Monica Lewis-Patrick is an educator, entrepreneur, and human rights activist/advocate. She has served as Director of Community Outreach & Engagement since 2009. She was unanimously elected by the Board to become the President & CEO. Monica is actively engaged in almost every struggle on behalf of Detroit residents. She is an active member of the People’s Water Board Coalition, US Human Rights Network, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and D-REM.org, and was named to the World Water Justice Council in October of 2015. As a former Lead Legislative Policy Analyst for Detroit City Council, Monica has authored legislation, conducted research and delivered constituency services to thousands of city residents. Monica attended the historic Bennett College. She is a graduate of East Tennessee State University with a Bachelors degree in Social Work and Sociology and a Masters of Arts of Liberal Studies degree with a concentration in Criminal Justice/Sociology and Public Management. She is currently one of the leaders at the forefront of the water rights struggle in Detroit.
Monica Lewis-Patrick was recognized as a River Hero at River Rally 2019.
This interview was published on August 28, 2018. Learn more about Monica’s work at We the People of Detroit.
Did you grow up around water? What are your fondest early memories of water?
I grew up around the Holston River, which runs through my hometown of Kingsport, Tennessee. We had a complex relationship with the river as it ran past a chemical company, so there wasn’t a good place to swim or fish. One positive interaction I recall is a portion of the river than ran through Warrior State Park; we had the ability to be around water with limited toxicity.
When did you first realize that you wanted to stand up for rivers?
It was more of an evolution than a moment. In 2010 I was working for Councilwoman Watson and I was challenged to organize a protest around internal operations of Detroit Water and Sewage. The campaign was called “Hands Off Our Water,” and 5,000 people showed up for the protest. My consciousness was raised around policy threats to water. Then in 2014, thousands of homes were shut off to water and I realized that water is a human right. I started working in Flint in 2015 and recognized the critical need to protect all water sources.
Why is protecting rivers important to you now?
Today, I understand that water is a delicate ecosystem and must be protected on all fronts by isolating individual bodies of water, but also understanding the interconnectedness of all water.
What has your experience been like working for River Network? How has River Network helped you achieve your goals?
River Network has been instrumental in taking citizens-based research and giving it validity. Bringing us to the table with stakeholders that we hadn’t been able to interface with before, and then raising the social justice component through Nicole’s leadership. And even being in a space where people approach water from a conservation view presents an opportunity to raise the collective consciousness around all the ways we approach water. I applaud Nicole and River Network in terms of constantly reaching out, being a partner for us, and bringing us training that helps us be more effective in what we do.
What water-related accomplishment are you most proud of?
First is the We the People community research collective. We were able to mobilize and collect ourselves with scholars and academics to produce a book called Mapping the Water Crisis. And the second is that We the Youth of Detroit just graduated our fourth social justice summer internship class. In this program the kids do a week of work around water, a week on social justice, a week on social organization, LGBTQ, immigration rights, etc. Of all the amazing training they received, they presented work on water. For them to grasp all the critical pieces of water issues goes to the bedrock of what WTP wants to fight for.
What positive changes would you like to see in your community over the next 10 years?
That’s a laundry list for me! At the top, I would like to see a state water affordability plan. I would also like to see policies and ecofriendly methodologies for updating our water infrastructure, decentralizing sanitation systems and looking at things like what Bob Zimmerman did in Boston to remediate wastewater. Also, power-mapping our state system, being intentional about K-12 curriculum to teach stewardship and respect for water, and using recreational experiences to uplift people’s consciousness around water and our responsibility to protect it.