The Poverty Initiative and Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice were pleased to connect the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights with grassroots activists on the ground, like those with with the Highland Park Human Rights Commission and Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, who for over a decade have been trying to call attention to the water shut offs and have been leading efforts to counter the privatization of the water systems in Highland Park and Detroit. The Poverty Initiative Poverty Scholars with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and the Highland Park Human Rights Coalition have been on the frontlines of this struggle and are deeply rooted and respected in the community. They had attempted to make contact with the UN for years to bring attention to their struggle but until very recently no one had been responsive.


Maureen Taylor and Gwendolyn Gaines of MWRO at a PI strategic dialogue in 2008.

We believe that the right to water is vital and that the struggle that the brothers and sisters in Michigan have been waging for years should be a shining light for the world. Over the past decade, in our effort to support this struggle, we’ve testified before Detroit City Council on these issues, attended meetings of the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, served as Commissioners for a Human Right to Water Truth Commission, served as guests on community radio and cable access stations about the connection between water shut offs, foreclosures and the removal of children from families living in houses without access to water, and helped to promote the Water Affordability Plan developed by impacted communities.

Here are some resources everyone might find useful:

  1. A chapter of Pedagogy of the Poor (published by Teacher’s College Press in 2012) about the water crisis in Detroit by Kairos Center researcher Chris Caruso.
  2. The two main grassroots organizations with which the Poverty Initiative and Kairos Center work are the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and the Highland Park Human Rights Coalition. See for more information and check out the recent TV interviews with MWRO President Maureen Taylor here and here.
  3. The documentary “The Water Front,” which profiles the struggle for the right to water in Highland Park, Michigan. You can watch a short trailer below and learn more as well as order the full feature length film at its website. We can also send copies to those who are interested.
  4. A MSNBC interview with MWRO leader Maureen Taylor on the most recent round of shut-offs
  5. A couple of news articles we have found pretty useful on the latest on water privatization. In March 2014, the Detroit “Emergency Manager” Kevyn Orr put out a call for bids to fully privatize Detroit’s water. An important aspect of this situation in Detroit is the undemocratic manner in which it is being implemented. The will of the voters and the Detroit City Council is being overridden by the Governor-appointed “Emergency Manager” who has nearly unlimited powers:
  6. On October 18th-19th, 2014, the UN Special Rapporteurs on the rights to water and housing visited Detroit to hear testimony from local community organizations, churches, unions, and other residents. Here are some resources related to that visit:
    • A statement from the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization on a local court ruling from September 2014 that there is no enforceable human right to water
    • An article from Al Jazeera on the conditions in Detroit in the lead-up to the hearings
    • A press release issued by the Special Rapporteurs after their visit, laying out some of their findings as well as their recommendations for realizing the human right to water in Detroit
    • A video produced by Democracy Now during the weekend of the hearings, featuring leaders from MWRO and other local groups talking about the conditions there, how the community is organizing and fighting back, and the significance of the UN visit.