We Are All Flint

Statement from SxSW Experiment

January, 2016

In Flint, Michigan children … and their families, too … have been systematically poisoned by water adulterated with high levels of lead as the result of the state’s gross negligence and wanton disregard of the health, safety and welfare of the people.

The overseer of Flint, a state Emergency Manager appointed by the Governor to manage the city and acting under this authority, made the determination to cut the city budget by changing the source of water from Detroit to a local river. The state’s manager made this shift in the water source apparently without regard and indifferent to the corrosive impact that the acidic river had on the pipes that began to deliver lead-permeated water to the trusting, unsuspecting local families of Flint. Local residents drank it, bathed in it, cooked with it, brushed their teeth with it, and now they are suffering serious nerve, brain, skin and other maladies that are caused by lead poisoning and other adulterating elements in the water.

Having caused the problem in the first place, the Governor and manager moved way too slowly and with a negligible sense of urgency to address this calamity until the Flint Mayor declared an emergency and the gross errors in judgment by the state became a national embarrassment on the national nightly news.

We are grassroots community and labor organizations that work for environmental justice, effective public education, living wages and fair working conditions, just development policies and accountable governance. Our constituencies are people of low-wealth. Our communities are made up of African-descendent, Latino and Indigenous people in the U.S. South and Southwest.

We are appalled! Flint, Michigan is a city with a majority of African-descendent people, and one that has suffered from corporate disinvestment that has left over forty percent of the city’s residents living in poverty.

We note that, over the past decade and more, Michigan’s answer to poverty and accompanying fiscal crises in communities subjected to corporate disinvestment has been the imposition of autocratic rule on those communities by the State Government. Like several other predominantly Black cities in Michigan, Flint residents were subjected to undemocratic, authoritarian rule by an Emergency Manager appointed by and directly accountable to Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder.

It was within the context of that regime that the decision was made – ostensibly in the name of saving money – to make the Flint River the source of the city’s municipal water delivered to homes, public spaces and businesses. Since that time in April of 2014, Flint residents have been exposed to heavy metals including high concentrations of lead, volatile organic compounds, and bacteria delivered to them via their public water.

Following many months of increasing public concern and, finally, the declaration of a State of Emergency by the new Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, Governor Snyder responded by firing his head of Environmental Quality, issuing an apology, appealing to the federal government, and attempting to spread the blame on the state bureaucracy.

Mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, grandparents, sisters and brothers wonder what the Governor, the State of Michigan and now, the Federal Government will propose to do to alleviate the infrastructure crisis in Flint and the long-term human damage that has resulted. Governor Snyder and his administration bear direct responsibility for both. Indeed, the Governor and others face the specter that they could be found criminally negligent in this matter.

There is another critical question: How do we address the infrastructure crisis throughout the United States? As in Flint, this issue disproportionately burdens communities of people of color and of low-wealth. This is not simply a question of failure of public investment. It reflects a deep structural problem that threatens to create future public health disasters.

The deeper message of Flint goes beyond the dangers of human error or even negligence, and beyond the actions of state governments that would facilitate the impoverishment of our people. It is about a crisis in the U.S. that threatens the lives and well-being of a growing majority of the population.

The neoliberal model of development that underlies the strategic political policies in Michigan that led to this crisis has as its cornerstone the privatization of public resources and public services. This model is supported by both major political parties and bankrolled by those who have accumulated tremendous wealth at the direct expense of people of color and of low-wealth.

It is a mode of development that is rooted in the systematic undermining of the right to democratic participation by limiting the capacity of local people to impact the formation and implementation of public policy … whether in Flint, across the US, or in other parts of the world. The same forces that have made the Flint disaster possible are the same ones that are bent on privatizing public water supplies and preventing a just resolution to the growing world climate disaster.

We stand in solidarity with the people of Flint, who are on the frontlines of the struggle for democracy. We share their struggle for democracy and for a transition to a just society that more fully values human life and development.

New Tool: “Sharing Our Stories, Sharing Ourselves”


The South by Southwest Experiment is pleased to offer the first volume of our Living Curriculum Series, “Sharing Our Stories, Sharing Ourselves,” during this year’s Facing Race conference in Dallas, TX, and at key moment for racial justice movements.

