The Detroit People’s Water Board (DPWB) isn’t waiting for someone else to solve Detroit’s water problems. This community coalition is taking an out-front role on everything from fighting water shutoffs and privatization schemes to helping create a watershed plan for the region.
“Our name is a powerful statement,” says Priscilla Dziubek, a representative on the Board from the East Michigan Environmental Action Council. “People get that we are grassroots and we believe we have a rightful say in what happens with our water.” DPWB is at the forefront of emerging efforts in the Great Lakes region to reclaim our water commons. It was born when community organizers saw the need to bridge a number of different water issues in the city—protecting low-income residents’ access to affordable water, preventing pollution and working to keep Detroit’s water publicly managed and accountable.
“We focus on the question: what does water mean for all of us?” explains Charity Hicks, another founding member, from the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. “The Board has a cross pollinating effect among people focused on poverty, health, growing food, jobs, ecological survival. We attend to both human and ecological sustainability.”
The leadership of DPWB seeks to weave together social justice, citizen democracy and ecological health. The foundation for their work is fostering community and a deepened sense of the “we”—encompassing shared responsibility and equitable benefit.
“The commons is not just how I survive and adapt, but how we are all surviving and adapting,” says Hicks. Strong community ties, DPWB believes, not only enable people to see and value the commons—what is all of ours, our commonwealth—but also give people the clout to make sure no one is left out.
People’s Water Board members could see that people were concerned about their own water, but they weren’t necessarily making a political connection. “We call the questions: “Why in a water-blessed region are so many families’ shut off? Why would we turn over something so intrinsic to our public quality of life, our water, to private interests?” notes Hicks, describing the Board’s work to reconnect people to their water and to the community’s stake in what is happening. “We need to have a dialogue about those things we hold in common.”
DPWB is helping a community facing extreme ecological, economic and social stress to have a voice in decisions about water—decisions that are deeply intertwined with questions of racial equity, human rights, food sovereignty, and public infrastructure.
Seeing the water as a commons, as “all of ours,” Hicks and Dzuibek agree, empowers people. They can make a difference in water issues, and in a bigger way in how we will live together and on this earth, Hicks observes. “We are saying: you are part of this conversation, you are an expert, we are all experts. We have full agency. This is what democracy looks like.” — Alexa Bradley
Alexa Bradley is a Program Director at On The Commons. Her work includes a focus on the Great Lakes Commons Initiative, a broad organizing effort to catalyze a cross border citizen movement to put human need, ecological survival and democratized decision making at the center of the Great Lakes governance.