Racism has made water hazardous to our health, but climate leaders are hopeful the Biden-Harris administration will bring change

by Jalonne L. White-Newsome

A history of water discrimination

In the 1830s, New York City was hit hard by cholera, a bacterial disease usually spread through contaminated water causing an infection of the intestines. The poorest neighborhoods, including the slum known as Five Points where African Americans and immigrant Irish Catholics were the majority, were hit hardest. While modern sewage and water treatment have helped eradicate cholera in some countries, the problem was not just the lack of infrastructure: it was the presence of racism.

And yet, we remain resilient

Despite the challenges many inner-city neighborhoods face — from lead and polybutylene in pipes, to flooded homes, environmental injustice, sea-level rise and legacy pollution — the waves Kresge grantee partners are making to fight for environmental justice and water equity through the Climate Resilient and Equitable Water Systems (CREWS) initiative can serve as a model for the country.

A mixed “CREW,” fighting for basic human rights

The amazing group of leaders that make up the CREWS initiative include water utility leaders, municipal practitioners, economists, environmental justice researchers and community-based, environmental conservationists. I’d like to highlight just a few, although there are too many great feats to recognize.

“My crush on water”

As a little girl growing up in Detroit, I took a lot of things for granted: having access to the Great Lakes, turning on my tap to get clean water, no flooding in the streets after a hard rain. My crush on water started with an elementary school science fair project.

Continuing the fight for water equity

After five years with the Foundation, I will take my Kresge hat off and transition from the Foundation for the next journey in my career. Effective January 29, I will remain steadfast in the race for not only clean water, but justice, equity and fair treatment for the Black, Brown and low-income families across the country who have suffered just as much as my parents have.



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Urban Resilience Project

A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future. www.islandpress.org/URP