Notes from Barry from a meeting with We the People of Detroit & a Democratic Presidential Candidate

This week, water justice team co-chair Barry Rubin attended a meeting with a Democratic Presidential candidate and We the People of Detroit. Check out his reflections here, along with the remarks he prepared (but did not get the chance to share).

Notes from We the People Meeting 7.29.19 with Presidential Candidate

We The People-Detroit (WTP) is housed at “The Corner.”  Yes, the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. Only it’s diagonally across the corner from where Tiger Stadium stood, in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

The location was a surprise as was the event I was headed to.  Monica Lewis-Patrick, CEO of We the People of Detroit, had invited me to speak to presidential candidates who were in town for the debates the next day. As I understood Monica’s email, I was to show up prepared to speak to candidates for 3-5 minutes about the topic I knew the most about, shut-offs and affordability.

The former governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, (JH) soon arrived.  Tall, thin, he smiled at everyone as he shook hands with everyone. The teens in the room were identified as members of this summer’s WTP youth group program which focuses on social, cultural and political education in an experiential way.  The group consisted of high schoolers and college students. Most were female. I came to understand that this whole day had been organized as one of their activities from which they could learn to interact with the famous and powerful, and some community activists.  Their task was really to ask questions of the candidate and us.

JH came into the room repeating the mantra that “Detroit is the comeback city.”  He repeated it to the consternation of Monica and others in the room, including me. The phrase is so dismissive of those who share no gains from the comeback and in fact may be suffering more from the displacements it has wrought.  Monica made it clear that it was the mission of those of us in the room to explain the realities of Detroit to the governor, the plight of those not covered by the term “comeback.”

A woman named Dr. Emily Kutil, who did research with WTP, made a slide presentation regarding the water situation in Detroit. Her maps and graphs created a picture of a city covered by shut-offs and foreclosures, except for the downtown and midtown areas.  Monica added to Emily’s report and other adults, like me, chimed in with more information. He understood but had no answers. Denver is not Detroit.  

Then a teen asked about what could be done about gentrification.  His answer was to state that many places in the country suffered from this and that there are no easy answers.  More subsidized rentals could be created for the poor, but buying in a gentrified area for the poor meant that in ten years there would be a profit and the owner, if he sold, would have to share the profit, and no one would want to do that. Finally a teen asked about how to improve schools.  Basically he said it was a local and state responsibility, but that increasing federal dollars would mean convincing Congress to take from other items like the military and that wasn’t likely to happen. After he left, the teens confirmed that his answers were not satisfactory. But Monica pointed out that at least he came, whereas, two others who were supposed to be present did not show, Kristen Gillebrand and Jay Inslee.

Lunch in a box was served while the event continued.  Other adults from the larger Detroit and water justice community were present.  Nick Leonard of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, Tony Spanola, the Michigan expert on everything PFAs, also an attorney, Gwen Winston, a former city council employee, Cecily McClellan, a former city hall employee and WTP person, and finally Dr. Joanne Watson, professor at WCCC and former City Council President were all present.  I was the community activist on water from the People’s Water Board.

Over the course of the next hour several more items were discussed with the teens, most relating to the mission of educating the youth group members to become active, informed social justice advocates.

  1. Joanne Watson told stories of African-American heroes she has known, many who have passed on.  She spoke of them as mentors to her. Her theme was that youth have always been a large part of Black movements and they needed to get active now too.  In addition, they have done it along with elders who have provided guidance and structure to the movement. She spoke of Rosa Parks, John Conyers, Erma Henderson, and she spoke of a white mentor too, Maryann Mahaffey.
  2. One of the teens asked again about the terrible state of education in Detroit.  After several adults spoke I added my piece. I introduced myself and my connections to the Pontiac Schools, another system denied resources and plagued by racism.  But I presented a larger picture going back to the 1980s and Reagan’s attacks on education and unions. I explained the attack on public education as a conservative movement money grab of public education funds which it saw as a target for amassing more private wealth.  In addition, their anti-union sentiments drove them to attack public funding because it was supporting teacher union growth and unions were always the right’s greatest political foes. From then on public education itself has been attacked, denied resources including better pay, and we’ve seen the rise of private schools and private charters.  These schools have tapped into public school funds which has led to dramatic teacher shortages and Republicans continue to demean public education. Finally, I explained the history of how Governors Engler and Snyder decreased funding for schools, leading to today’s terrible state of affairs.
  3. Gwen Winston, who worked for the city council for 25 years and who Monica described as a “political genius” talked about how Black teens needed to go about developing their political selves.  She spoke of not being afraid to go into meetings and speak up. It was about being knowledgeable enough to ask the right questions. Direct questions. Questions that attack lies. Questions that attack racism.  And then when white folks go silent, know what to do next. Her advice was profound and impactful on the teens.
  4. Much praise was heaped on the teens for becoming engaged.  And it was made clear that much is expected of them.  Clearly, WTP sees this program as an important part of their work in fighting poverty in Detroit.

