Superheroes no longer wear capes: they wear gym shoes. And when it comes to water rights, these superheroes put more miles on those shoes than most.
A few days before we spoke on the phone, Gina Luster represented Flint Rising at an activist event in San Francisco. A red-eye flight took her to Grand Rapids, Michigan, then to her home in Flint at 7:30 in the morning. Next, Gina drove to Detroit for a panel appearance at the NAACP’s annual conference. She arrived in the city exhausted and ready for a shower before our interview, only to find out she couldn’t check into her hotel.
Gina took my call from the hotel parking lot, sitting under a tree next to the Detroit River. Despite the insanity of her schedule and the flickering cell phone signal, her attitude was overwhelmingly positive.
“People tell me, ‘I bet you love the travel,’” she says. “But no. It’s the people. It’s the stories. It’s the struggle. Even if I don’t get to shower and I have to show up at the panel with my shorts and gym shoes on, I’m gonna be on that panel.”
Gina Luster is an activist with Flint Rising, a small coalition of Michigan residents fighting for affordable access to clean water. Together with Nayyirah Shariff and Melissa Mays, Gina is one member of a three-person team that represents the widely diverse community in Flint, Michigan.
In 2014, the Flint water crisis started when state officials began using the Flint River as a water source. The unclean water, steeped in decades of pollution from the auto factories in Detroit and surrounding cities, traveled untreated through miles of underground pipes. Corrosion of these pipes led to enormous levels of lead in the city’s water, leading to unprecedented levels of lead poisoning that would affect the entire community.
Five years later, the fight for clean water access is far from over. Lines for water bottle handouts stretch two or three miles. Low-income families spend their limited food stamp budgets on clean water. In homes where the water is completely turned off, water bills still reach $60/month–in some homes, these bills can stretch to $10,000/month or more.
The crisis in Flint, Michigan is a resounding example of the backlash that comes from water privatization. Many media outlets paint Flint as a one-time event–however, in the United States and abroad, there are literally thousands of cases just like it, where human laziness, greed, or negligence have resulted in disease, death, and starvation for massive populations.
“Because water corporations are in the business of water service, their bottom line is profitability, rather than the human right to water,” says Shayda Naficy, Senior Program Director at Corporate Accountability. “This means they sometimes cut costs or make decisions that can worsen access or create quality problems — as a lawsuit against Veolia in Flint alleges, for example.”
The impacts of water privatization can be felt around the world. Founded in the 1970s as the organization INFACT, Corporate Accountability fights to hold businesses responsible for their impact on the environment and global health.
“Water privatization has a particularly acute impact on women, girls, and their families because in many parts of the world–for better or worse–women frequently have the responsibility of providing water for the family,” Shayda explains. “So consider when water privatization happens: A corporation quite literally takes this resource that is essential to life out of women’s hands. If a family is unable to pay, women and girls have to go distances –sometimes quite literally walking miles — to procure water. In many parts of the world, this means that means girls forego school because of the time and cost to a family of gathering water.”
Rural communities in Africa are a prime example of this. Veronica Ivoke, an organizer with Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, Nigeria, campaigns against the impact of corporate pollution and water privatization in Nigeria.
“In Nigeria, it is customary that girls support their mothers in domestic activities,” Veronica says. “Getting water, no matter what the cost or time involved, is paramount. Here in Nigeria, where oil spills and pollution have been common, women and girls are suffering because they are working in the farms, fishing in the river, fetching the water. And pollution affects their health, their livelihoods, so when there is pollution there must be reactions.”
Environmental Rights Action connects community representatives in Lagos and the rest of Nigeria with governments, activists, and campaigners on local, national, and international levels. In the last four years, ERA has partnered with Corporate Accountability and the African Women Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Network (AWWASHNET) to combat the effects of water privatization. The organizations achieve this goal by empowering women and families to take part in water-related decision-making, connecting communities with resources and technology that create or protect sources of clean water, and calling corporations to task for their environmental impact.
“The campaign invites women and girls to effectuate/put into action two important ideas,” says Shayda. “One, that they, not distant corporations, should be in the driver’s seat of community decisions like how water is managed. And two, that the commons should be reclaimed and governed by the public good.”
“Women are now coming out in greater numbers to voice out their rejection of water privatization and proffer solutions,” Veronica adds. “One of the communities we visited last year was fetching water from drainage, which can cause all manner of illness. After the AWWASHNET intervention, the government was forced to provide solutions. Now the community is getting safe water from the tap.”
Veronica and her team are fully committed to connecting every family with clean, usable water.
“No corporation, no business, no government, no person should be allowed to deprive a girl, a boy, a woman, a man, or a community of that,” she says. “It should in fact be the #1 duty of government to protect the environment for its citizens.”
Too often, governments fail to protect their citizens from the impact of predatory privatization techniques. Especially in communities where women act as the head of household, the primary caretaker for children, and the main source of food and water for their families, women and girls face some of the worst effects of environmental damage and water privatization.
“Women are often at the center of their communities and families and are seeing the impacts of corporate abuse on their children,” says Shayda. “Children are like the canaries in the coalmine of environmental damage. They are more vulnerable and more responsive to environmental harms. This puts women who are caretakers of children in the position of seeing and acting to address collective harm.”
