(This article originally appeared in RiverWise Magazine, Winter 2018. Riverwise is a community based magazine, working together to create media that reflects local activism and the profound new work being done in and around Detroit neighborhoods.)
We The Youth Detroit, an outgrowth of We The People Detroit (WTP), and DAYUM (Detroit Area Youth United Michigan) met early at the Cass Commons before heading out to collect water samples on a chilly November morning. This youth-led effort to mobilize around school water issues began in October on Count Day. Instead of attending school, student protesters gathered for classes on water testing and youth activism.
Youth organizers, mostly students from the Detroit Public Schools, are continuing to raise awareness around access to safe drinking water in school buildings and surrounding communities. They are raising their voices in response to a lack of planning by Detroit Public Schools (now DPSCD, or Detroit Public School Community District) in the face of yet another water-related public health crisis. Their education is growing beyond the confines of the classroom as they explore grassroots organizing and political self-awareness.
On August 24, DPS officials ordered drinking water in all Detroit public schools to be shut off after the most recent water-testing revealed toxic levels of lead and copper. Two-thirds of the schools tested (16 out of 24) were beyond acceptable levels, prompting the shutoffs. Subsequent testing found additional schools were also affected. Thus far, 57 of 86 schools tested have shown high levels of lead and/or copper. All Detroit public schools are utilizing bottled water and water coolers for drinking while more test-results are pending.
We The Youth Detroit gathered at the Cass Commons Saturday, November 10 before heading into neighborhoods near affected schools to test the water of concerned households. The effort is part of a growing movement for self-determination in the area of water rights. These students are not satisfied with the notion that the high levels of toxins are limited to the affected school buildings. They want expanded testing in the neighborhoods around the schools, at the very least.
Youth participation, says Rejoice Douglas, a co-founder of We The Youth Detroit and board member of DAYUM, is a vital aspect of the mission. “What we’re doing here today is a youth-led water testing because, in October, we did a count-day strike to represent our position as students and show that we have a voice and we can come together because of the water situation that’s going on right now. One of our biggest and most popular demands was to get affordable testing for the citizens of Detroit. Today, that’s what we’re trying to do— we’re going out to people’s homes, testing their water, and being able to give them results back. So we’re really excited to be able to do this project.”
Leading up to the November 10 testing, the coalition of youth water-testers studied the list of all of the schools that tested positive for lead and mapped out the schools which showed the highest levels (Cass, Cody and Denby). They surveyed those locations and broke off into teams to canvass affected communities, ultimately spending the November 6 mid-term election day recruiting potential participants from polling stations near those schools. The process resulted in 100 households from those three neighborhoods signing up to have their water tested.
This set the stage for three teams of water-testers to collect one liter of water from those households, to be tested later at the University of Michigan Biological Station in Ann Arbor. Seeing the young people surrounding the large staging table at Cass Commons— going over phone lists, double-checking forms and releases, boxing empty water bottles, distributing safety vests, hand warmers and other provisions, marshaling adult drivers— was like witnessing a well-trained battalion readying for deployment.
Letia Leonard, an organizer with Freshwater Future, would be one of the generals if the group were indeed a battalion. She helped the coalition members with the very real logistical challenges of carrying out a public water-testing initiative. Leonard says that, though the effort was multi-disciplinary, the students were up to the task.
“With a thousand water issues going on here in Michigan, with lead and everything, my organization has organized a similar water-testing effort in Flint. So we got together with We The People and saw an opportunity for us enact a similar educational, hands-on, youth-led program here at DPS,” Leonard told Riverwise. “Really with this program, it kind of entails a lot of different things we’ve been teaching the kids— being able to teach them how to communicate the scientific stuff about lead, the effects that it has on the body, how to speak to the households, like public speaking, and also just community organizing in general— it takes a lot of effort to do something like this, getting them excited and able to produce something that’s really going to impact their community.”
Cass Tech junior, Brooke Solomon, told Riverwise that she got involved as a continuation of the DPS Count Day Strike carried out due to the water shutoffs, “And from there we decided that we needed to do more, so this is what that more became. I think that once a lot of people are educated about what’s actually going on in their community, and in their households, then we’ll start to see action. I don’t know what that action will look like, but I think that once people are educated, they’ll be able to go from there.”
We The People of Detroit co-founder and CEO Monica Lewis-Patrick stresses that DPS students, some of whom were part of the WTP youth internship, responded immediately after the announcement that drinking water in their schools was compromised and would have to be shut off.
“So what we began to talk about is their own power and agency as students and as citizens within the city of Detroit,” Lewis-Patrick told Riverwise. “They began to attend meetings with the Mayor, they attended meetings with DWSD (Detroit Water and Sewage Department), they challenged the Mayor, they challenged the Superintendent (DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti), Gary Brown (Director of Detroit Water and Sewage Department), really trying to seek some resolve around the question, how long have you known? What they realized is that all the adults were suppressing their voice. Many of our young people are leaders at their schools— they’re at Cass, they’re at Renaissance and Denby and Mumford. They’re presidents of their student bodies, they are honor roll students, and they were threatened just for asking these questions. They’ve been met with major aggression and hostility.”
Lewis-Patrick says that the adults at WTP didn’t have to drive the questioning or frame the issue for youth leaders. They just “stayed in the room” and provided support when needed. And what they discovered was an emerging political force who began to see that there was a need for them to find out for themselves, and their communities, what the quality of their water is.
“They just deputized themselves and began to mobilize around trying to find out from the Superintendent what had really happened to the water quality, how long they had known, who had control over the water system within the school,” Patrick said at the November water-testing set-up. “And just by asking those basic questions, they came back to us and asked, what can we do?”
For more information on We The People of Detroit and youth-led water testing in communities and households lacking access to clean water, visit
www.wethepeopleofdetroit.com/youth, or freshwaterfuture.org.