The opportunity created by the sacrifices of a working class family often instills a commitment to reach back into the community to help those who’ve been left behind. “My heart is blue collar that’s who I am, that’s where I came from,” says Debra Taylor, human rights activist and cofounder of We the People of Detroit. Both of Debra’s parents worked for General Motors and were active in the United Auto Workers (UAW), something that continues to inform the way she views the world and how she organizes. “I came from a union background, I always had a gut feeling that there’s some sort of class control issues and mechanisms in place in society.” A native of Flint, Michigan, Debra has been engaged in social justice work for the better part of her adult life. “I would describe myself as a kid told me years ago, ‘Well, Ms. Taylor, you just do good in the hood.’ So, most of my employment has been trying to contribute to improving the quality of life for our people.”
After college in the ‘80s, Debra went to work for Franklin Wright Settlements, a community development nonprofit on Detroit’s east side that brings resources to seniors and educational support programing for the youth. She was responsible for organizing a candidate forum for Detroit’s mayoral race that facilitated a type of dialogue that she doesn’t see much of in today’s politics. “It was an authentic interaction and you got to see them perform on the spot and get the questions that were important to you answered by people who said they wanted to represent you and to serve as a public servant, which you don’t hear that word anymore, you hear politician.” Debra absorbed a lot about the political machinery in Detroit but she focused her efforts on youth development in the community. When she returned to the city in 2000 after living in D.C. and Flint, she went to work at the Detroit Youth Foundation (DYF). At DYF she developed a leadership training program while writing grants for the organization. “I was buried in my work and I didn’t really pay attention to political things because I was so busy building this program and running it but then I got downsized.”
When the organization began to have financial troubles Debra had more time to observe local politics and develop a more acute analysis of what was taking place within the political landscape of the city. It was the 2009 mayoral candidacy of Tom Barrow that caught her attention. Barrow was running on a platform that empowered the city and its workers against privatization and that resonated with Debra. She was particularly impressed by how well Barrow fielded questions from journalists, “they were throwing these hard questions at him and he was responding in a way that I felt was substantive, that was strong, that was grounded in self-determination and self-governance, and with intellect, and experience.” Debra was inspired to join the Barrow campaign where she grew to understand the inner workings of public administration while mobilizing voters and pushing for a recount. “That opened up a whole new world for me,” says Debra, “because I hadn’t called myself an activist before that.” It was also through this experience that she came to see that the principles of democracy weren’t being honored in Detroit.
Ultimately, Dave Bing became Detroit’s mayor and in 2010 attempted to push through a mayoral takeover of Detroit Public schools, a move that would remove local control of DPS through the elected school board and place it solely in the mayor’s office. Debra joined a group of activists that included Monica Lewis-Patrick, Cecily McClellan, Aurora Harris, and Phyllis Griffith to protest the measure that was put before the city council. “There was an opportunity for public comment and we asked questions or made comments and then we recruited other people and there were other people down there that had concerns and we got to know them and it grew from there,” says Taylor. “We were showing up every day. Every day for weeks. We weren’t a group, we were just interested, concerned citizens.” When City Council eventually asked who this growing group was that kept showing up at meetings, Debra came up with the name We the People of Detroit to represent this new organization.
In August of 2010 the city council voted down the resolution to place the measure on the November ballot by a 6 to 3 vote and that struggle was won. The efforts of We the People of Detroit caught the attention of Councilwoman JoAnn Watson who reached out and asked Debra and Monica Lewis-Patrick to join her staff. That relationship would offer Debra an invaluable education and prove instrumental in building a coalition of organizations that included the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and the People’s Water Board a few years later to struggle against emergency management and the ongoing water crisis.
In 2013 the city of Detroit was forced into bankruptcy by the state and placed under the total control of emergency manager Kevyn Orr, who had been appointed by then Governor Rick Snyder. The move amounted to an undemocratic takeover of the city and mobilized activists in opposition. Emergency management exacerbated the city’s water crisis, as thousands of residents were faced with life-threatening water shutoffs in a move to balance the city’s budget and prime the DWSD for regionalization. The water crises in both Debra’s home-town of Flint and Detroit are interconnected in what is a broader fight against the privatization of water, something Debra is acutely aware of. “Emergency management is the common denominator,” she explained. “Detroit was placed under emergency management because it is strategically located on 21% of the world’s freshwater supply, because it is an international border, because people of financial means, the 1%, want this to be their playground.”
