Is water a human right or a commodity? While this may not be a commonly asked question for many people, it is a hot topic of debate in Detroit, where residents have had to fight for access to safe and affordable water. These fights have been grounded in the analysis that “water is not just a commodity,” as lifelong Detroiter and civil rights activist Lila Cabbil argued, “water is life.” Known by most as “Mama Lila,” Cabbil spent much of her life fighting for the human right to water for the people of Detroit and continued until the day she joined the ancestors in 2019. Lila recognized the rights to water, food security, environmental justice, equitable development, and public accountability as issues of racial equity and fundamental aspects of the struggle for Black liberation. She spent much of her life in organizations and movements aimed at “undoing racism” and educating diverse populations that “racism impacts everyone.”
Mama Lila was raised in Detroit and spent much of her life involved in civil rights, anti-racism, and water accessibility activism. Her roots are buried deep in the city ever since she moved from North Carolina with her family as an infant. Growing up as both an East and West Sider, she admired her experience in Detroit because of the many perspectives of the city she has had throughout her life. In many of her interviews, Cabbil explained that she lived in the South-West portion of Detroit as a child, but explored much more of the city than just her own neighborhood. She was raised in the golden era of the civil rights movement and was no stranger to social activism. She said that she remembers riding the bus as a young woman, with no destination in mind, admiring the city and all of its innerworkings. She said also that, even from a young age, she has always seen the beauty in Detroit and takes pride in knowing the city as well as she does. In an interview with veteran Detroit organizer Linda Campbell, Mama Lila mentioned that, during her time in college, an assignment from Wayne State University Sociology Professor Jim Boyce that had a great impact on her. Boyce told the students to explore the city anywhere from 8-mile to the Detroit River. Cabbil said it allowed her to fully look at the assets in Detroit that were often overlooked, underutilized, untapped, and underfunded. From then on, she wanted to help people see Detroit for all of its beauty, instead of being fearful of it. This admiration as a young woman would not leave her in adulthood. Cabbil went on to be one of the most tireless activists in Detroit, never missing an opportunity to stand up for the rights and resources of others.
In the late seventies, Lila Cabbil became a close friend of legendary Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks. Cabbil was on Parks’ early committee for the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development in the late 1980s and would later become the president of the organization. She explains in an interview with Catayst Radio in 2013 that she and Rosa Parks had a friendship as well as a student-mentor relationship. She explained that Parks was a mentor and inspiration to her and that she is a lot of the reason that Cabbi had the courage to speak her voice about the issues facing the people of Detroit. Lila Cabbil began her career at Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development and always had the best interest of Detroit’s majority Black population driving her through her activism. She remained friends with Rosa Parks for at least thirty-seven years. Although her and Rosa Parks’ relationship allowed her to feel comfortable in the activist community, Cabbil has always wanted the best for Detroit and its community. Cabbil wasted no time getting to work and participating in and even founding some of Detroit’s most renowned organizations dedicated to anti-racism, human rights, and resource accessibility.
Detroit’s water crisis began in 2013, immediately following the imposition of an emergency manager who wanted to privatize DWSD and ordered water shutoffs to reduce DWSD’s debt to make it more attractive for sale. The crisis continued during the city’s bankruptcy proceedings, when DWSD abruptly shut off water service to tens of thousands of Detroit residents for nonpayment. Many activists including Lila Cabbil have worked for years to “change the broader narrative around water access.” The People’s Water Board (PWB) was formed around 2008 and grew out of organizing work in Highland Park after the crisis continued. “The fight we have in Michigan is very much racialized,” Cabbil says, “We need to understand that truth and we need to speak that truth. Because what is happening even as we speak in terms of how Flint and Detroit is being treated would not happen if it was a white community.” She then pointed out how the crises are being condoned by the silence of white people. She took a moment to remember late activist Charity Hicks who was a leader in the fight against the shutoffs and who encouraged people to wage love. Although Detroit was bursting with beauty and untapped potential, Cabbil was always aware of how systemic racism was impacting the city. “We must acknowledge and abolish the systemic racism that allows some to look the other way when their neighbors are deprived of their rights,” Mama Lila said in 2017 about the city’s water crisis.
Cabbil started the Detroit People’s Platform in 2013 to advocate for that majority and give them a voice. The message from the Detroit People’s Platform, from their website homepage is “building a Detroit where race and the priorities of majority Black Detroit are centered.” They write that their “work advances racial and economic Justice in the nation’s largest Black majority city by organizing with community residents and community leaders to build grassroots power and transform systems and structures that make real the vision for a more racially just Detroit.” The DPP was formed in efforts to shift the narrative of six main social justice issues: food and water justice, land justice, transportation justice, good government, poverty and inequality, and good jobs. The DPP was also heavily active during the beginnings of the Detroit water crisis and was supported by much of the Detroit community for the activism they were doing in order to bring awareness to the issue Detroiters were facing at the time. The work of the PWB and DPP are interconnected with the constant efforts of activists like Cabbil who wish for a Detroit, as well as a world, rid of systemic racism and white supremacy.
Mama Cabbil was an amazing and thoughtful teacher and activist for many, including the youth population of Detroit. She touched the lives of so many and worked with inspiring activists with the same passions to deconstruct the walls and obstacles built against Detroit’s majority Black population. Her roots in the city gave her an understanding of multiple perspectives and her work in anti-racist activism has had profound impacts on generations of activists and organizers. Her legacy lives on and those who knew her are committed to honoring her legacy with further activism for those who are unfairly disadvantaged in our capitalist world. At Mama Lila’s memorial in May of 2019, Poet and fellow Detroit activist Tawana Petty wrote, “Mama Lila was a champion for humanity. She gave her life to causes too numerous to name. I only hope she knows the impact of the love she waged on all of us, namely me.”
- Campbell, L. (2019). Lila Cabbil [Interview]. Building Movement United. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Q2DdDL85tI2XDZ-_vIa6bRyJnj3rXK4T/view
- Detroit People’s Platform. (2021, February 23). https://www.detroitpeoplesplatform.org/about/.
- Detroit People’s Platform, A Year Later. Building Movement. (2014). https://buildingmovement.org/blog/detroit-peoples-platform-a-year-later/.
- Hero of the Week: Mama Lila Cabbil, Michigan Water Warrior (1944-2019). Our Daily Planet. (2019, September 17). https://www.ourdailyplanet.com/story/hero-of-the-week-mama-lila-cabbil-michigan-water-warrior-1944-2019/.
- Ignaczak, N. M. (2020, August 27). Detroit Water Shutoffs and a Crisis of Public Health. Belt Magazine. https://beltmag.com/detroit-water-shutoffs-crisis-public-health-coronavirus/.
- Gellasch, L. (2013). Catalyst Radio: Food Justice speakers Lila Cabbil, LaDonna Redmond. The Rapidian. https://therapidian.org/catalyst-radio-food-justice-speakers-lila-cabbil-ladonna-redmond-visit-gr.
- Great Lakes Groups Band Together in A Crisis. People’s Water Board Coalition. (2017). https://www.peopleswaterboard.org/2017/10/11/great-lakes-groups-band-together-in-a-crisis/.
- Memorial for Mama Lila Cabbil (1944-2019). Detroit Water Stories. (2020, June 10). https://detroitwaterstories.wordpress.com/event-coverage/memorial-for-mama-lila-cabbil-1944-2019/.
Is water a human right or a commodity? While this may not be a commonly asked question for many people, it is a hot topic of debate in Detroit, where residents have had to fight for access to safe and affordable water. These fights have been grounded in the analysis that “water is not just a commodity,” as lifelong Detroiter