When Charity Mahouna Hicks died on July 8, 2014–some part of Detroit died with her.
The beloved community leader and founder of the Detroit People’s Water Board and a member of various other community organizations dedicated to the betterment of the quality of life for Detroit citizens.
During her life, Hicks was passionate about her belief that water is a human right. In 2011, she told Onthecommons.org, “We focus on the question: what does water mean for all of us?” As a founding member of the Detroit People’s Water Board, she proclaimed that the board would have a “cross pollinating effect among people focused on poverty, health, growing food, jobs, ecological survival. We attend to both human and ecological sustainability.”
Detroit writer and activist Tawana Honeycomb Petty said of her, “I’m telling you. Charity was like the Rosa Parks of water.”
Hicks’ upbringing on Detroit’s lower east side near the Detroit River inspired her love of the environment. She grew up in a home with five brothers and one sister, “There were seven of us, and one bathroom,” Hicks said of her early life in a video from Emergence Media. “One of the earliest things I learned was consideration of others. I learned this dancing between my own personal needs and the needs of other people.”
She said that in her childhood, she was an outlier. With an extraordinarily high I.Q, she was initially interested in a career in military intelligence. She said that in her college years, she found her center in her devotion to the Black community. She believed in synergy and developing leadership in others.
Hicks worked for more 10 years in research, public policy, and community activism in Detroit on health disparities, urban ecology, and African American community organizing.
One piece of advice Hicks shared was to “be rich in relationships.” She was a master at building and sustaining networks as evidenced by her seat on the board of directors of dozens of community organizations.
A well-respected public servant, Hicks was awarded a number of fellowships including the EAT4HEALTH equitable food & agricultural policy fellowship where she studied the food & agricultural system from the frames of health/nutrition, environmental/ecological justice, and economic equity. Hicks advocated for a resilient economy by making the food system local, vibrant, healthy, and economically fair.
“I made a decision in my life that I was going to serve the interest of the transformation of the lived experience of people. We as human beings, one of the beautiful things about us is that we can reflect. We can look at stars, we can look at trees and that helps to create empathy and sympathy. So I’m conscientious and part of that conscientiousness is that I reflect.”
In May of 2014, just weeks before her untimely death, Hicks was arrested for speaking out against water shutoffs in her neighborhood. She demanded to see a shut off order for her own home and that of her neighbors. Hicks was “into a holding area with 30 other women. One toilet. No benches. Find a place on the floor not covered with blood or vomit. It’s the weekend so you’ll be arraigned by video to a Court in Romulus,” according to a report about the incident by CriticalMoment.org.
After several medical emergencies due to diabetes and the inhumane conditions, Hicks was released with a new chip on her shoulder.
Undeterred, she would protest again in North Carolina. She was invited to speak at the United Nations. It was in New York City as a scheduled speaker at the Left Forum that Hicks was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver.
A woman of deep faith and spirituality, Hicks was often called on to open meetings. Her passion and conviction echoed the strength and wisdom of elders and ancestors. Pastor Bill Wylie-Kellerman once told WDET, “She walked with a kind of dignity that I think was probably one from ancient royalty. But on the other hand, came from planting her feet barefoot in a D-town garden and feeling history and memory alive in the earth beneath her feet.”
While Hicks often seemed to be otherworldly, she was firmly grounded in her belief in humanity. She often referred to the many protests that she led as “an act of waging love,” the term became synonymous with her work.
People who knew her well declared that she “had a remarkable way of drawing the power in from the full group and empowering every person to speak from their hearts.”
Master Gardener, member of the Sierra Clubs, Great Lakes Water COMMONS group and several other environmental/ecological groups, Hicks was also trained in the New Economy Initiative via The Land Policy Institute of Michigan State University on place making and regional economic development.
Serving on dozens of boards in Detroit, Hicks was and remains a beloved member of the Detroit collective consciousness. “Charity taught me a lot about Black Nationalism and its history in Detroit,” said William Copeland of Our Power Detroit. “She helped me develop my ideals, my culture, and my politics. Of course she was a constant presence in the Commons and did so much to make it a stable and safe place. She was at the same time a die-hard East Side Detroiter AND a citizen of the world. She is being honored and remembered in various cities, states, and countries.”
As a Clinical Research Associate- Human Subjects with the Detroit Health Disparities Research Center of the University of Michigan, Hicks was on a team that conducted a multi-faceted longitudinal health disparity study following over 1,200 African American families in Detroit for six years.
At the inaugural meeting for the Great Lake Commons, held at the University of Notre Dame, Hicks declared, “We are moving forward to build a deep awareness of water, our environment, culture and place. The participants in the gathering became the lived experience of a commons and I know that experience will begin to vibrate within the organizations, work, and hearts of those who attended. These ripples will spread out among the various communities and will gather together in a Great Lakes Commons. I felt the tension of difference, but also felt the beauty of our shared humanity. The gathering gave me renewed insight into what it takes to really be present, be authentic, and make connections. I trust the connections we made at the Great Lakes Water Gathering will grow deep roots, and be nourished by the nutrients of love, joy, respect, care, concern, gratitude, responsibility, and the waters of the Great Lakes.”
Hicks died on July 8, 2014 in New York City after being struck by Thomas Shanley. The son of a deceased police officer, Shanley fled the scene and was arrested months later and ultimately sentenced to two to six years in prison after evidence showed that he was texting while driving during the crash.
Her tragic death was not the end of her legacy. Condolences poured into Detroit from around the world, and her advocacy remains instrumental in the fight to make the city’s water supply, billing, and access fair for all.
In 2015 at the Opening Ceremony for the Allied Media Conference, coordinators of the event premiered a lengthy poem written in her honor called The Wage Love Poem. It reads, in part, “We Wage Love For…those we love still who have left their body…for the underprivileged—for the estranged, and the unrequited…for all of our children. for them to know a Detroit with access to water, land, food & justice. for them to know, together, we are the greatest power.”
When Charity Mahouna Hicks died on July 8, 2014–some part of Detroit died with her. The beloved community leader and founder of the Detroit People’s Water Board and a member of various other community organizations dedicated to the betterment of the quality of life for Detroit citizens. During her life, Hicks was passionate about her belief that water is a