When Brian Hagerman arrived at the Great Lakes People of Color Water & Policy Center retreat this summer, one of the first things he did was swim in the historic Lake Idlewild. It was a big step for the 13-year-old from Detroit.
“I jumped right in,” Hagerman said. “I wasn’t nervous at all.”
Helping Black children from urban areas across the Great Lakes region redefine their relationships with water is one of the primary goals of the retreat, which is operated by a social justice and water rights advocacy group called We the People of Detroit. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation provides grant funding to We the People of Detroit to support the retreat and the group’s efforts to expand its work.
The weeklong retreat has been held each of the past three summers in historic Idlewild, located in northern lower Michigan. Idlewild was known as Black Eden from 1912 until the mid-1960s. Famous Black entertainers, celebrities and others flocked there because they were banned from white-owned resorts. Idlewild remains a Black community, one that is now being used, in part, to educate the next generation of water equity advocates.
Youth leaders from Detroit, Flint, Toledo and Chicago who attend the retreat learn about water issues in a safe setting, through art and scientific experiments — and by simply enjoying Lake Idlewild. Educators and water equity advocates at the retreat also encourage the youth leaders to get involved in water issues in their communities and consider pursuing careers in water science.
Monica Lewis-Patrick, a co-founder of We the People of Detroit, said her team uses a variety of techniques and activities to teach the youths that water is a precious resource that should be protected, respected and used wisely. The adults also help the young people conquer their fear of water.
“Many of our babies from Detroit and Flint didn’t even want to get in the water,” Lewis-Patrick said. “So, to be here with them, having fun and learning with them on this lake, was to be able to create art, to be able to use art as an expression of moving into joy, moving into healing, moving beyond pain.”
Studies have found that people of color in the United States are disproportionately affected by failing municipal water systems, soaring water rates and contaminated tap water. Black children in the U.S. also are more likely to drown than white children because nearly 64% don’t know how to swim, according to USA Swimming.
Lewis-Patrick, who is an educator and human rights activist in Detroit known as the “Water Warrior,” aims to flip the script on that narrative. She wants Black youths to grasp the importance of water, and to understand both why Black people are disproportionately affected by water issues and how the lack of access to safe, affordable water can cause racial tension.
Lewis-Patrick knows those issues well, having lived through Detroit’s policy of shutting off water to customers with past-due bills. From 2014 to 2019, Detroit shut off water service to 141,000 households.
That controversial policy was supposed to generate revenue for the city, which at the time was going through the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Lewis-Patrick said it threatened public health, disrupted families, and was traumatic for children and adults.
“We knew that, in the state of Michigan, if you don’t have running water for 72 hours, your children can be taken by Child Protective Services,” she said. “The only place that we saw them fully operationalize that policy was in Black Detroit.”
Advocacy work by We the People of Detroit helped to bring about a ban on water shutoffs in Michigan during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a water payment assistance program for low-income Detroit residents. The group’s work also has focused national attention and informed policy discussions around universal access to clean, safe, affordable water.
Those issues captured the public’s attention in 2014, when state-appointed emergency managers in two Michigan cities enacted cost-cutting measures that caused two separate water crises: widespread water shutoffs in Detroit and lead contamination in the city of Flint’s drinking water. Those crises were traumatic and caused many adults and children to fear tap water, Lewis-Patrick said.
The water retreat helps Black youth leaders from those communities develop different, healthy relationships with water amid the safe, friendly setting of Idlewild.
This year, 11 children from Detroit and Flint attended the retreat. They swam and kayaked in Lake Idlewild under adult supervision, tested water quality in the lake, made sand jars that replicated the complexities of the shoreline and created posters that explored their relationships to water.
“We allowed them to move in this space with creativity, innovation, and purpose — but moving in power and the connecting idea that, as each one does their part, we will be transforming our community and actually creating ourselves,” said Lottie V. Spady, a community educator and herbalist. She founded Earthseed Detroit, an educational community health program.
Hagerman said the water retreat taught him better communications skills and made him more comfortable interacting with others.
“It’s a safe space to express yourself more because it’s just so calming,” Hagerman said. “You get to know the people over a few days, and you learn more about them than you could ever learn about somebody in a year just by being in the same place for a week.”
Kinedy Starks, a 12-year-old Detroit resident, returned to the retreat in Idlewild this past summer because she enjoyed her time there in 2022.
“We went kayaking, foraging, we made sand art, and we spent a lot of time on the water,” she said.
On the final day of retreat, the children and adults were treated to boat rides on Lake Idlewild, a clean body of water that spans 105 acres. The night before, several adults participated in a long-table, intergenerational dinner with the youths.
“We saw it as a way to sort of reconstitute the Black family,” Lewis-Patrick said. “And to have the beautiful Lake Idlewild as our backdrop, to sit on historically Black land that Black people still own and control? Thank God.”
Editor’s note: The Mott Foundation thanks the Idlewild community, We the People of Detroit, the young leaders who attended the retreat and reporter Biba Adams for making it possible for us to share this story.