  • Recent mid-term elections were characterized by voter suppression throughout the South and other parts of the country. While the Democratic Party lost big, there were both wins and losses for communities organizing for racial justice, including minimum wage hikes across the country.

  • The community of Ferguson, MS continues to organize and mobilize for just policing in communities of color.

  • Over 2 million deportations of immigrants have taken place over the last 8 years, far and away the largest such number of deportations in US history over such a period of time.

  • 10 million families live in poverty. The economic recovery has left out millions of people of color and low-wealth.

The SxSWE Living Curriculum series is designed to be a tool for racially diverse communities and organizations that can help them to better engage in efforts to build partnerships across racial divides. It is the result of several years of work by the SxSWE partners Southern Echo (MS), Southwest Workers’ Union (TX) and SouthWest Organizing Project (NM).

The first volume “Sharing Our Stories Sharing Ourselves” is a practical guide that includes exercises used within the SxSWE partnership and also with dozens of allied organizations that allow participants to share their personal and organizational experiences and histories with others in order to build authentic relationships across race, geography and issue. The specific exercises covered include:

  • Life Road Map: Personal stories towards self- and movement-formation

  • Collages: Artistic expressions of self

  • Collective Timeline: Sharing our history and our resistance

Use the viewer at the top of this page, or go to the direct link: http://issuu.com/centerformediajustice/docs/v_1_sharing_ourselves_small

Second segment of Will Copeland’s Reflections on last weekend’s “Building Bridges: Accountable Governance” convening in Jackson, MS

South X Southwest Experiment
Building Bridges to Empower a True Majority
Jackson, MS July 26-July 29

by William Copeland
East Michigan Environmental Action Council (Detroit)

Report 2

It was challenging to participate fully and remain fully engaged, but at the same time keep in mind that we are not direct partners in SxSW Experiment and that the coalition building is not aimed at us. in other words I had to be ok with fully participating at the margins of the exchange.

One way I achieved this was by saying “Yes” to whatever role was asked of me. I served on a small synthesis committee of 3 people from organizations that are not in the coalition. We were tasked with giving personal evaluation as to whether the weekend met its goals. One powerful framework put forth this weekend was “We didn’t come here for answers.” The convening organizers recognized that creating models of accountable governance is a long term project. (By this weekend the partnership has already been 6 years in the making).  They sought to bring in staff, youth, members of the core organizations with allied elected officials and national partners (such as EMEAC). Another framework that was discussed was the political advancement from protest to policy to co-governance to implementation as a pathway to implement policies that will be in the community’s best interests and are accountable to the community.

In my synthesis presentation I mentioned EMEAC’s Up South Down South Global South initiative. I focused on the importance of communities where people of color are numerical majority using democratic practices to create policy tools that can be shared with the rest of the nation. As a Detroiter in an 85% Black city it is a challenging research question — to do a power analysis — to understand why our local policies do not reflect the needs of this majority community. The political and strategy question is what can we do about it.

We all went out dancing on the last night. The Central Mississippi Blues Society rocked the house. During a break in the music I was asked to perform. The crowd enjoyed “Dedication,” “Respiration,” and “Organic Activist.”

Another strategy I used was limiting my Detroit comments to about 1 per workshop. I tried to make connections and highlight similarities and differences between our local situation and the situations discussed in the South and Southwest. I talked about the impact of Mayor Coleman A. Young being Detroit’s first Black mayor and raising the standard of community accountability that still haas yet to be equalled. I talked with a Mississippi school board member about their state takeover (conservatorship) and similarities of Emergency Management in Michigan.

Lastly an important strategy was building relationships during the meals, breaks, and other down time. Again, I used this strategy so that the group time wouldn’t be dedicated to relating to the issues of Detroit, but with specific individuals I could have exploratory conversations about how our socio-economic struggles, political challenges, or organizing efforts shared common similarities. In other words, we exchanged tips. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but a list that may be of significance to allies in Detroit:

Diana Lopez, Southwest Workers Union, Food Justice
I loved hearing about their Food Justice organizing and campaign work, including a campaign where youth investigate urban grocery stores in San Antonio and point out shortcomings in produce and healthy options

Javier Benavidez, Center for Civic Policy, Gentrification
He has studied gentrification and has some resources to share. We engaged in a comparison of gentrification in Albuquerque and Detroit

Amelia Hunter, Southern Echo, Digital Justice
Wants to increase broadband access in rural Mississippi. Got excited when I told her about BTOP programming and wants to share models.

