What comes to mind when you hear the words “water warrior?” Some people may think of a comic book superhero while others may think of the activist Monica Lewis-Patrick. Although not a Detroit native, when Lewis-Patrick came to Detroit in 2008 she noticed the inequality in education, lack of water resources, and the mayor’s overt control in the city. Her involvement within the community eventually led her to work for Councilwoman JoAnn Watson and co-found the organization We the People of Detroit in 2008. Their work “aims to inform, educate, and empower Detroit residents on imperative issues surrounding civil rights, land, water, education, and the democratic process” (WTPD). Now the CEO and president of We the People of Detroit, Monica Lewis-Patrick has established herself as a warrior for the people of Detroit and beyond.
From a young age, Lewis-Patrick was able to see women in charge and took that as inspiration to be a woman who doesn’t let anyone speak for her. Her mom, Master Sergeant Sonora Lewis, was a union steward who brought her daughter along to union meetings that exposed her to how things worked when organizing with the federal government. Seeing her mom on the picket lines and fight so hard for equality within her unit made young Lewis-Patrick see how much respect her mom was receiving and wanted to be someone people respected as well. Lewis-Patrick reflects on what initially motivates her by saying “I think that’s another part that drives me is it’s important to me that [my mom] and my children respect that I’m a good person and that I do work that’s worthy.”
Monica Lewis-Patrick says she became an activist around 12 years old when she joined a student-led group to advocate for Black literature and history to be kept in their school’s curriculum (BLAC). Around this time Lewis-Patrick had become accustomed to bullying because “Black people make up less than four percent of the population” in her hometown and kids pick on whoever may be different than them. Seeing as the majority of her peers weren’t very nice, Lewis-Patrick tended to be the “pet project to support or to motivate or to encourage” of one of the teachers working at her school. Hence Ms. Donella Ellis being the person who encouraged young Lewis-Patrick to organize with the other students to make a change at her school. From that experience and the positive outcome from her first organizing efforts, Lewis-Patrick began to realize her strength and ability to create change. “I think I made a decision after that I would try to fight for those that feel not acknowledged, not heard, not respected, not supported,” she recalls. “And so, I choose never again to be a victim, and I choose as much as I can to find the superhero in everybody where I can.”
Once she moved to Detroit and enrolled her children into the Detroit Public Schools, Lewis-Patrick was able to identify injustices within the education system. In 1999, DPS was taken over by the state of Michigan and the school board was replaced by members appointed by Governor John Engler and Mayor Dennis Archer. As a result, numerous schools were closed or integrated under a new model, debt skyrocketed, and enrollment numbers decreased (Herrada). Being a former educator from Tennessee she knew “first hand the importance of a public education, a well-ran public education” and was disappointed that an injustice like this was happening in the nation’s largest majority-Black city.
Lewis-Patrick of course also wanted better for her children and other kids who were getting an education in Detroit. She met a group of women who were mothers and grandmothers advocating for their children and fighting against policies that would restrict parental input. She added her voice and energy at City Council meetings and didn’t let anything stop their drive. “We just sat together for about five weeks fighting this legislation and actually won,” she explained. “The five of us stayed together.” Out of this powerful group of mothers–including Phyllis “Chris” Griffith, Aurora Harris, Cecily McClellan, and Debra Taylor–We the People of Detroit was formed in 2008.
Through these struggles they also attracted the attention of Councilmember JoAnn Watson, who offered Lewis-Patrick and Taylor jobs working on her staff. “If you work for Councilmember Watson, you know that there is no sun up or sun down,” Lewis-Patrick recalls, adding that working with Councilmember Watson was a master class in politics from “pound for pound…the greatest legislator that has ever existed in the city of Detroit.” In addition to all the lessons she shared, Rev. Dr. Watson also encouraged Lewis-Patrick to run for City Council in 2013. Though she lost the election, Lewis-Patrick gained important experience and is proud to have earned about 10,000 votes with a grassroots campaign and shoestring budget.
That same year, Governor Rick Snyder placed the city of Detroit under emergency management. In the years leading up, WTPD members began taking on the issue of emergency management at the state level. “We organized and created campaigns and really were successful in beating back emergency management,” Lewis-Patrick recalls. “We won against Proposal [Public Act] Four, and then they came with Proposal [Public Act] 436, which just totally undermined all sentiments of democracy.” Signed during a lame duck session, PA 436 was effectively the same as PA 4–which voters repealed through a state-wide referendum–and expanded the autocratic powers of emergency managers.
As emergency management approached, Councilmember Watson warned Lewis-Patrick that “Nobody’s coming to save Detroit. They’re not coming,” she recalls. “She told us that we better deputize ourselves and be prepared to go way beyond even the care and the giving that women in this community have to do all the time just to hold it together, that we were going to see a time when water was going to be shut off, where housing was going to be compromised, where there was going to be no food assistance, there was going to be no healthcare, and that we were going to have to go back to the same methodology that allowed us to survive the Middle Passage and Jim Crow and slavery and all of the things that we had survived, that it had been the Black mothers that had been able to sort of hold us together, and we were going to have to do it again.” Reflecting on that conversation years later, Lewis-Patrick says “we had no idea at that time that she was really speaking prophetically, you know. We were thinking she was speaking metaphorically.”
