Detroit

Water Warriors

Photo by Cybelle Codish. Image by JP Keenan/Sojourners.

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 — and 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.

Thirsting for Democracy

Juergen Faelchle / Shutterstock
Juergen Faelchle / Shutterstock

How are a poisoned water supply in Flint and water shut-offs in Detroit connected? Tommy Airey, co-editor of RadicalDiscipleship.net, talked with Detroit activists Monica Lewis-Patrick and Cecily McClellan to get the story behind the story.

LONG BEFORE water shut-offs and poisoning in Flint, democracy in much of Michigan had been hijacked. By the time a governor-appointed “emergency manager” was foisted on Detroit in spring 2013, every large black-majority city in Michigan—from Flint to Benton Harbor to Highland Park to Saginaw—had been appointed an EM, stripping all powers from elected leadership while possessing the authority to renegotiate or cancel union contracts, hire and fire government employees, and sell, lease, or privatize local assets.

Two years ago, about the same time that Flint’s EM transferred the city’s water source from Detroit’s water system to the highly toxic Flint River, Detroit’s EM ordered the city water and sewerage department to begin shutting off the water of all Detroiters who were two months or more behind on their water bills.

Today, in a city with 40 percent of its population surviving below the poverty line, Detroit water rates are twice the national average, and an estimated 100,000 residents, including many elderly folks and children, have had their water shut off by the city. The measures are forcing many longtime, low-income residents, the majority of them black, to leave the city.

Since 2008, the grassroots organization We the People of Detroit (WPD), led by five African-American women, has been creatively resisting emergency management—first of the school system and then the entire city—with a steady campaign of awareness-raising, canvassing, water delivery and advocacy for shut-off victims, and a comprehensive mapping project soon to be released.

Monica Lewis-Patrick is the charismatic, energetic point guard of the group, fueled by the Holy Ghost and her morning standard: a cup of coffee sweetened with four sugar packets. Lewis-Patrick, who’s a grandmother and the mother of two teenage daughters, lost her bid for city council two years ago by a few hundred votes. A few weeks later, she lost her only son to gun violence.

Cecily McClellan, the quiet, confident, all-business power forward of Team WPD, is a retired city employee and former vice-president of the Association of Professional and Technical Employees.

I spoke with them at WPD headquarters on the third floor of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church—a stone’s throw from a downtown getting a corporate facelift financed by public bonds, subsidies, and tax abatements to draw companies in from the suburbs, while many residents struggle just to survive and keep their homes. —Tommy Airey

Tommy Airey: Let’s get this straight: Are you advocating for free water for low-income Detroiters?

Monica Lewis-Patrick: Free water has never been the ask. Personally, I’m not opposed to free water. I believe that water is a human right, and that everyone should have access to it. But the ask here in Detroit has always been for affordable water.

What are the mayor’s objections to an affordability plan in Detroit?
Lewis-Patrick: Over the last 11 months, water shut-offs have led to more foreclosures and pushing people out of the city. We believe [city officials] do not want to participate in a water-affordability plan because it would allow more people to stay in the city, especially in communities they want cleared out for future development.

Is this a conspiracy?
Lewis-Patrick: Conspiracy, in my mind, isn’t the appropriate term, because a lot of times people marginalize conspiracy as just somebody’s idea or accusation. What I would say is that it has been a collaborative, well-orchestrated system of evil. We know for a fact, through all the political analysis and economic research that has been done, that the city bankruptcy didn’t have to go down. People saw it as an opportunity to be able to divest from the water department, to weaken the water department intentionally.

Flint was actually advised by the governor and his emergency managers to come off of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department system and then to become a part of another water system called KWA [Karegnondi Water Authority]. Flint was the largest external customer of the Detroit water system. How is it that you are advising us to become financially solvent, while at the same time all your deeds are making us insolvent?

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How a Married Gay Catholic Couple Lives Their Faith

Tom Molina-Duarte and Bryan Victor. Image via Eric Seals / Detroit Free Press / RNS

Because their Catholic faith is against same-sex marriage, Bryan Victor and Thomas Molina-Duarte made their wedding vows this summer before a Protestant minister in a Detroit Episcopal church.