In response, We the People of Detroit set up a water hotline to help residents navigate the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) and water stations to provide relief to residents. The work was difficult and organizers often had to shoulder the costs themselves. “We had no grant funding or anything,” Debra recalled, “we were charging on my charge card to get water and clipboards and vests, hopefully we can find a way to pay this off.” Organizers with WTPD went door to door passing out fliers, getting relief to residents, and gathering information on the impact of the crisis. One of the greatest challenges they faced was a lack of mainstream media coverage. While the city’s major newspapers largely celebrated the state takeover and bankruptcy, it was alternative media sources that provided a voice to activists and residents in the ongoing water crisis. “None of it was getting any headlines except for this newspaper here, which no longer exists, it suddenly just went away one December with no real notice, the Michigan Citizen.”
At the bankruptcy proceedings, We the People raised the alarm about the threat to public health from the water shutoffs. With shutoffs escalating under emergency management, Monica Lewis-Patrick asked the judge to put a moratorium on the shutoffs to allow for an assessment of the health impact on residents. When he refused, Debra Taylor and WTPD resolved to conduct their own research. “We got to do our own research on the health impact,” she explained. “That’s how, with no money, no nothing, we pulled together a group and came up with this book that’s now used in about 17 different universities, it’s been used in K-12. It’s been the basis of the recent report by the Haas Institute.” Led by We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective (CRC), the landmark Mapping the Water Crisis: The Dismantling of African American Neighborhoods in Detroit was published in 2016.
The CRC has been a cornerstone in the activist work of WTPD and has since expanded to include research in land and educational justice. While We the People of Detroit partnered with academics it maintained its distance from universities themselves. “We held and owned the data on behalf of the community,” says Debra. “It made the research being driven by the needs of the community, not the community becoming research lab rats for academia.” Since its inception, WTPD has evolved and expanded its methods and Debra sees the emphasis on research as an important step for the organization. “You use what you have and you do better when you know better,” she reflected. “I say this was divine intervention in the way that we came about being able to be more methodical and research-based because we realized people aren’t going to listen to you.”
We the People of Detroit has only grown since it began over 10 years ago becoming an internationally recognized organization for their work in research-based advocacy around water access as a human right. WTPD’s core mission is dependent on the continued engagement of the youth which is why the organization created We the Youth of Detroit, a youth internship program to mentor a new generation of grassroots leadership. “We’ve got to figure out how to recapture the wealth and the strength that forming intergenerational partnerships can bring, because it’s all a continuum. I’m not just coming on the scene and starting something; this stuff was here before I was born. It’s going to be here when I leave here and the same with all of us,” says Debra. “Investing in young people is critical. We want it to be a solution and a resource in the community that lives on so that people are empowered, moved, touched, and inspired to make a difference in their own lives.”
- Bukowski, Diane. “‘Barrow for Mayor’.” Michigan Citizen, Sep, 2009. https://proxy.lib.wayne.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/docview/367980828?accountid=14925.
- Jeffries, Zenobia. “Council Votes Down Mayoral Control.” Michigan Citizen, Aug, 2010. https://proxy.lib.wayne.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/docview/751156625?accountid=14925
- Watson, JoAnn. “THE CITY OF DETROIT HAS NOT FILED BANKRUPTCY!” Michigan Citizen, Aug, 2013. https://proxy.lib.wayne.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/docview/1425878579?accountid=14925
- Joseph Recchie and Anna Recchie, john a. powell, Laura Lyons, Ponsella Hardaway, Wendy Ake, “Water Equity and Security in Detroit’s Water & Sewer District,” Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, University of California, Berkeley: Berkeley, CA, January 2019, haasinstitute.berkeley. edu/detroitwaterequity
Debra Taylor, interviewed by Peter Blackmer, March 22, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.