Jennings, Alice

  • WATER

Date: 5/17/2019

As a young girl, Alice Jennings’ mother always instilled the importance of helping others. “We are always not to center ourselves around ourselves but what we can do for other people,” Jennings recalled. “The measure of our life would be what we had done for others, not what we did for ourselves.” These words have had a lasting impact and influenced her approach to legal work and community organizing. Whether working with organizations involved with the water struggle, workplace discrimination, or using her legal practice to help aid in the fight for social justice, Alice Jennings seeks to provide change in quality of life for others. She prides herself in being a lawyer for the people and for having never represented any corporations in her entire forty-three years of practice. Her mantra has always been, “the people united will never be defeated” and her work in community organizing attests to this.

Jennings’ involvement in organizing first began when she helped organize activities and walked the picket line with her dad involving issues around the Teamsters. These early experiences inspired her to become involved in the movement against the war in Vietnam while she was attending Michigan State University. While at State, Jennings also became involved in many of the Black student union movement groups around the time of the development and growth of the Black Power movement.

Jennings, Alice

Jennings, Alice

Jennings originally went to school for social work but after graduating with her degree from State she found it dealt with symptoms rather than root causes. After seeing Barbara Jordan, a noted African-American attorney and activist, blasting Nixon and calling for his impeachment, Alice Jennings began to look into legal work in regards to activism and social justice.

Alice Jennings was doing a lot of organizing and legal work with people who had lasting impacts on social justice and organizing work, including Rosa Parks as well as both Grace and James Lee Boggs. After Rosa Parks’ passing, the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development reached out to both Jennings and her law partner and husband, Carl Edwards. Many of the cases Jennings took on in her legal work involved worker compensation, discrimination of all types (race, gender, etc.), and sexual harassment in the workplace and the results of some of these cases led to laws and judgments being passed to help reduce issues in future settings.

Jennings first work with Grace and James Lee Boggs was in 1986 when they all became involved in Save Our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD), an organization formed to combat violence in the city of Detroit. In her twelve years on the board, the organization held forums, teach-ins, brought children together, and facilitated restorative justice workshops. She continued working with the Boggs’ against privatization through the Coalition to Stop Privatization and Save Our City and for environmental justice with Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. Jennings herself was the one who wrote up the 501(c)3 paperwork to legally form the nonprofit, which scored a major victory in 2019 by shutting down the incinerator at Henry Ford Hospital. Throughout her involvement in community organizing, activism, and social justice, Alice Jennings continues to help carry on the legacies of movement giants through organizations that bear their names and continuing to follow in their footsteps in fighting for what’s right.

Emergency managers are appointed to resolve financial crises that are typically created by state actions. In 2013, Kevyn Orr was the emergency manager who created the narrative that Detroit’s financial crisis was caused by poor leadership and mismanagement instead of decline in revenue sources. He was the one who initiated the mass water shutoffs in attempts to generate revenue and balance DWSD’s books to prepare for privatization. Elected officials were removed from power, city services were being cut back and privatized, and public assets were being sold off in predominantly African American cities due to the view that POC are incapable of self-government. After seeing the impact this had on the citizens of Detroit, Jennings became involved with an organization known as the Detroiters Resisting Emergency Managers and their primary work was to spread education around emergency management in order to inform others that this was something that was affecting people of color more than anyone else. Jennings stated, “What we’re gonna experience here in Detroit the next twenty years will be a whole-sale removal of people who have been here for the last one-hundred years who look like you and me.” It was the decision of an emergency manager in Flint to withdraw from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, instead taking water from the Flint River and poisoning thousands of residents.

Local resident Charity Hicks, a known water warrior who Jennings first met after helping bail her out of jail following an arrest for protesting water shutoffs in her neighborhood. Just a month after their meeting, however, Hicks was killed by a reckless driver in New York City while visiting the United Nations to call attention to the water crisis in Detroit. Mama Charity’s passion for the people’s right to water inspired Jennings to get directly involved in the water struggle and continues to inspire organizers in Detroit and beyond.

As Jennings got more involved in the water struggle, she talks about what she and others had started to notice. “What we really found is that the shutoffs were taking place in neighborhoods that were not as “acceptable” as others, neighborhoods that maybe they wanted to “clear out” anyway.” In response, she helped form a team of lawyers following a wave of shutoffs in Highland Park in 2015, where residents’ water was being shut off without warning. The lawsuit was settled through a consent judgement where all outstanding bills did not have to be paid and the policy of attaching water bills to people’s property was ended. Jennings discussed the connections between water shutoffs and tax foreclosure by saying, “Here’s what happens with water: if you get a water bill stuck on your property and it becomes so big, you can literally have your home foreclosed because of the water bill. That house then becomes property of Wayne County or whoever’s gonna sell it and so you can lose your house.” This issue is still ongoing in Detroit, though.

Jennings built upon the success of this legal challenge in the landmark Lyda v. City of Detroit case. Much like with Highland Park, Jennings and lawyers from around the country got together to create the Lyda v. City of Detroit Pro-bono Committee in 2014 after questioning how someone could not have clean, running water. They fought for the idea of a water affordability plan (developed in 2004 by utilities expert Roger Colton and Michigan Welfare Rights Organization) and the theory was that this process would bring in more money by allowing people to pay based on their ability to afford. Jennings states, “If you make $10 a week, then a certain percentage, 3-5%, should be for water. If you only make $10 a week, $8 shouldn’t be for water, and that’s what’s happening now.” Because Orr had declared bankruptcy on behalf of the city, these hearings were held in bankruptcy court. Despite acknowledging the irreplaceable harm the shutoffs caused to families, Judge Stephen Rhodes concluded that access to water was not a right as he believed the city would lose too much in revenues by permanently halting the shutoffs. Following the Lyda v. City of Detroit case, the United Nations came to the city and spent time with the team going to neighborhoods and community meetings. After just four days, they found it was inhumane for anyone to not have water, especially in a city the size of Detroit.

Currently, Alice Jennings is working with the People’s Water Board Coalition to continue the struggle for access to safe, affordable water held in public trust. They also do work nationally with the National Coalition for the Legislation on Affordable Water. Their main focuses right now are on figuring out if people’s water is being shut off then turned back on and how long water would have to sit in the pipes until outside or dangerous elements and other chemicals begin to contaminate it. The privatization of public water continues to be a central concern, as private corporations don’t know how the people are using their systems, don’t care about these people, and operate with no accountability. 

For Jennings and many others, water must be secured as a human right and public good.  She believes that we need to speak with ourselves first then from there the community, as one must feel a sense of belonging before they can go to someone in a position of power. She focuses on the importance of getting involved in activism and organizing with global warming as it’s a looming issue we face. Jennings thinks positively of young activists and organizers who she’s seen and talked to as she feels they will be the ones who come together to figure out and fight this battle. 

Alice Jennings says her vision for an equitable society in Detroit looks something like a master plan that Detroit has had for years, the issue being it’s created by a very high echelon of administrators, planners, etc., not the people. She questions, “Why not have the people from the communities sit on those master plan committees? … To have them involved in the very essence of their city and the governance of that city as well as what it looks like, how it appears, very important to have input from the people who are affected.”

Alice Jennings, interviewed by Oriana Yilma and Peter Blackmer, May 17, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.

Alice Jennings Oral History (2019)

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