Imagine a community so strongly invested in the neighborhood’s collective wellbeing that if one resident was down on their luck, everyone chipped in to lift them up. A community with social ties so strong, that the lines between family and neighbor often become blurred. Growing up in working class Detroit, this is the type of environment that shaped the organizing ethos of Maureen Taylor, state chairperson of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO). Maureen is a Detroit activist whose commitment to the struggle for social justice is evident in her work on issues of welfare and water rights. She first came upon this work when as a young woman and her husband was out of work and sought the guidance of someone who could help navigate the welfare system. “As more and more people started to be laid off that were not factory workers, there was a need for me to find somebody that knew more about this question of rising poverty, about not having food, I can’t pay my rent,” said Taylor.
What Maureen describes as a chance meeting with veteran civil rights and welfare rights activist Marian Kramer seems almost like providence because the resulting impact on Maureen has been life-long. “Marian brought to my consciousness this question of poverty.” Kramer introduced her to the welfare rights movement and helped Maureen broaden her understanding of oppression to develop an analysis that included class, as well as race and gender. “It became clear, but you have to study this and learn this and read this, and she was just so instrumental in opening that door so that I could get a political interpretation of the way the world works. I been a girl a long time, and when you show up as a girl, there are certain things that you learn along the way that come with the “baggage” of being female.”
Though Maureen never met Johnnie Tillmon, executive director of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), her approach to activism has been shaped by Tillmon’s philosophy that poor and working class people should be empowered with the ability to advocate for themselves. The MWRO follows a militant yet compassionate philosophy in their approach to organizing. “We got a rule at welfare rights. There’s no crying at welfare rights…Go in the bathroom, wash your face, get those tears in order, because you’re now coming to an organization of soldiers, and we don’t cry here,” Taylor explained. “And once you come to welfare rights, our job is to make you feel good inside. You have not done anything to deserve to be mistreated the way you’re being mistreated. So, let’s change the paradigm.”
Maureen has taken the fight for welfare rights to the local, state, and federal levels of government on numerous occasions throughout the decades. In the early 1990s, Taylor was engaged in an effort to recall then Republican Governor John Engler who had implemented austerity measures that cut public assistance to families in need under the guise of “welfare reform.” She also had the courage to protest the Clinton administration allowing states to suspend federal funding to critical social welfare programs. In the summer of 2001, word got out that Highland Park’s emergency manager was shutting off water to hundreds of households. Maureen was drawn into the fight for water rights through the Highland Park Human Rights Coalition and approached the situation with the same commitment and intensity she brought to earlier struggles. The departure of automaker Chrysler from Highland Park in 1993 had dealt a devastating blow to the tax base in the small city, causing a staggering 25% drop in Highland Park’s tax revenue. Emergency managers were appointed by the governor, overriding the power of the mayor and city council and disenfranchising residents. Emergency managers launched a scheme to shutter public institutions and sell off public resources including the city’s water department.
Taylor recognized what was happening in Highland Park would become an even larger fight in Detroit. In the early 2000s when the city began executing water shut-offs for residents unable to pay ever increasing rates, MWRO activists organized to resist the shut-offs and demand the right to safe and affordable water for city residents. The MWRO worked with economist Roger Colton to develop the Water Affordability Plan, a comprehensive payment policy for water services that would not only allow residents to pay their water bill according to their income, but also create fiscal solvency for the department. “We put together a rough draft, five, six, seven, eight pages, whatever we could, that talked about water being charged on the basis of ability to pay. That’s where we came from,” Taylor explained. Maureen and fellow activists succeeded in getting Detroit city council to pass the Water Affordability Plan but Detroit Water and Sewer Department (DWSD) director Victor Mercado undermined the effort and ensured it wouldn’t be put into action. “Today, Mr. Mercado is known as Inmate Number 602903. That’s the inmate number. But, at that time, he was the head of the Water Department and the city had started to, you know, announce plans to shut off water.”
Maureen and the MWRO continue the fight to protect water as a human right and public trust, recognizing that water is being privatized in communities all over the country and the world. The MWRO has played a leading role in organizing around this issue in Southeast Michigan, attracting more support and media coverage to the water crisis in the city of Detroit. When this groundswell of organizing prompted the United Nations to investigate the situation in Detroit in 2014, it found the shut-offs to be a violation of Human Rights, drawing international outrage and support for the ongoing struggle. Suddenly, Taylor recalled, “Phone calls were coming, checks were coming in, we were paying people’s water bills off, all this kind of stuff.” Through mass mobilizations throughout the city led by MWRO, the People’s Water Board, and many other organizations, activists were successful in pushing then recently elected Mayor Mike Duggan to declare a temporary moratorium on the water shut-offs.
However, the struggle for water as human right is ongoing in Detroit. Maureen continues her work as an activist and State Chairperson of the MWRO. She has seen the ups and downs inherent in the struggle for social justice but is hopeful about the future and inspired by a new generation willing to take up the fight. “I do believe that there are individuals in this city, in this county, in this state, and in this country, in this world, [that] have a clear recognition of what righteousness looks like, what dignity looks like,” Maureen recently explained. “And as long as we continue to describe what these things are supposed to look like, from the day that I can’t take this fight another step, there gonna be somebody there to carry it on.”
- Taylor, Ula Y. “Feminism.” Oxford African American Studies Center. 1 Dec. 2006; Accessed 1 Feb. 2020. https://oxfordaasc.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195301731.001.0001/acref-9780195301731-e-44139.
- Seigel, Ron. “Detroit Area Poverty Group Joins International Struggle.” Michigan Citizen, Feb 12, 1994.
- Wheeler, Earl O. “The Conspiracy to Take Highland Park.” Michigan Chronicle, Apr 10, 2002. https://proxy.lib.wayne.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/docview/390184907?accountid=14925; Brown, Warren. “Chrysler Moving Headquarters to Suburb of Detroit by 1995.” The Washington Post (1974-Current File), Sep 09, 1992. https://proxy.lib.wayne.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/docview/140645724?accountid=14925.
- Bellant, Russ, Lila Cabbil, Sarah Coffey, Melissa Damaschke, Shea HowelI, Kate Levy, and Sylvia Orduno. “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.
- “United Nations to Intervene in Detroit Water Crisis.” The Arab American News, Jul, 2014. https://proxy.lib.wayne.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/docview/1545865467?accountid=14925.
Maureen Taylor, interviewed by Peter Blackmer, transcript, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.