Harris, Aurora

  • EDUCATION
  • WATER

Date: 4/26/2019

Detroit is full of people that come out of a history...

If you’ve lived in Detroit for more than a few decades, then you’ve witnessed a transformation of a city characterized by inequity and decline. However, in a place where people have lost so much, there are those who are determined to fight for what remains. Aurora Harris comes from a tradition of activism that is woven into the fabric of the Motor City. Following in the footsteps of her parents, Aurora has maintained a lifelong commitment to social justice. “I grew up working with the community and understanding the levels of racism that we were experiencing here in this country when I was a child, from both African- American and Asian perspectives.” As a founding member of We the People of Detroit, she has confronted injustice on the behalf of students with special needs, facilitated community-based education through Freedom Schools, and challenged the ongoing humanitarian crisis of water-shutoffs brought about by emergency management.

In 2013, the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy under state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr, a move that only compounded the challenges of a community that was already struggling. “They hit us with the closure of the schools and that emptied out the neighborhoods,” Aurora said. “And then the water shut-offs. And then the main foreclosures…So it’s like four things back to back to back.” To Aurora and many other Detroiters, emergency management was the culmination of an elaborate plan to seize control of the city that was years in the making. And in many ways, the state takeovers, charterization, and closure of the city’s public schools was a big part of that. Around 2009, Aurora had begun working with Detroit Public Schools as a parent advocate on behalf of her great-nephew who had a disability. At the time she was protesting the attempt by then-mayor Dave Bing to assume control of Detroit Public Schools. In the midst of that struggle Aurora connected with other organizers Debra Taylor, Monica Lewis-Patrick, and Cecily McClellan around the closure of schools for students with special needs and the state’s emergency management of DPS. “We just formed and said, we’re going to fight this,” Aurora explained, “and that’s how We the People came about and formed right in the hallway of the City/County Building on the 13th Floor.” 

Harris, Aurora - Photo

Harris, Aurora – Photo

In the following years, We the People of Detroit established itself as a leading grassroots organization in Detroit that mobilizes communities in the interest of social justice relating to land, water, education, and democracy. The organization was ultimately successful in the fight against a mayoral takeover of the schools when the resolution was voted down by City Council in July of 2010. Through that struggle, Aurora and We the People of Detroit went to work organizing and fighting for families in a school system that was failing to meet the needs of the students. “I had to teach myself the laws and then I started going out and teaching other parents the laws and how to become advocates for their own children,” Aurora recalled.

While organizing parents and advocating for educational justice in Detroit’s public schools, Aurora also got involved with the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement. Aurora was introduced to the DIFS through Dr. Gloria House (Mama Aneb Kgositsile), her colleague at University of Michigan-Dearborn and veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. House helped develop the original Freedom Schools in 1964 during the height of grassroots Civil Rights organizing in the South. The Freedom Schools created a space for youth and adults alike that not only provided fundamental education but also affirmed a rich Black activist history that was not being taught in the racist, underfunded, and segregated school systems not only in the South, but throughout the country. Unfortunately, students in DPS have been enduring conditions not dissimilar to what was occurring over 50 years ago as a result of state takeovers, emergency management, inequitable funding policies, and school closures. In response, Dr. House and other members of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (DREM), including Shea Howell, Tom Stephens, and Julia Cuneo, formed a coordinating committee to establish the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools, which Aurora quickly joined. 

The Freedom Schools have become a multi-organizational effort and have been housed in institutions like the Shrine of the Black Madonna, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and the Cass Corridor Commons. In addition to teaching core subjects, the Freedom Schools also center African American history, creative expression, agricultural development, and connecting youth to communities in which they live. “They get to be around educators and people from the community who know so many other people who can teach them other new things,” Aurora explained. “So they get grounded in community. They get grounded in that sense of love from the community. Our mission is to educate our children. Period. Because so many of them had fallen through the cracks.”

While educational empowerment and justice has been a major focus of Aurora’s work, she recognizes it as part of a larger, interconnected struggle. In addition to education, one of the critical issues that We the People of Detroit has been confronting on a daily basis has been the crisis caused by water shutoffs in the city. Under emergency manager Kevyn Orr, the Detroit Water Department (DWD) began executing an unprecedented level of water shutoffs to mostly poor residents who fell behind on their water bill in 2014. While neighborhood residents were forced to make payments on delinquent water bills or face immediate shutoff, corporations were allowed to rack up unpaid water bills of the tens of thousands of dollars. To Aurora and We the People of Detroit, it was clear that the water shutoffs were part of a broader plan to balance the city’s budget on the backs of Detroit’s poor and working class residents. “We see it as an act of war,” Aurora said. “Because when you go into places when you declare war you shut off the water, you shut off the food sources, you shut off the electricity.” We the People of Detroit took action by bringing aid and organization directly to residents. They started an emergency hotline for residents to call for help. “We were the first ones to start up the water stations here so that people could come and pick up water and then we started organizing to get volunteers to deliver the water.” In 2014 the U.N. declared the water shutoffs to be a violation of human rights, bringing international attention to the water crisis and amplifying the work of Detroit’s water warriors.  

One of the challenges in getting the community informed about the water crisis, water affordability, and what they can do about it, is education. To meet this challenge, DIFS started the water school to build curriculum around water as human right, sharing it with the community as well as universities and non-profit organizations to get everyone working with the same knowledge. As the Director of Education for We the People, Aurora educates the public and victims of shutoffs on the health impacts of high lead levels and water shutoffs through workshops, youth programs, and We the People’s Community Research Collective. “My job as part of Director of Education not only just work on the hotline and get people information on where they can get services, because that’s part of grassroots education,” Aurora explained. “But also… collecting lived experiences that can go into the publications that we work in, working with other activists, working with the youth…to come up with some of their own programming.”

The fight for education and water justice is a continuum of struggle that Aurora has no plans of giving up in the foreseeable future. We the People of Detroit has only grown and Aurora’s vision for the city is one of a robust community that is operating in an equitable and sustainable way. “I would like it to be the way that it was. Populated. More populated. More neighborly. More schools. If I go to Brooklyn and I can walk out of my friend’s house and there’s two different grocery stores on each corner, why can’t we have that here? Fresh food right there on two ends of a block. Why can’t we have neighborhood libraries? Why can’t we have our community centers reopened. That’s what I wanna see.”

References:

Aurora Harris, interviewed by Peter Blackmer, April 26, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.

Aurora Harris Oral History (2019)

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Harris, Aurora - Photo

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