Brightmoor Youth Work To Democratize Water Distribution
article by Eric T. Campbell
photo by Keviyan Richardson
Now that temperatures are dropping below the freezing mark, the youth builders have brought the water catchment and filtration system prototype back to the workshop for a structural evaluation. Though the structure is currently dismantled, the Detroit Community High School Makerspace team, led by Bart Eddy and Mike Reid, have reason to celebrate. Their water purification project was displayed at the nearby Baber AME Church for only a few autumn weeks; just enough time to test the two-stage filtration line that will produce potable, or drinkable, water for Brightmoor residents. Independent lab results have revealed that the filtration and purification systems are functioning properly. Their design will provide a continuous source of drinkable water to families in need and transform how this life-giving resource is distributed throughout the Brightmoor neighborhood, and beyond.
The water purification station is another in a long line of projects by the DCHS Makerspace that directly address the surrounding community’s essential needs. Since 2009, the Makerspace has engaged students with a variety of crafts including wood sign-carving, screen printing, bike repair, boat-building and sewing. In collaboration with the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design and the Sunbridge International Collaborative, they have created projects based on grassroots economic principles. Most recently, Eddy and the DCHS Makerspace team have been learning to fabricate tiny houses for housing insecure citizens by building even tinier models.
But it’s the wide impact made by the growing number of water crises in Michigan which has led student-activists at DCHS to engage in direct-action responses. In 2015, they combined several makerspace projects to create an emergency water delivery and purification system using a three-wheeled ‘trike’ as the chassis. This wonderfully imaginative invention was profiled in the first issue of Riverwise. The current water collection and purification system will also provide drinkable water to Brightmoor residents, but from a fixed tank where the water is collected. The technology is working exactly as planned, making this project a potential game-changer for Detroit residents short on water— potable or non-potable.
“This is kind of our event, to bring us out into the world, if you will,” says DCHS makerspace director, Bart Eddy. “The couple things that we’re doing are definitely connected with the UN (United Nations) goals for pure water, and health and well-being in the community. Those are the sustainable development goals. The UN was here in 2014 discussing the water shutoffs in Detroit. So we’ve got the human rights issue connected with this as well.”
From afar, DCHS makerspace water station looks similar to many water catchment systems that are appearing in various locations around the city, especially near urban gardens. But what makes this one special is the filtration system which purifies the water as it exits the holding tank. Riverwise visited the DCHS Makerspace workshop on a recent Saturday so that upperclassmen Ki’yame Frye, Kyhiem Frye, Jacob Fogle and Lijay Lately, and project manager Mike Reid, could explain the process.
Getting the filtration system ready for spring rains includes strengthening the tank’s platform with floor joists and posts and, possibly, a separate pavillion with its own metal roof. The filtration system itself, as DCHS senior Lijay Lately explains, revolves around the ultra-violet (UVC) light bulb, supported by several other components that keep the water moving from roof to tank.
“We have the rain collected from the gutters, a leaf filter gets all the big stuff, pvc pipe to pex, to the charcoal filters, which take out all the heavy metals and contaminants,” Lately explained to Riverwise. “Then you go over to the UV filter which deactivates all the bacteria so it can be safe to drink… It’s all pulled through by this pump right here, which is all powered by this lead acid battery, and then the pump, the 9V inverter….”
The DCHS makerspace students have definitely absorbed the mechanics of the water purification system. But they have also provided a vision for the Brightmoor community, one that is based on local problem-solving in the face of systemic failures.
“This was an action response to the lead crisis,” DCHS senior Kyhiem Frye told Riverwise looking toward the 340-gallon water tank. “Though this is a prototype, it’s definitely going to make a difference.”
Senior Jacob Fogle added that offering a public water purification in the location where its needed the most means “increased attention to community ingenuity and sustainability. You don’t have to be from a rich family to create something that positively affects the world.”
Mike Reid, who has been overseeing the project, also finds great potential for longer-term social benefits in the water purification project. Reid says their prototype is an opportunity for people to further examine how we might transition to water delivery systems that are self-sustaining and more democratic. As we question how our current system of resource management has led to inequitable outcomes, folks in Brightmoor and other neighborhoods across the city are overcoming certain habits and taking more control over how resources are distributed.
“A lot of people are hesitant— they’re afraid of like, drinking rain water. So maybe if they can just see this thing work, it could kind of open our minds to different ways of solving these problems. But also, we can definitely fill up some water jugs for people.”
Reid envisions their method of filtration as an alternative city-wide system for water management, one that relies on a decentralized water delivery infrastructure and an independent way of thinking.
“If you have a distributive mind-set then you can imagine our communities, each with their own filtration system, or maybe one at each house, depending on how it works,” Reid says. “It might be more resistant to wider breakdown issues. And then people are empowered to do it themselves, I guess. Even with solar, and other renewables, that’s the new direction— a widely distributed system. It’s better for people to put a solar panel on their house than to buy from a solar farm.”
