Hill, Nicole

  • WATER

Date: 5/25/2019

It was water that brought Nicole Hill to Detroit and water that has kept her here. 

Arriving in the city from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—Hill became involved in activism around Detroit’s water shutoffs. She has worked with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, the People’s Water Board, the Poor People’s Campaign, and the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. She is currently one of the Michigan tri-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign and a Community Outreach Organizer for the Work for Me DTE campaign.

Hill moved to Detroit after the historic hurricane because she had previously lived here and had family here. But since then, she says that Detroit has changed—and not just the way that it looks, but the ways that people relate to each other. She has changed as well. “We have this big gap, or we have a lot of abandoned houses that are, I personally feel, could be given to low-income people, offer them low-income loans so that these properties are now owned which gives some people that may not have a chance at ownership a chance.” Hill remains perplexed about how in a city with so much property stock—there are still so many unhoused people and renters. “I think if they offer more opportunities for people, it would increase revenue for the city, and it would take a lot of what they claim to be the undesirables out of the community because they’ll have a home.” 

Hill, whose work is largely centered on environmental justice and community outreach, also has strong opinions on racism and how it had an impact on the Detroit water shutoff crisis that began under emergency management in 2013. She explains that there was a perception that many residents were not “prioritizing” their bill payments—when in reality the water rates had risen exorbitantly as had DTE bills, but incomes had not.  Shortly after his appointment as emergency manager, Kevyn Orr ordered massive water shutoffs as a means of debt collection to prime the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) for privatization.

“I just kind of monitored my neighborhood and saw how many people were getting shut off, and I didn’t go in and invade their privacy. I just kind of noting, like, okay, they shut off three houses on this block today, or they shut off five houses down the street today. And then, this went on like through the end of 2013, the beginning of 2014. And then, in May of 2014, they came, and they cut my water off.” Her water was shutoff multiple times, not from nonpayment, but from billing errors by DWSD.

Hill speaks at length about how the shutoffs affected her life—even bringing her close to losing custody of her children. She also said that the experience almost brought her to the point of bitterness, but instead it inspired activism as she witnessed the devastation of her community and hundreds of homes were shut off due to unaffordable bills as well as billing errors and mismanagement by DWSD. 

Hill started her journey as an organizer by making a resource list for people in her community facing shutoffs. “And it wasn’t even just the water,” she explains. “It was people couldn’t pay their light bill…people walking around, their kids didn’t have clothes and things like that.” When compiling these resources, she found the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO) and met people like Ann Rall who told her water shutoff did not make sense and Alice Jennings who was starting a class action lawsuit against DWSD. With the support of MWRO, Hill got her water back on after two months of living without running water. 

The entire time her service was off, Hill was still being billed for service. Despite having made payments to get her water back on, she received another notice that her water would be shutoff again. Two weeks before special rapporteurs from the United Nations arrived in Detroit in October to investigate the shutoffs as human rights violations, Hill once again had her water shutoff. 

By that point, it wasn’t just about her anymore. “I kept thinking. Like, I got angry. Like, how dare they do this to people? And then, I kept thinking, like, who’s gonna speak out for like the elderly people, the disabled people, you know, people who were scared that they were gonna lose their kids? Who’s gonna speak out and stand up and say something and let their voice be heard, let people know, like, this is going on with these people particularly?” 

These questions motivated Hill to challenge the institutions and individuals responsible for the water shutoffs. “I just kept thinking like somebody has to stand up and say something about this. And, I think you get like that aha moment like it doesn’t have to be about me, but if I don’t speak out and nobody else is speaking out, I’m not part of the solution, I’m part of the problem.”

Despite being deliriously ill from living without running water, Hill participated in a town hall meeting with the rapporteurs to share her story about having her water shutoff. “People were like so shocked because I think I was one of the first people that actually had children and their water was cut off and I would speak up because people had this fear that their kids were gonna be taken,” she remembers. “And I’m like, they’re not taking my kids. I had already established that.” She hadn’t told anyone that her water was shutoff again.

The next day, Hill’s condition worsened and she went to the hospital. She believes that the shutoff caused her to contract bacterial pneumonia which left her with compromised lungs—evidenced by her frequent coughs through this interview, adding, “So, that was my parting gift from the Water Department.” While she was in the hospital, Alice Jennings, Sylvia Orduño, and Lila Cabbil assisted her with getting her water turned back on so she did not have to return home from the hospital with no running water. 

