There was garbage everywhere. Anticipation weighted the city air grayed by towering buildings of industries past. Bang! People scattered. Police patrolled almost every corner, and their barricades blocked the roads. Parents held onto their children tightly, protecting them from the speeding crowds. It was chaos. It was Detroit.
But this wasn’t the Detroit my Jamaica-born, New York–acculturated father had warned me about—the Detroit that had kept me nestled in my suburban oasis in Ann Arbor as an SPH student. No, on this particular day, it was the Detroit Free Press Marathon, and the chaos was organized for runners like me. The strangers who filled the streets were my lifeline, supporting my efforts with their cowbells, chants, and placards of encouragement, most notably “Black Girls Run!” (Yes we do!).
Normally I would never accept food from strangers, especially after taking Epidemiology 503, but I’m grateful to those who sliced fruit along the strategically charted course—a course that hid parts of Detroit from runners, like the family secret that everyone knows but no one mentions. Nevertheless, residents from all walks of life—from small Girl Scouts to Detroit’s elders—cheered us on as they feverishly filled cups of water, indiscriminately handing them to runners in need.
Water. Getting water to those who need it.
As it happened, this very issue—getting water to those who need it—had brought United Nations’ Special Rapporteurs Catarina de Albuquerque and Leilani Farha to Detroit on that very same day to those marginal neighborhoods the marathon course never reached. At the behest of Detroit activists, de Albuquerque and Farha were investigating the city’s recent decision to deny water service to those unable to pay. At a time of both rising unemployment and rising water prices, more than 60,000 Detroit homes, predominantly belonging to low-income and African-American residents, had been left without water.
Paradoxically, water projects in developing nations dominated the charity presence in Detroit on race day. “Support the Hope Water Project!” blared loudspeakers along the racecourse; samples of dirty water “from Kenya” were displayed at the Expo the night before. What a missed opportunity to connect the plight of under-resourced and disenfranchised communities around the world with the plight of thousands of Detroiters themselves—a missed chance to spread our compassion for strangers abroad to our neighbors here at home.
Who then takes care of Detroit? Most certainly, Detroiters do. For instance, at the start of the new year, the Michigan Muslim Community Council and the Islamic Relief USA together donated $100,000 to support Detroiters unable to pay for water access. Along with many other organizations and individuals, they’ve helped accomplish what the city at large is struggling to do—get water to those who need it.
I don’t know what will happen to Detroit. As a recent U-M SPH graduate, my time in Michigan came and went before I truly learned what I could do. The distance to Detroit from Ann Arbor is only far for students when we want it to be. But Detroit had water that day. This much I know. There were people who needed it, and the city, the race organizers, and everyday community members worked together to make it happen.
If the power of people can move mountains, then surely it can put water in a sink.