The women who founded We the People of Detroit (WPD), women who proudly call themselves “water warriors,” recognized that far too often, the relationship between people of color and water was negative and traumatic. And they decided that relationship needed to change.
“We had massive water shut offs here in Detroit. We had water issues in Toledo with the algae blooms. We had the Flint water crisis and water poisoning there,” said WPD Co-founder Debra Taylor. “It just seemed like the issues around water and people of color’s relationship to water was all related to trauma and a negative engagement with water.”
As a result, they did what warriors do — they organized and fought back.
WPD was created in 2008 by Chris Griffith, Aurora Harris, Monica Lewis-Patrick, Cecily McClellan, and Debra Taylor in response to emergency management over the city of Detroit and its public schools, as well as massive water shutoffs that the group says resulted in 100,000 residents losing water services as a result of unpaid bills. WPD organized a grassroots network of volunteers, pooled their own resources and stood in the gap providing water to Detroit residents while advocating for a sustainable water future in Michigan and throughout the Great Lakes region.
In just a little over a decade WPD has expanded its capacity from working out of automobile trunks and using their own resources to a thriving and nationally recognized organization backed and buoyed by strategic institutional partnerships, evidence-based strategies and community research, and investing in training the next generation of water warriors.
“(Detroit civil rights legend) Gloria House told us there was no need for us to look outside ourselves, and that through self-determination and cooperative work we could do anything,” said Co-founder Monica Lewis-Patrick. “We believed her.”
WPD successfully fought with other organizations for a statewide moratorium on water shutoffs during the COVID crisis and continued water deliveries throughout the pandemic to families that needed it. The group also invested heavily in technology, establishing The Blue Network tech hub. The organization’s Community Research Collective works on collecting data about water, land and education issues in Detroit and in 2022 conducted a water affordability analysis in partnership with Freshwater Future and the National Wildlife Federation.
“There was a time when the term ‘water affordability’ was only discussed in struggling communities,” Lewis-Patrick said. “Now it is part of the national conversation. I’m proud of that.”
Lewis-Patrick and Taylor said people of color are most impacted by lack of access to safe, clean and affordable water but are least likely to be at the table making decisions around policy issues — something that needed to change.
Another project is WPD’s Great Lakes People of Color Policy Center in Idlewild—an initiative WPD founders say is the manifestation of their commitment to changing the narrative and supporting young people. Against the alarming statistic that 70 percent of Black Americans don’t swim, WPD is building the next generation’s leadership skills and showing them that water is fun.
“We thought it important that we change the relationship to water for people of color.
We saw an opportunity where there was the history and culture of that land…you just feel drawn to it. We want them to learn about policy but we also want them to have fun with the water,” Taylor said.
Ultimately the consistency of the mission, rooted in love for community, has helped them find funders and connect with partners to expand their platform. It has also allowed them to plan for the future with a succession plan for the next generation to continue the work they started.
“If you Google us, our reputation has been one where we’ve been considered extremely radical. We’re still radical. Our values and principles are the same. But we’ve expanded. We’ve always had the ability to operate in a professional arena,” Lewis-Patrick said. “That fluidity has allowed us to navigate some difficult terrain but it also allowed us to meet allies and friends and put us in rooms and in front of audiences where funders feel comfortable funding us. The accountability is there. And we believe that We the People of Detroit 2.0, 3.0 and 4.0 — the next water warriors — will continue the work.”
We the People of Detroit is a grantee partner of Joyce’s Environment Program. Please visit their website to learn more about their work.
About The Joyce Foundation
Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.