This was also in the midst of the city’s bankruptcy proceedings, which Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr declared on behalf of the city. “So, I started going in to the bankruptcy hearings,” where she heard DWSD directors who had no knowledge of the number of shutoffs or impacts on vulnerable residents. “I don’t know what to call what the Water Department directors were saying or what the city itself was saying…They’re unconscionable. They have no conscience. I don’t even think they have a soul.”

Through these experiences and the city’s resistance to implementing the Water Affordability Plan since 2004, the intentions of the water shutoffs became clear to Hill. “The thing is is that if you make it where everyone in the city can afford their bill, and then everybody in the city who was owned a home and couldn’t afford their bill are no longer getting that bill wrapped onto their property taxes and foreclosing of their homes, it’s a lot more difficult to gentrificate this city…and you can’t come in and gentrificate the neighborhood,” she explains.

For Hill, the water shutoffs are directly connected with inequitable development downtown, disinvestment in public schools, and other issues. “It’s all just all like one thing that’s all connected tying in to the destruction of Detroit.” Hill explains that these issues didn’t end with emergency management in 2014. “The same thing they did with emergency management they’re damn near doing with Dan Gilbert…my thing is he has too much control to be a private citizen.”

Through all her trials and tribulations, she continued to push through and fight for the city of Detroit. With a degree in Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Hill said that despite the extreme hurdles that she endured in battling the behemoth that is the Detroit Water Department, she knew that she was only able to make any strides in her case because she was equipped and she empathized for the average Detroiter. Still, the issue caused her, and likely many others, to file bankruptcy to discharge the bill—another lasting impact. 

In the years since the shutoffs, Hill has told her story countless times. Despite the horror stories of personal attacks she has experienced, she sees power in sharing her story. “I think one of the important things it does is it makes a connection with other people, and it makes them ask questions,” she explains. “Also, it has a little bit of shock value…it brings awareness through that shock…and then, I’ve even found that just telling my story has encouraged other people to not be afraid to tell their story.”

Through her work with MWRO, Hill has struggled alongside a number of Detroit organizers who have influenced her work, most notably Mama Lila Cabbil. “I always told her I was a work in progress ‘cause like I’m not that far away from that line that crosses to be like I’ll punch you in the face, and she’s like, “Always wage love,” she reflects. “It wasn’t just about the water. Like, she just influenced me about just everyday things, about being proud of your culture, about racism. And you know, she always used to tell me, she said, ‘It’s always been racism. Racism hasn’t went away. It’s just more covert up here than it is in the South. That’s the only difference.” 

From Monica Lewis-Patrick, she learned “to be a strong Black queen” and to “stand strong, stay strong, and know who you are.” From Maureen Taylor, she learned how to fight: “She was clear to let me know, like, ‘I know what Lila said, but there’s a time and a place to punch somebody in the face, too.” From Sylvia Orduño and Marian Kramer, she learned to be calm, take care of herself, and “save that energy for when you’re facing that battle.”

Nicole Hill continues her work as a fearless organizer representing a resident of the city of Detroit. “I’m not scared because I’m like after going through that, and honestly, after going through [Hurricane] Katrina, it’s like you can’t do anything else to me,” she explains. Looking to the future, Hill shares that “My goal would be for Detroit to have 100 percent renewable energy, to have a water affordability plan…and then show people how that plan works so it can be implemented across this country…and in other countries because this is a crisis that’s not just facing Detroit, but everybody’s looking to see what Detroit’s gonna do next.”

Her story has inspired many, including her children who have become activists in their own right. Hill’s work and involvement in the community have influenced her family and awakened the eyes of so many. Her lessons and experiences have showed her communities that people most directly impacted by problems have the capability and power to solve them. As an organizer, Nicole Hill is dedicated to bringing people into the struggle and building collective power. For people who are not yet involved, she has a message:

“I think that it’s no excuse not to get involved because there are so many different ways you can get involved. Maybe you’re not a person that goes out and do direct action or protest. Maybe you’re not gonna come out and speak about your story. You don’t…you’re ashamed or you’re hurt or you’re afraid of the stigma, stigmatization, but can you sign a petition? Can you pass the information on…Can you take a flyer and pass it out to somebody else?…Always get a way to get involved. The thing is is what’s comfortable for you. You may not be able to do what I do. Maybe you can come to a meeting…and the information you get, you go back and tell…somebody and bring somebody else to the next meeting. There’s always something you can do.”

 

Nicole Hill, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, May 25, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.

Nicole Hill Oral History (2019)

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