Liquid Life: Quotes from BLAC’s Roundtable on Water Justice

Community leaders gathered in October to discuss water access and environmental justice.

water access

On Oct. 14, we invited community leaders to BLAC’s first filmed roundtable discussion around water access and justice,moderated by Lynda Jeffries, Ph.D., senior consultant with The Leadership Group. Some of the most impassioned quotes gleaned from that exchange are in the pages that follow. Find the full video online at BLACdetroit.com and on our social media platforms.  

On equitable water access …

Every cell in our body is 70% water. We cannot function without it. Public health does not exist without water – period. The first ever documented set of studies in epidemiology, interventional epidemiology, were about polluted water and how it was making people sick.”

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– Abdul El-Sayed, M.D., epidemiologist, activist and former executive director of the Detroit Health Department 

“Without cleanliness of water or access to water, you don’t have what you need to be able to live a healthy, dignified life.”

– El-Sayed

“Any time the people that are without water are predominantly of color, we really have to start looking at it not just as environmental justice but racial injustice.”

– Sandra Turner-Handy, engagement director of the Michigan Environmental Council

On water justice pioneers …

“It is a lot of strong Black women that have led this fight, be it because they’re mothers, be it just because they’re Black women and they’re uplifting and securing families, but they have led this fight in every ring.”

–Turner-Handy

On the pandemic and water access …

“In February and March, the first piece of advice that anybody was given, even before we knew that masks were effective, was that you’ve got to wash your hands with warm, soapy water for 20 (seconds). And if you’re in a community where that water doesn’t run or it doesn’t run clean, then your ability to follow that basic advice – which, by the way, is still important, basic advice – becomes impossible.”

 –  El-Sayed

On the psychosocial impacts of water insecurity …

“(Detroit is) a city where 60% of the households are headed up by women of color, with anywhere from two to four children. So, just that threat that you may not be able to bathe them, fix their bottle, prepare them for the next day to go to school, keep their dignity and you go to work … it was impacting them on a deep level that was not only impacting them in terms of psychosocial distresses, but also their health.”

– Monica Lewis-Patrick, president and CEO, We the People of Detroit

On water rates and affordability …

“If Nestle can bottle unlimited amounts of our water for $400 a year, the cost isn’t the water – the cost is the infrastructure. And how we ask communities to pay for infrastructure and whose infrastructure to pay for is the heart of the equity question.”

– El-Sayed

Assistance plans are designed to fail – always. Somewhere down the line, you’re going to get a balloon payment that you can’t make. The idea is how do we make water affordable based on income?”

–Turner-Handy

On reaching across the aisle and collective power …

“As a collective voice, we can move mountains.”

– Turner-handy

“Today’s opponent can be tomorrow’s friend. Sometimes we get so caught up in the narrative of enemy versus supporter that we sometimes don’t use the opportunity to persuade and to engage, to call on people’s best instincts.”

– El-Sayed

On making change …

“The U.S. government up until the late ’70s was contributing about 68% to 69% of the dollars that went into water infrastructure. They’re now only contributing between 7% and 9%. So, that gaping hole in terms of budgetary obligation has left legacy debt on communities like Detroit.”

– Lewis-Patrick

“We didn’t stop with Detroit, because what we recognized is that policies that are just geared toward the needs of Detroit become deeply racialized in the state of Michigan. … We the People of Detroit sent me all across the state to be able to help people understand that it wasn’t just about Detroit, but it was about figuring out a pathway for all Michiganders.”

– Lewis-Patrick 

“What we need to do and what we need to recognize is that there’s power and there’s finesse – and we’ve got to come with both. You hit with the hammer a couple times, but always be ready for the change.”

– El-Sayed

On Detroit’s starring role in the fight …

“We sit on 23% of the world’s fresh water. We are the same city that put the world on wheels. We are still today the arsenal of democracy. So, we are at a critical point, because so goes Michigan, so goes the nation. But what we know is so goes Detroit, so goes Michigan.” 

– Lewis-patrick 

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