The pursuit of knowledge is often intertwined with the path of social justice. When Sylvia Orduño made the journey from Los Angeles to Detroit in 1995 for a graduate program at the University of Michigan in the school of social work she found much more than an education. What she found was a movement. While seeking organizational placement for her graduate program she came into contact with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO), a non-profit organization that would shape the trajectory of her life over the next two decades. The MWRO advocates on behalf of recipients of public assistance and engages in grassroots community-based organizing around issues of economic and social justice, such as access to affordable water. Over the past 20 years, the MWRO has played a critical role in addressing the ongoing water crisis in both Highland Park and the City of Detroit. As Sylvia became more involved in community organizing her educational pursuits took a backseat to the activist work that was quickly taking center stage in her life. “The dissertation work kind of got put to the side,” Sylvia explained. “It was really in those community-based meetings learning more about the issues and about the kind of grassroots orientation of Michigan Welfare Rights as well as other groups that they’re working in partnership with that I got deeper into the work.”
Sylvia credits MWRO veteran activists Marian Kramer and Maureen Taylor as the women who guided her most in becoming a welfare rights activist. “They’ve really been these incredible mentors, you know, in this work of how it is that you organize unapologetically on behalf of the poor. Poor people have rights.” Being poor or underemployed is not a crime, yet recipients of public assistance are often forced to fight for their right to benefits in the welfare system. Advocates like Sylvia help people navigate eligibility hearings that can determine whether or not a person will receive aid. The process of receiving public assistance is difficult and often discriminatory. Having someone on your side who knows the law and your rights can mean the difference between receiving vital aid or not.
Since the passage of the Welfare Reform Act during the Clinton Administration in 1996, recipients are in many cases required to be employed to receive aid, which often creates serious dilemmas. “People are taking those late night shifts, they’re working jobs that might not be safe for them, they’re working jobs where it’s not good at all for their family schedule or their family life, you know, in terms of kids’ school schedules or what families need to just be able to manage so that that main bread winner can go out and be employed,” Sylvia explained. “So a lot things fall apart.” As a result, welfare recipients often become trapped in a cycle of low-wage labor that doesn’t provide a way out of poverty. That’s why Sylvia and the MWRO not only advocate for people within the existing system, but are also engaged in a grassroots struggle to transform it. “This kind of class analysis has been really central to how it is that welfare rights have evolved,” Sylvia explained. “Let’s look at this in a whole other way about how it is that this family has been forced into a situation and are not really given the opportunity in any kind of realistic way to get out of that situation.”
While the MWRO viewed access to water for the poor and working people of Highland Park as a human right, others saw it as an asset to be sold off to the highest bidder. In 2001, then-governor John Engler appointed an emergency manager to the city of Highland Park after years of economic decline, de-industrialization, and an exodus of residents left the city in serious financial trouble. Under emergency management, Engler sought to slash expenses and generate revenues by eliminating public services and selling off public assets. As part of a long term privatization plan targeting utilities, the emergency manager raised water rates and began enforcing shutoffs on poor people that were already struggling to pay rates that were becoming among the highest in the nation. In response, Sylvia and MWRO went on an information gathering mission in the community to find out how residents and businesses were being affected by the crisis. They demanded data from the water department and waged protests demanding fair water rates, calling for an end to the shutoffs and the negotiation of an equitable payment plan. “We’re out there picketing and we’re calling out the people who are there and saying, you’re all stealing money, you’re denying people fair water prices, affordable rates. And we need to do something about it,” Sylvia explained.
The water department often overcharged businesses and residents, and in many cases, didn’t even send a bill. Compounding the water crisis in Highland Park was a concurrent battle with DTE Energy to stop gas and electric shutoffs that were not only cruel and unjust—in some cases they proved fatal. There was a series of fires in Highland Park directly related to the shut-offs. People couldn’t heat their homes and resorted to desperate measures to stay warm resulting in a loss of life that was jarring for the community. “We got a lot of mobilization happening in those years and were out there protesting because some of the house fires had actually killed children. That was really hard in those years,” Sylvia recalled. “It just felt like we’re constantly in this zone of trying to push back on these elected officials, on these utilities, you know, educate and mobilize more people to say, look, we’ve gotta say stop this. Enough’s enough. We’ve got rights.”
Organizing the community in protest was a critical element of the struggle, but the MWRO also began to develop a policy that made sense for residents in Detroit. Working with the University of Michigan Poverty Law Program, MWRO connected with utility consultant Roger Colton. Together they created a comprehensive income-based payment system called the Water Affordability Plan (WAP), By implementing a fixed meter rate for everyone in the city, residents would pay no more than 3% of their annual income towards water and sewage bills, allowing them to maintain service while staying current with their bill.You’ve got to work with people where they’re at and you’ve got to base bills based on what their low income affordability is,” said Sylvia. The MWRO was successful in getting the plan passed when Detroit city council voted to implement it in 2006. However, the plan was sabotaged by then DWSD director Victor Mercado and weakened by the DHS by removing key components like the income-based payment plan. This set the stage for a deepening of the water crisis, something that Sylvia realized had larger implications.
“We’ve really got to get a handle on this for low income people to be able to pay based on what they can afford, because there are some bigger things that are afoot.”
Organizing in Highland Park and Detroit around water access connected the MWRO with a broader movement including environmentalists, farmers, and indigenous groups impacted by water privatization. These exchanges shed light on just how inequitable water access has become. While residents have been struggling in places like Highland Park and Detroit, corporations like Nestle have been profiting from the extraction of ground water around the state while paying next to nothing for access and permits. “We learned that they only had to pay like $200 for this permit. And we’re, like, what? You know, people are getting shut off for less than that in this city,” Sylvia explained. She knew then that the water struggle was only expanding and the MWRO would need all community support it could organize. Recruiting new people to the cause is essential. The MWRO is a membership-based organization that necessitates the engagement of the community in advocating on their own behalf. As Sylvia puts it to prospective MWRO members: “you’ve gotta be willing to put in the fight for the changes that we need, you know. And your voice is necessary.” Sylvia continues her work at the MWRO and sees intergenerational cooperation as a key to success of organizations like the MWRO in the broader struggle for the rights of poor and working people. “There’s a lot youth offer, but I also believe there’s a lot elders offer and I think that with as few of us working in movements for change, we can’t afford to lose anybody. So, how is it that we make sure that everybody across the generations has a role?”
- Simpson-Bey, R. “Bamboozled, When Will We Learn?” Michigan Citizen, Sep 07, 1996. https://proxy.lib.wayne.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/docview/368086351?accountid=14925.
- Detroit Equity Action LabVoices from the Grassroots
- Guyette, Curt. “On the Water Front: The Struggle for Water in Michigan’s Black Cities.” Michigan Citizen, Jun, 2014. https://proxy.lib.wayne.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/docview/1550133387?accountid=14925.
- Bellant, Russ, Lila Cabbil, Sarah Coffey, Melissa Damaschke, Shea HowelI, Kate Levy, and Sylvia Orduño. “Detroit’s Water.” Michigan Citizen, Aug, 2014. https://proxy.lib.wayne.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/docview/1561629300?accountid=14925
Sylvia Orduño, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, April 12, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.