Prepared Remarks to Democratic Presidential Candidates 7 30 19

Good afternoon.  My name is Barry Rubin I am a white, privileged, volunteer in the fight for water justice in Detroit.  I am here as a member of Detroit Jews for Justice and our ally in water justice work, the People’s Water Board. The latter represents about 3 dozen non-profit organizations, including We The People-Detroit and I thank them for the opportunity to address you today.

I come from a religious heritage that proclaims “justice, justice, you shall pursue.”  I try to do my best, everyday, aware of the stories of those who are truly struggling to maintain the health and dignity of themselves and their loved ones due to the tragic, malevolent actions of those who would deny them water!

As I focus on Water Justice today, I want to share 2 goals with you that we are working on locally and statewide and that we urge you to work on at the federal level:

  1. An end to the practice of government or private utilities being able to shut off people’s water.
  2. The implementation of water affordability plans across the country.

I want to address the goals one at a time, though they are closely related, as are solutions.

First, an end to shut-offs.  It must become the law of the land that there is a human right to clean, affordable, accessible water and sanitation services.  At the height of shut-offs in Detroit, the UN came here and declared it so. Yet since 2013 there have been more than 100,000 water shut-offs in Detroit.  How can we, as a society, much less the richest country in the world, deny anyone water? Water is life! The health of individuals, neighborhoods and the whole metro area depends on all residents having access to water and sanitation.  The law must also provide for legal sanctions against public and private utilities that withhold these.

Next, the implementation of water affordability across the country.

In Detroit, many residents just cannot afford to pay their water bills.  Around 35% of Detroiters live below the poverty level. The bottom 20% of residents by income level in the city, have bills averaging 10% of their household income.  Yet the EPA says that no one should be paying more than 4% of their income for water and sanitation. Deliberately enforcing rates that people cannot afford to pay is cruel, inhumane.

The federal government must establish the guidelines for state and local water affordability plans.  They must include non-discrimination in accord with civil rights laws and the ability to pay, income-based rate setting, consumer protections, and public participation in major decisions related to water and sanitation.  The guidelines must ensure that no one has to sacrifice paying for other necessities in order to pay for water and sanitation. They must ensure that rates produce no adverse health effects for individuals or the community.  Emergency assistance for paying bills must also be a part of the plan.  

But the federal government must do more to help relieve the forces that presently and in the future place so much pressure on local water systems financially and structurally, making the adoption of affordability plans less likely.

At the federal level the single biggest effort that could bring relief to water rates in the country and would encourage affordability plans to be adopted locally, would be a major effort to fund water infrastructure.  Presently around only 5% of water infrastructure is being funded by the federal government. States and local governments simply do not have the resources to make the changes needed to maintain and improve their water systems, to replace pipes, to add lines.  This results in higher water rates and the issuance of bonds just to keep the systems functioning. This lack of federal investment in the water infrastructure has resulted in the situation where more than 50% of each household’s water bill in Detroit goes to pay the interest on bonds the system must issue to pay for needed upkeep.

The challenges to Detroit’s water infrastructure have been apparent for 50 years and the system has been under EPA watch for years for this reason.  The way the old system functions, pipes are under great pressure, and stormwater and sewage run-off into the Great Lakes system has increased. Climate change will only continue to increase the pressure on the system with more water flow.  Federal investment in water infrastructure would relieve the need for the issuance of more bonds, thus lowering ratepayers obligations, and would help to save the environment, which is being degraded by the poorly functioning water system.  

A final consideration that can affect water affordability would be federal legislation that more closely governs clean water.  Climate change and pollution are playing havoc with water sources, especially on the coasts where rising sea levels are corrupting fresh water sources.  In Michigan we are struggling to find out the extent of PFAs pollution. All of this is limiting the amount of fresh water available across the country. The decrease in supply is causing an increase in demand, thus raising prices for water.  More and more places in the US have too many residents already who cannot afford their water.   

In conclusion, it’s easy to get lost in the facts, figures and rational arguments which are necessary to build the case for an end to shut-offs and a case for water affordability plans.  However, in this quest for water justice we must never forget the individual stories of those who suffer everyday from the loss of water.

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