Shortly after being appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr began a massive campaign of shutting off water service to residents who were “either 45 days late or over $150 delinquent on their water bills” (WTPDCRC). As the shutoffs got underway, organizer Charity Hicks was arrested for trying to prevent her neighbors from having their water shutoff. Hicks’ arrest galvanized community resistance. “We just felt like at that point that our bodies and our existence was under assault and that we had to go all just totally all out with using everything at our disposal to save ourselves, save our children, and save our community” Lewis-Patrick recalled.
To resist the shutoffs and protect residents under emergency management, We the People of Detroit organized direct action protests, community-driven research, political advocacy, and survival programs. While participating in coalitions to challenge emergency management and fight against shutoffs, WTPD also started a water hotline and began water deliveries to homes whose water was shut off. They also started mapping the shutoffs to illustrate how shutoffs disproportionately impacted working-class Black communities and analyze the public health impacts of water shutoffs. From this community-driven research, they formed We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective (WTPDCRC) in 2015. From the beginning, this collective “has been working on aggregating and visualizing data about water, land and education issues in Detroit” to challenge systemic racism in Detroit and beyond (WTPDCRC, 2016). Currently, WTPDCRC is working on publishing a three-part series of books “documenting the effects of austerity and its relationship to race in Detroit” (WPDCRC, 2016). They released their first book on the water crisis in 2016 titled, Mapping the Water Crisis: The Dismantling of African-American Neighborhoods in Detroit.
Through the WPDCRC’s research work, Lewis-Patrick also realized how many older people were involved in their collective and decided that younger people, especially the students they are advocating for, should be a part of this movement. And so, We the Youth of Detroit was developed to support “the next generation of activists and advocates” (I Dream Detroit). “We have this phrase that we tell them that they don’t have to ask permission to save themselves, and they don’t have to ask to be entered into the movement, that the fact that you want to be involved is enough invitation. Deputize yourself,” Lewis-Patrick explains. Since their founding, We the Youth of Detroit has organized a count day walk out to demand safe water in DPS and a community water testing program while developing “the understanding of their own power to create this beloved community.”
Reflecting on her work with WTPD, Lewis-Patrick says “We’re really proud of the fact that we’ve been very transparent and open. Nobody buys us. We’re unbought and unbossed.” From these experiences, she encourages younger activists to “be very committed to your values, not afraid to tell your truth, not afraid to embrace the fact that you do need resources, but you don’t have to sell your soul to get ’em.” With faith that her efforts and organizations are making a difference in Detroit, Lewis-Patrick says “there’s just a clear understanding that our commitment is to create a beloved community. That’s the overarching kind of banner. We believe that the existence that we’re having right now is not the existence that we want for us or our children, and so we’re working on every front to improve the quality of life and to bring more training and opportunities to our community so that people understand that it’s their power that’s going to create the shift.” Lewis-Patrick also reminds us that building the collective power to create these shifts requires action. “The activists remind you that when you fight you win. Sometimes, it’s a long-protracted fight, but you gotta fight.”
- Tommy Airey, et al, “Thirsting for Democracy,” Sojourners, March 23, 2016, https://sojo.net/biography/monica-lewis-patrick
- Kimberly Freeman Brown and Marc D. Bayard, “I Dream Detroit: The Voice and Vision of Women of Color on Detroit’s Future,” 2017.
- Elena Herrada, “A School Board Member in Exile on the Decline of Detroit’s Public Schools,” Workers World, April 9, 2015, https://www.workers.org/2015/04/19340/#:~:text=Here%20is%20a%20chronology%20of%20what%20happened%20to,no%20operational%20power%20but%20to%20hire%20a%20CEO
- Walter Gilberti and Lina Jones, “State Takeover of Detroit Schools Imminent,” World Socialist Web Site, February 27, 1999, https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1999/02/det-f27.html
- “Monica Lewis-Patrick, President and CEO, We the People of Detroit,” BLAC Detroit, November 6, 2019, https://www.blac.media/people-places/monica-lewis-patrick-president-and-ceo-we-the-people-of-detroit/
- “Monica Lewis-Patrick,” River Network, November 20, 2020, https://www.rivernetwork.org/team/monica-lewis-patrick/
- “Our People,” We The People of Detroit, https://www.wethepeopleofdetroit.com/our-people#:~:text=Monica%20Lewis-Patrick%20%28aka%20The%20Water%20Warrior%29%20is%20an,the%20Board%20to%20become%20the%20President%20%26%20CEO
We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective, Mapping the Water Crisis: The Dismantling of African-American Neighborhoods in Detroit, vol. 1, 2016.
Monica Lewis-Patrick, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, May 24, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.