The story does not change in the United States. Many communities struggle to get access to clean water, and children and families are often the first to suffer.
In Flint, for example, a school in Gina’s neighborhood cannot keep a third-grade teacher for longer than a school year. This is because of behavioral and developmental issues present in an overwhelming number of students. Most elementary-aged children in Flint have been experiencing the effects of lead poisoning since they were babies or toddlers. And according to researchers, the genetic impacts of lead poisoning will be felt by residents for up to five future generations.
“My great-great-great-grandkids could still be affected by what happened to me in 2014,” Gina says. “I don’t think people really understand the impact of what some greed and bad decisions could do. This is man-made. This isn’t because the pipes got old, or because of Mother Nature. This is because someone made the decision to not put corrosion control into the water treatment center.”
Through Flint Rising, Gina and her team have worked to leverage criminal charges against the individuals and government officials responsible for the water disaster. Over the last few years, Flint prosecutors called the EPA, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and other government entities to task for the deaths and illnesses attributed to the crisis. However, in June of 2019, prosecutors shocked the city by dropping all charges.
“It was such a kick in the face,” Gina says, remembering the vague promises and explanations given by the new prosecutor, Kim Worthy. “And it was done overnight without speaking to the community. We were getting calls and texts from the New York Times, asking for comments. We’re right here, and we had no idea that the charges had been dropped.”
This type of behavior is exactly what organizations like Corporate Accountability work so hard to prevent.
“Certainly corporations have a responsibility to protect the environment,” Shayda says. “They have a responsibility to operate in a way that offers more good than harm. It is my frank opinion that if you can’t be viable as a business when you absorb the full costs of doing business, then you have no business doing business!”
Many corporations tout themselves as environmental warriors, championing green tactics that have a positive impact on the environment. However, corporations’ philanthropic efforts fall flat in places like Flint and Lagos.
In Flint, pollution from auto giants like Ford and GM caused the lead poisoning issue in the first place–and “charitable” donations of $2 million barely buy enough water to cover more than a few days’ of the city’s water needs. Likewise, Nestle pays $200 per year (that’s two hundred dollars, not two hundred thousand) to pump water out of the Great Lakes, only to sell that water back to Flint residents whose water bills can reach $10,000 or more. Nestle blasted a marketing campaign surrounding its donation of two million cases of water to Flint–but after three or four months, that water was gone.
In Lagos, private water companies like Veolia are attempting to take control of water systems to run them for profit. Evidence from around the world shows that this type of privatization scheme can have a disproportionate impact on women and girls, who may be forced to walk miles to retrieve clean water. In cases where such distance travel is not possible, families resort to polluted water sources that cause disease and death. When they are directly at fault for harming communities, corporations need to be held accountable.
“Corporations should not get accolades for doing the right thing…doing the right thing should be a requirement of doing business,” Shayda says. “If our children make a mess, we ask them to pick it up. Why should we expect anything less of multi-billion dollar corporations and their executives?”
The fight against water privatization has seen a few significant victories. The World Bank, for example, officially divested from Veolia, one of the world’s leading water privatizers.
“Water privatizers are having to shift their business and marketing dramatically to get a foot in the door because their failures have been widely exposed,” Shayda explains. “Governments around the world have chosen to reject privatization and invest in public water solutions like in Lagos and Pittsburgh. This is testament to what everyday people can achieve when joined in common purpose.”
Feminist philanthropy has a massive opportunity to intervene in water privatization. Because women are typically the ones providing water for their families, women have a unique position to acknowledge and fight against the painful impacts of water privatization.
You can see this in organizations like Flint Rising, where a Muslim woman, a practicing Wiccan, and a member of a South Baptist church come together to represent an entire community–one that includes immigrants from a wide range of backgrounds and countries. You can see this when the former chairperson of AWWASHNET becomes the Chairperson of the Nigeria Labor Congress. You can see it when women around the world make their voices heard.
When women join together to fight for their rights, to fight for their communities, and to fight for their communities, they make incredible things happen.
No corporation should separate a family from clean water. No government should profit off the suffering of its taxpayers. And ultimately, no one in our society should have to wonder where they’ll get their next clean drink of water.
“In the next five to ten years, we’re going to see a lot more women jumping into the philanthropy side,” Gina says. “It’s starting to happen now. The opportunities are not coming — they’re here. In the next five or ten years, maybe my daughter could be one of those people.”
“I’m not doing this work for myself right now,” she adds. “I’m doing this work now for my daughter and future generations.”
To learn more about Flint Rising, visit their website at www.flintrising.com.
To learn more about Corporate Accountability, visit their website at www.corporateaccountability.org.
To learn more about Environmental Right Action/Friends of the Earth, Nigeria, visit their website at erafoen.org.
To read more about the fight against water privatization, read the other three articles in our four-part series:
- Feminist Philanthropy and the Fight Against Water Privatization
- 45 Years, Millions of Lives: An Interview with Leah Margulies
- Protecting the World’s Rivers Through Feminist Leadership
Philanthropy Women covers funding for gender equity in all sectors of society. We want to significantly shift public discourse, particularly in philanthropy, toward increased action for gender equality. You can support our work and access unlimited and premium content with one of our subscriptions.