Those in attendance included many family members, including Victor’s uncle, who is a Catholic priest and Macomb County pastor. The Rev. Ronald Victor did not officiate but was there because, he told his nephew, the Catholic Church “needs more examples of gay holiness.”

When Victor and Molina-Duarte attend Mass every Sunday, the couple go to a Detroit Catholic church, where Bryan Victor’s mom and dad join them in the pew. In their shared Catholic faith, Victor and Molina-Duarte find spiritual sustenance. And at their parish, they’ve also found acceptance.

Turning Toward Home

WHEN SHE’S TRAVELING around her north-central Detroit neighborhood, Lucretia Gaulden likes to carry her digital camera with her.

The 39-year-old lifelong Detroiter trains her lens at scenes that represent health—such as an outgoing person she admires, for example—as well as images that represent sickness and danger, such as vacant buildings.

That’s the assignment she’s working on in her photography class at the Bell Building. Until Lucretia came to the Bell Building 17 months ago, she never had a chance to participate in a photography class. When she was homeless, attending a weekly class of any type, even owning a camera, might have been out of reach.

Orphaned at 13, pregnant at 16, she found herself in prison at 25 after being convicted of being an accomplice to a crime committed by an old boyfriend. When she got out, she bounced between halfway houses and friends’ couches.

But since she’s arrived at the Bell Building, she’s been able to focus on what’s more healthy for her. In compliance with her lease, Lucretia pays rent every month on her own furnished one-bedroom apartment. She serves as a floor captain, with responsibilities for maintaining order and community among her immediate neighbors. She’s also part of the building’s Tenants Advisory Council and is a member of the speakers bureau, a group of residents who do public presentations and speak with the press. Their work is meant to help put a human face on the issue of homelessness.

Homelessness is an enormous problem these days in Detroit. As many as 25,000 of the region’s residents are chronically homeless. But when someone like Lucretia arrives at the Bell Building, just like that, the ranks are reduced by one.

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Weekly Wrap 6.27.14: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. WATCH: Powerful Ad Shows What A Little Girl Hears When You Tell Her She's Pretty
“A new Verizon commercial cites a sad statistic by the National Science Foundation: 66 percent of 4th grade girls say they like science and math, but only 18 percent of all college engineering majors are female.”

2.Sandy Hook Dad on What You Can Do Right Now to Help Prevent Violence 
“'Pick your eyes up from the sidewalk and look at people,' Mr. Barden pleaded, with tears in his eyes. Yes, we should call our representatives; yes, we should make our voices heard where laws are made. But we should also do what we can to foster empathy; to create a world where no one feels invisible and ignored — least of all those who disproportionately fall victim to our collective failure to care enough to act."

3. Facebook VP: Stop Portraying Me as Mother-of-Four Who 'Wanted it All''
"'When I got my post at Facebook it was all about how I was a mother-of-four who had 'won' the position, alongside pictures of my wedding,' she said, noting that the male executive hired at the same time came under no such scrutiny. Reports also said she insisted on working part-time, when in fact she was working a typical five-day week."

4. FIFA Go Home: Inside Brazilians' Struggle to Challenge World Cup 
From Mashable: "Their goal isn't so much to change the current World Cup in any specific way; it's more to challenge — and, ideally, impact — the mainstream narrative surrounding the tournament, shifting its focus to the event's human costs and larger political context. To the billions spent on stadiums that won't be used again and the millions living in abject poverty."

5. Ikea to Raise Its Average Minimum Hourly Wage to $10.76 
"The happier the co-worker, the happier the customer and the better the overall shopping experience," said Ikea's acting U.S. president, Rob Olson. "We wanted to be less concerned about the competition and more concerned about offering our co-workers a better everyday life."

6. The Decency of a Nation
A new index attempts to measure the 'goodness' of nations — based on the way they treat other nations, science and technology, culture, equality, etc. (Spoiler: guess who doesn't break the top 10.)

7.WATCH: 'Columbusing': When White People Think They Discovered Something They Didn't 
"Macklemore Columbused same-sex marriage, just like Gwyneth Paltrow Columbused Eastern medicine."

8.Use of Drones for Killings Risks a War Without End 
A bipartisan panel concluded that the use of armed drones "sets a dangerous precedent for lethal operations that other countries might adopt in the future," according to the New York Times.

