Water Without: A reckoning on race, place and responsibility where black lives matter

There was garbage everywhere. Anticipation weighted the city air grayed by towering buildings of industries past. Bang! People scattered. Police patrolled almost every corner, and their barricades blocked the roads. Parents held onto their children tightly, protecting them from the speeding crowds. It was chaos. It was Detroit.

But this wasn’t the Detroit my Jamaica-born, New York–acculturated father had warned me about—the Detroit that had kept me nestled in my temporary suburban oasis in Ann Arbor, MI as a graduate student, my anecdote to the sleepless comforts of my Big Apple hometown. No, on this particular day, it was the 2014 Detroit Free Press Marathon, and the chaos was organized for runners like me. The strangers who filled the streets were not the desperate plebeians my father said would steal the underwear from under my jeans. Instead, they were my lifeline, supporting my efforts with their cowbells, chants, and placards of encouragement, most notably “Black Girls Run!” (Yes we do!).

Normally I would never accept food from strangers, especially after taking Epidemiology 503, but I was grateful to those who sliced fruit along the strategically charted course—a course that hid parts of Detroit from the new-to-town runners, like the family secret that everyone knows but no one mentions. Nevertheless, residents from all walks of life—from small Girl Scouts to Detroit’s elders—cheered us on as they feverishly filled cups of water, indiscriminately handing them to runners in need.

Water. Getting water to those who need it.

As it happened, this very issue—getting water to those who need it—had brought the United Nations to Detroit on that very same day to those marginal neighborhoods the marathon course never reached. At the behest of Detroit activists, the UN investigated the city’s recent decision to deny water service to those behind a mere two months on their water bills. At a time of rising unemployment, rising poverty and rising water prices, more than 70,000 Detroit homes, predominantly belonging to low-income African-American residents, had been left without water.

Paradoxically, water projects in developing nations dominated the charity presence in Detroit on race day. “Support the Hope Water Project!” blared loudspeakers along the racecourse; samples of dirty water “from Kenya” were displayed at the Expo the night before. What a missed opportunity to connect the plight of under-resourced and disenfranchised communities around the world with the plight of thousands of Detroiters themselves—a missed chance to spread our compassion for strangers abroad to our neighbors here at home. A missed venture into the true nature of our politics, politics measured by our actions and not by shared—but unread— click-bait headline links. It was a miss I missed myself.

I told myself that my time in Michigan came and went before I learned what I could do to contribute to efforts combating the Detroit water crisis. But in between swigs from my warmer-than-room-temperature water bottle heated by sweat crying out of my palms, I knew I knew different. The distance to Detroit from Ann Arbor is only far for students when we want it to be.

Running through the streets of Detroit, painful admissions crept through thoughts of dehydration, tired feet and the new found lower back pain most likely caused by the sedentary student life. I was a hypocrite: a public health student studying how to improve health for poor communities of color whose last trip to Detroit was a drive from the airport. I had just touched down after a 35-hour commute from a three-month internship in rural Malawi working for a global health organization trying to help people access health care, healthy foods and potable water—needs barely different than that of residents of Detroit.

I first learned of the Detroit water crisis in the midst of a “water crisis” of my own. After months living in southern Malawi—months of bucket bathing, bucket toilet flushing and water bottle teeth brushing, I arrived to a hotel in Malawi’s capital city shower-ready. But there in the city, outside the rural back bush behaviors of borehole water pumping in the villages, Lilongwe too found itself with dry pipes.

Me preparing for a bucket bath

Me preparing for a bucket bath

Growing up traveling “back home” to visit relatives in Jamaica, this wasn’t my first time without the reliable convenience of urban water supply. Now was just my first time with the responsibility to do something about it. For two weeks I walked as many miles one-way to the local Indian immigrant-owned shop to buy 5-liter jugs of filtered water. Learning from the women I watched in the villages, I clumsily carried the water on my head so I could more easily peruse through my Facebook newsfeed scrolling across my iPhone. The day was just too hot for cultural immersion and for a moment, I allowed my Americanness to bleed through the chitenge wrapped around my hips that concealed my tight-fitting Reebok workout capris.