The health implications for water insecure households in Detroit and other regional municipalities are well-documented. City officials and local media continue to cite shutoff numbers that have decreased over the last couple of years, though it’s predictable that, after tens of thousands of shutoffs performed in the years after the appointment of emergency manager Kevyn Orr in 2013, the numbers would eventually decrease. We’re still a long way from considering water a human right and placing a moratorium on water shutoffs altogether.
Instead, the City of Detroit has continued to approach delinquent water bills with punitive measures like “service interruptions,” leading to home desertions and public health crises. The Detroit Water and Sewage Department August 1 Service Interruption Summary indicates that from April-July, 11,801 water customers had service cut-off. 7,370 of those remain without service.
The DCHS makers space is challenging our young people and their instructors to incorporate community issues into their curriculums. Schooling should not occur separate from our communities, especially when our communities are in need. As a coordinator for the Detroit Community High School family support team, Maureen Taylor works daily with many families in Brightmoor who have been victims of an over-aggressive water shut-off policy, or other forms of economic oppression. Taylor, who is also the state chair for Michigan Welfare Rights Organization for 13 years running, is a staunch advocate for the kind of social engagement that the DCHS makerspace has fostered. She has witnessed, close-up, the transformative effects on both the students and the surrounding community.
“What they’re doing in the makers space— and that has to do with bicycles, that has to do with building the wooden signs with addresses on them, and street signs— is preparing themselves to take care of the community. They don’t realize that’s what they’re doing…. but by being acclimated to these tasks, and then talking about the political underpinnings— why this is important— then, later down the road, they don’t have to be convinced. They’re already aware. So we’re creating the next set of visionaries, that will continue to fight for the care and comfort of folks that live in my beloved Detroit.”
Larry Simmons Sr. was more than agreeable to see the DCHS water station installed at the Baber AME Church where he serves as pastor. Located right down Burt Road from Detroit Community High, the congregation there is comprised mostly of Brightmoor residents. Simmons immediately recognized the importance of introducing the water station as a community project fabricated by area youth.
“What Bart and the student’s invention represents, one, is the creative talent that is in communities which are too often disregarded and written off as having nothing to contribute,” Rev. Simmons told Riverwise. “There are gifts and talents in the people who are in our communities. When given the opportunity to develop our ideas, we are more than capable of inventing novel solutions to the problems we have to confront.”
Simmons says that the DCHS makerspace water station is a perfect example of how solutions derived in the communities that are carrying the most burden tend to meet the problem directly. The problem, in this case, being that people in Brightmoor, and throughout cities across the nation, are forced to pay for a life-giving resource at a price not everyone can afford.
“If I have my way at some point, you will see these water purification stations everywhere in the city, so that we can then do a community abatement of the crisis, by a community-inspired and community-invented solution at a cost that people can afford.”
The DCHS makers have already accepted their next major challenge— designing a scaled-down, adaptable version of their water filtration station for use in a variety of circumstances. They are currently collaborating with water activists in Kenya to purify water being delivered to neighborhoods in and around Nairobi, where makeshift schools are cropping up as a result of overcrowding in the public school system. At a recent makers conference in Switzerland, Eddy met a philanthropist who owns land in Nairobi, and told Eddy about the school overcrowding and the resulting water access issues there. Many families are collecting their water from the city’s aging delivery system, which has exposed many in the area to undertreated water. “Children will drink right out of it and they’re getting sick all the time,” Reid says.
Eddy and Reid, and two former DCHS makerspace students visited the network of 14 Nairobi schools in April to test the water and assess the piping through which the city water is delivered. Based on their evaluation, they have designed a portable filtration system using pvc pipe and two UV bulbs, that can be attached directly to the city’s water valves in Nairobi.
Promises Reid, “We’re going to go back and install it and show them how it works, and show them how you can build it. They should be able to source all these components from Kenya. So if they want to build another one… we visited dozens of schools, and it’s a huge need over there.”
“This potentially could go to all of these schools,” adds Eddy. “We’ve got a good point person to work with down there, who’s got a lot of hands-on skills as well.”
The smaller, water purification design will introduce another valuable resource for Kenyan and Detroit families facing challenges getting clean water to their households. It can be fabricated and delivered to community residents quickly and inexpensively. It’s also further proof that engaged youth in Detroit are at in the midst of creating visionary systems in Detroit that are based on sustainability and equity.
Life-long Detroiter Eric T. Campbell has been the managing editor for Riverwise Magazine for the its three years of existence. He began to internalize the vitality of the grassroots movements and their relationship to a more equitable society while working as a staff writer at the Michigan Citizen weekly newspaper between 2006-2012.