Emma, Liz, etc. SouthWest Organizing Project
Using student bill of rights as organizing tool to empower youth to understand and demand rights

Mike Sayer, Southern Echo, Electoral Politics
Wants to dialogue about electoral strategies for community governance given new city charter in Detroit.

Will Copeland of EMEAC (Detroit) reflects on Building Bridges to Empower a True Majority: Accountable Governance Convening

Will Copeland with Sondra Youdelman and Monserrat Alvarez during convening synthesis panel in Jackson. Photo by Al White.

South X Southwest Experiment
Building Bridges to Empower a True Majority
Jackson, MS July 26-July 29

by William Copeland
East Michigan Environmental Action Council (Detroit)

I was tasked to represent EMEAC at this SxSW convening. I had a powerful experience and I am writing some reflections. I expect to write 2-4 reports when all is said and done.

Report 1

End of the first full day. Even though I missed a significant portion of the day because of dialysis, the day was very meaningful, and set the tone for not only inspirational learning experiences but also long term communication, solidarity, and collaboration.

From the beginning a light but focused tone was set for cultural sharing and political education. At the opening dinner, the hosts made lots of jokes and kept repeating “We’re going to work hard this weekend.”  This process was anchored by Southern Echo (MS), Southwest Organizing Project (NM), Southwest Workers Union (TX) who set the triple context of the South x Southwest organizing in terms of the context of difficulty and social opposition, the deep (historical) population majorities of communities of color, and the depth of collaborative & intergenerational leadership that is poised to make national contributions.

The focus was on Black, Latino, and Native communities– They set the tone in terms I was familiar with: “We are under attack” “The war is real”  I met a brother from Detroit (who actually grew up in the same hood as Rayven and had people in common) who graduated from Tougaloo in Jackson. He talked about how coming down to Mississippi helped him see the systematic struggles and societal warfare in ways that were invisible to him back home in Detroit.

During the first day’s orientation we saw a film that showed highlights of the first convening (San Antonio, November 2011). One thing that struck me was the political commitment to intergenerational organizing. In EMEAC and Detroit, we are growing youth organizing capabilities, but SxSWE organizations are including significant youth outreach, participation, and facilitation in their campaign work and political action. This weekend was thick with high school age youth up to young adults in their early 20s (I’d estimate 40% of attendees in this range). The workshops were designed to elicit significant political discussion and have enough energizers and interactive activities to keep young activists engaged for 8+ hours per day. This also is a testimony to how the young activists were prepared to be engaged in the space. At no point was there a separate “Youth Track”; they engaged with us on all questions and activities. There were some questions where  it was asked “How can youth engage in making accountable community governance?”  This intergenerational model of activism challenged me and gave me a lot to reflect on.

At the end of the first day we saw a powerful movie called “Precious Knowledge.”  This film describes the struggle to develop and maintain Mexican American/La Raza Studies in Arizona, where state lawmakers called the courses “unpatriotic” and “critical of the founding fathers” and “pro-Marxism and revolutionary” and successfully fought to get these courses removed from public schools and universities. I was moved to the point of tears to see this youth organizing in action. Not just young people communicating to each other, but young people being transformed by Knowledge of Self and fighting the power structure to hold on to that dignity and demonstrate it in the public sphere. To see these youth fighting for the high stakes of their own education (and education of future generations) was powerful.

This concludes my first report. A running theme I wrestled with all weekend is the propensity of young Detroit activists (20s and 30s) to not engage with systems of powers. We spend time teaching youth practices of growing food, leadership development, and parallel structures. It’s as if we gave up on the system and democratic ideas and lean towards underground values. I know this comes out of a critical assessment of living in a society that has been underdeveloped and disinvested in the last 40 years (since before many of us were even born). With the struggles over Emergency Management, the continued gutting of our public school system, and the revisions to the city charter this is an appropriate time to analyze our models of organizing. I would like to engage with Detroiters and activists from other regions to gain clarity on effective long-term political strategies for building up the Detroit community.