Ice Bucket Challenge. Detroit Water Shut-offs. Mike Brown’s Murder. Facebook painted a triptych of my disillusionment with America and instantly snatched me out of my showerlessness despair. I watched my peers dump potable water I didn’t have onto their heads. A creative way to raise money for ALS, yes, but undoubtedly a waste of resources and a slap in the face to people around the world who struggle to access and conserve it. The brunt of climate change rests disproportionately on communities that did not cause it, communities too poor to be culpable of such unsustainable mass resource consumption. One bucket dumped could have hydrated a whole household in Detroit. Such a disregard that water gives life. A clear statement on whose life matters.

Water collection at a borehole

Water collection at a borehole

Mike Brown’s murder hit me hard. Though I couldn’t place Ferguson, much less Missouri on a map—evidence of coastal conceit—it took me back to my mother’s warnings that began in high school. She finally agreed to buy me a North Face down winter coat—the uniform of black urban youth in New York City—but warned me not to keep things on the inside pocket because a young boy was shot to death by police officers who thought his bag of Skittles was a gun. I thought she was just being overprotective, swept up in an immigrant flight from the social status of American Blacks. But ten years later, her story and warning remain eerily relevant.

Black Lives Matters march in Seattle, WA | August 2015

Black Lives Matters march in Seattle, WA | August 2015

Mike Brown’s murder, the incessant news coverage and the continuing trauma of police brutality against people who look like me affected me more because I was away. Away and surrounded by white Westerners who were surrounded by black Malawians living in the debilitating inertia of colonialism, oppression and the white man’s burden of international aid. I felt invisible. I was in pain. I felt like I had nowhere to belong.

Here I was, pining to return to my apartment in a state that was denying water access for so many people who looked just like me. I was ready to go home because I was tired of meeting white-skinned expatriates who even after speaking with me for 30 minutes still fixed their lips to ask me what “village” I came from. Manhattan, asshole.

But even in America, my blackness is still misunderstood. My blackness is a threat. My blackness is violent. My blackness could get me killed. But if that blackness was African, white Westerners would leave behind everything they knew to fly over their black poor neighbors to “help” black poor Africans in need. Was I guilty of the same? What place do I belong? What responsibility do I bear?

Whether in Malawi or Michigan, I just couldn’t breathe. If this was a different story, I’d tell you exactly what that felt like: to feel misplaced, misrecognized, helpless, hopeless, purposeless, bombarded with images, messages, burdened by the truth of history playing out in my now, my life, regardless of continent, because of my color, lacking space, lacking counsel, and lacking water. The intersectionality overwhelmed me, weighing more than the 5-liter jug on my head.

But this isn’t that story. And I’m still working in Malawi and black American bodies are still dying from institutionally sanctioned racism. I’m still looking for space and place to belong, to be recognized, to be human— the side effects of a nomadic colored life.

Eventually I arrived back home in Michigan and took a shower that I ran for too long. I sat out on my balcony with a friend, ate take-out Thai food and coughed myself to tears from just one puff of marijuana, while overlooking a meticulously manicured lawn that required more water to maintain than I had used during my entire stay in Malawi. I eased into a brief respite soon to be shattered by the weight of reckoning my race, my place and my responsibility towards it all.

Now almost a year after the United Nations report— after the marathon— more than 100,000 people of Detroit’s declining population still live without water access. The way to water equity is evident, but the will is harder to muster.

Who then takes care of Detroit? Most certainly, Detroiters do. For instance, at the start of the New Year, the Michigan Muslim Community Council and the Islamic Relief USA together donated $100,000 to support Detroiters unable to pay for water access. The Detroit Water Brigade, a local volunteer-led organization, puts together barrels to collect rainwater in affected communities. Entrepreneurial plumbers help turn pipes back on for a few under-the-table dollars. Neighbors continue to share water to drink and shower. In face of the blue spray-painted stigma, several other organizations, community leaders and everyday people help accomplish what the city at large allegedly struggles to do—get water to those without.

"W/Cut" mark on house- Photo by Karah Shaffer

"W/Cut" mark on house- Photo by Karah Shaffer

I never did anything for Detroit. I literally and figuratively, just ran through it. And the truth is, I may not do anything for anyone anywhere I go. A hard reality for my new career in global health and development.

But maybe this time I can actually try. And maybe this time, my own way will become a bit clearer from months past— an ever-evolving reconciliation between my identity and my job, my race and my place, my politics and my actions. Maybe this time I will stop running through and instead run towards exactly where I need to be and what I need to do to make a difference.