Replenish Detroit is one of the latest additions to Wayne State’s extensive list of student organizations. Officially founded in January, six undergraduate students formed the organization, which is focused on Detroit community outreach. Only five months old, the momentum of the group’s campaign shows immense promise for helping the citizens of Detroit and increasing the well-being of the community.
The organization’s formal mission is to advocate for the ongoing Detroit water crisis and to fight for safe, affordable water in Detroit. However, its initiative extends past just water issues. Replenish Detroit addresses numerous health disparities and advocates for long-term solutions to the inequalities facing the city’s residents. Advocacy is the group’s top priority.
Most recently, their efforts have been connected to providing relief to Detroit residents during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“There are issues to be resolved within first-world countries,” said Shanmin Sultana, a second year Wayne State student from Warren who is studying sociology, public health and Spanish, and is one of Replenish Detroit’s directors. “People don’t know that there are thousands of people with no water right in our school’s backyard.”
The group’s formation was inspired by Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a 2018 Michigan gubernatorial candidate who was a scholar-in-residence in Wayne State’s criminal justice and public health departments. Sultana took it upon herself to visit El-Sayed and discuss her group’s idea for starting a student organization with an alleviation mission. It was El-Sayed who suggested a focus on the Detroit water affordability crisis.
The group collaborates with coalitions like We The People of Detroit and Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry. Through these alliances—and input from their mentors—the group has advanced its mission and extended its outreach efforts.
In March, Replenish Detroit hosted a hygiene products collection drive on campus, to donate to the Brightmoor pantry. Brightmoor is located in the northwest section of Detroit and has the city’s highest population of water shutoffs. Brightmoor also has the highest population of infant mortality deaths — in the womb and out of the womb — due to water insecurity.
Water insecurity is an issue that impacts many other aspects of a person’s life. Especially in accordance with the COVID-19 pandemic, the student organization has been doing its part to provide relief to Detroit. Residents who struggle to afford water, often find difficulty in providing themselves with other essential items.
The success Replenish Detroit had in collecting sanitary items for the shelves of Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry motivated the group to start a GoFundMe in March, where they raised $235 to buy hygiene items for the pantry. Since then, the group has secured over $5,000 in award money from The Desai Sethi Foundation and The Pollination Project, using the funds to further fulfill requests for items at the Brightmoor Pantry. They are also circulating the existing petition, which asks Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to restore the water in the home of Detroit residents to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“I live 20 minutes away [from Detroit] and I don’t have to think twice about being able to protect myself from COVID-19; water access should not be a concern for people during this unprecedented time,” Sultana said.
More than 140,000 homes in Detroit have had their water shut off since 2014. Replenish Detroit is committed to raising attention to the question of why Detroiters don’t pay their water bills. Sultana said that the easy response is to assume that Detroit residents do not have the funds to pay for water, but the true answer is much more complex.
Detroit residents, on average, spend about 10% of their income on water and sewer services, while the EPA recommends residents across the nation spend no more than 4.5% of their income on water bills. This means that Detroit residents pay double the national average, leading to thousands being unable to keep up with high water bills and leading to aggressive water shutoffs.
The disproportionately priced water bills are a consequence of the municipal bankruptcy Detroit faced years back.
“It shouldn’t be the responsibility of Detroit residents to fix the debt that the city put them in,” said Sultana. “Water service should be based on income, not the city’s needs.”
As of March 31, the city restored water to 1,000 residents; however, this is only a tenth of the 10,000 people who called to report issues with their water. Replenish Detroit is just one of the Michigan-based organizations advocating for water restoration in Detroit.
Although the school semester impacted and the campus community has redesigned the idea of normalcy during the pandemic, Replenish Detroit has remained dedicated to its mission and fight for activism. Interested students can follow the organization on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook; or email the organization for more information.