to perform, and local poets were recruited to raise youth consciousness.
That summer night in 2014, to the bumping sounds of a DJ and with Lewis-Patrick as host, Flint residents shared their horror stories of toxic water coming through the pipes in their homes. They discussed the diseases they were suffering from the contaminated water they’d been drinking.
“They were able to tell their stories in a community setting, not alone or in isolation,” said McClinton.
One journalist who attended events was Curt Guyette, an investigative journalist hired by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan to report on the impacts of the state’s deployment of emergency managers. In the process, and with the help of Lewis-Patrick, Taylor, Shariff, and McClinton, Guyette broke Flint’s water crisis story wide open in July 2015.
By December 2015, Michigan’s water crisis was an international story. The press descended on the state in force.
The crisis had every component of a global story: poisoned water causing massive health problems, even death, for children and families; irresponsible government officials; and a state governor who blamed bureaucrats for the disaster.
But Guyette is quick to credit Lewis-Patrick, Taylor, McClinton, and Shariff for letting the world know what was happening in Flint.
“I think that they’re heroines in this,” he said.
“Their role in this has been unsung and certainly deserves attention and praise and gratitude for what they did. The citizens were the driving force. They refused to believe the lie that their government was telling them that their water was safe.”
Nayyirah Shariff — Reparations in Flint
Shariff is a founder of the Flint Democracy Defense League and specializes in field organizing. Before the water crises, she was focused on fighting Flint’s emergency manager law.
“I got into the water fight because of the cost. People couldn't afford to pay monthly water bills,” Shariff said.
“Flint has some of the highest water rates in the country. They were using Flint residents as ATM machines.”
Shariff was born in Flint and raised in a middle class home. Her parents are members of the Nation of Islam and instilled in her a strong sense of self.
“I grew up with a lot of afrocentric books and art. My parents celebrated me and taught me to be proud of being black,” Shariff said.
She says her quest for justice for her community is what keeps her going. Others note her penchant for visually startling public demonstrations as a means to that end.
“I remember Nayyirah Shariff dressed up in a yellow HAZMAT suit with a sign saying, ‘We are not lab rats,’” said Guyette.
Though tired from months of shepherding the international press corps that descended on Flint in the wake of Guyette’s story, Lewis-Patrick, Taylor, McClinton and Shariff say they’ll keep protesting until they know that the water is absolutely safe. That may be a while — in Detroit, water shutoffs are about to resume for people behind on their bills, and in Flint, residents are still experiencing the aftermath of this man-made tragedy.
“This is going to be a long term struggle for reparations,” said Shariff.
“We have to fight to fix our infrastructure, [and] we need a full refund for paying for toxic water and the long term medical care and wraparound services that citizens will need. We have to fight to restore our democracy — then we can have some justice from the emergency manager law that created this disaster.”
Guyette calls the four organizers “remarkable.” But these water warriors say that what they are doing is no different than the coal miners who organized around workers rights and health and safety regulations in West Virginia in the early 19th century, or auto industry workers in the 1950s who fought for pensions and stood in solidarity against repressive worker rules.
“Sometimes you have to force others to respect your right to be,” said Taylor.
“It is so unjust to deny someone something as fundamental as water.”