9. Detroit Activists Call for UN Help as City Shuts Off Water for Thousands 
“Detroit has too much of some things – stray dogs, abandoned houses – and not enough of others, such as residents who pay their water bills. The latest sign of Detroit’s decline came from the city’s water department, when it said in March it would begin shutting off water for up to 3,000 homes and businesses a week in an attempt to stop the utility from sliding even further into debt.”

10. PHOTOS: Inside a Detention Center for Migrant Children 
The Customs and Border Patrol is overwhelmed by a flood of minors entering the U.S. from Central America.

Why I Am Still In Detroit

Ed Samuel/Shutterstock.com
Ed Samuel/Shutterstock.com

Nine days after my Dad’s memorial service on June 7, I am still in Detroit.

I am still in Detroit to volunteer as a member of the More Light Presbyterians communications team at the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

I am still in Detroit because, for the better part of three decades, my father was an active member of the progressive movements within PCUSA for affirmation and inclusion, for peace with justice.

I am still in Detroit because my dear friends who got married on my former land in rural Tennessee could not have their vows acknowledged by church or state because they are both men.

Diverse But Not Integrated: Religion’s Race Problem

by Dustin Cable at University of Virginia
Map of Racial Distribution in Detroit, by Dustin Cable at University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King immortalized many phrases still used in the contemporary American lexicon. But it was on Dec. 17, 1963 in a talk at Western Michigan University when he noted that the “most segregated hour in this nation” is 11 a.m. on Sunday.

Though many of King’s other famous quotes come from scripted speeches, the comment above actually was from part of a question-and-answer session with students and faculty about racial integration. He was asked if he believed that true racial integration must be spearheaded by the Christian churches, rather than in workplaces or on college campuses.

Suffice it to say that Dr. King begged to differ, and sadly, his words spoken 50 years ago ring eerily prophetic as we scan the halls of most of our churches. What he claimed then is still, today, a stark reality. He went on in his response:

“I’m sure that if the church had taken a stronger stand all along, we wouldn’t have many of the problems that we have. The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body.” 

But how? About the same time King made these keen observations, white people were leaving the inner cities by the millions, establishing more homogenous suburbs on the far boundaries of town. So-called “white flight” took hold, creating entirely new municipalities, while decaying urban centers were hollowed out, left only with an aging infrastructure and those who had no choice but to endure being left to fend for themselves.

As such, our churches were, in some ways, byproducts of the communities in which they found themselves.

By Accident of Birth

Eventually, Butch invited me to come to his home and meet his family. I felt deeply honored and very eager to go. But every time I asked him to write directions to his place, he would change the subject. Finally one day with pen and paper in hand, I sat him down and said, "Look, Butch, how do you expect me to get to your house if you don't write out directions for me?"

Awkwardly he began to scribble on the paper. I was deeply sad when I realized the reason he had hesitated before was that he could barely write; I was ashamed at my insensitivity.

That small incident was very significant to me. I went home that night and both cried and cursed. I could not believe that someone as bright as Butch had hardly been taught to write. I was furious at a system that had given me so much and him almost nothing, simply by virtue of our skin color. By accident of birth, I had all the benefits and he all the suffering. I vowed again through angry tears to do everything I could to change that system.

New & Noteworthy

A VITAL WORD
In I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson, Kristin LeMay explores in detail 25 poems as "witnesses" to Dickinson's wrestling with God. LeMay elegantly combines accessible literary analysis with her own spiritual memoir of search, doubt, and faith. Paraclete Press

BLESSED ASSURANCE
South African native Jonathan Butler has earned praise in the R&B, contemporary jazz, and gospel music fields. His latest album, Grace and Mercy, offers gentle songs that proclaim faith and hope in the midst of troubled times. Rendezvous Music

NO EASY FREEDOM
Sharon Leslie Morgan and Thomas Norman DeWolf explore the continuing legacy of American slavery in Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade. In alternating narratives they reflect on three years of travel, historical research, and mutual vulnerability. Beacon Press

ALIVE AND KICKING
We Are Not Ghosts, a film by Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young, is an inspiring, but not sugar-coated, portrait of how some people in Detroit are recreating life and community there in the wake of industrial collapse and suburban flight. Bullfrog Films

 

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