The Recall Reality: Stories from Hondo and Jasper, Texas

In the fall of 2009 in the small South Texas town of Hondo, three Mexican American city council members were officially recalled after a yearlong process that included petitions, protests by opponents of the recall, and a Justice Department Review. The city council members were recalled on the following grounds: “failure to meet their fiduciary duties by taking actions that placed the City of Hondo’s financial stability at risk.”

Underlying these accusations was the reality that Hondo’s 5 person city council had never before elected a majority of progressive candidates that made the issues of the predominantly low-income Mexican American residents a priority. The new council members instituted changes such as giving city employees raises and implementing city-wide home weatherization, beautification and street, curb, and drainage repair projects. The new council members also fought to have a more transparent governance process that was more accessible to community participation. Controversially, the city council voted to cancel the proposed expansion to city hall and the police department, and reduced the proposed energy rate increase to provide relief for the city’s poorest residents. Recall supporters and opponents disagreed about these measures and whether the city’s budget was properly balanced. Community support for the council members was evident at public meetings and protests. However, recall proponents eventually collected the required number of signatures (only a fraction of which were Latino residents) and eventually won the recall by 43 votes.

While this story out of Hondo did not receive substantial media attention, a more recent situation in Jasper, a small town in East Texas, has highlighted the all too similar reality in Southern politics. Last November in Jasper, 3 black council members were recalled after hiring the city’s first black police chief, Rodney Pearson. A group calling itself the League of Concerned Citizens started a petition to recall the council members on the basis of “incompetence, misconduct and malfeasance in office” (malfeasance is legalese for wrongdoing which violates public trust).

The group maintains that the recall efforts had nothing to do with race (although apparently all of the people who signed the petition were white), but stemmed from the belief that Mr. Pearson was not the most qualified candidate for the position. As a result of the recall election, the three black council members’ positions were filled by white candidates. The council, which is now a 4-to-1 white majority, voted last month 4 to 1 to fire Mr. Pearson based on his performance in the position. Mr. Pearson, who filed a complaint against the city with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and is preparing to sue, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I feel that I ran the department as best as I could with the support that I had.”

These stories highlight the problematic relationship between governance, power, and race in American politics. While we now have more elected and appointed officials of color than ever, they still face tremendous challenges when in office and often times lack adequate systemic and in some cases lack enough community support as well. These challenges are even greater in communities with deep divides along color lines and painful histories of race relations, widespread in the South and Southwest. During the Hondo recall community members recalled the stories of the walkout of 1974, when Mexican American parents pulled their children out of schools to protest unfair treatment and in some cases abuse.  In Jasper, a town still struggling to heal from the horrific murder of James Byrd and the visible vestiges of segregation in spaces such as the town cemetery, racial tensions have escalated with racial slurs surfacing at a City Council meeting and on Facebook.

These stories remind us that getting people of color elected into office is not enough. Ongoing efforts to minimize the participation and rights of communities of color exist and are compounded by the systemic pushback that occurs when our candidates do make it into office and make policy changes that diverge from the status quo. These stories emphasize the need for governance and organizing models that lift up the needs and interests of historically excluded communities of color and low wealth and supports our officials in the decision-making process. It also highlights the need for black, brown, and other communities of color and low wealth to work together to share struggles and successes, and support each other to build collective power that takes our histories, culture, and current needs into account.

Ultimately the recalls in Hondo and Jasper show that racism rears its head especially where power and control are concerned. Part of dismantling the deeply rooted racism that still exists in our communities requires fighting exclusion from effective access to the political process both internally and externally.

These stories show the present day reality in communities across the South, Southwest, and elsewhere in the country. With the increase in elected officials of color, and the subsequent pushback and the rise of race silent and rights-diminishing policy, it is a critical moment for our communities to organize to create change at the systemic as well as local level.