This Tennessean turned Detroiter spent much of her life fighting for human rights, so when she saw Detroiters struggling with water access she stood up for them.
Monica Lewis-Patrick has been an activist since she was around 12 years old, when her school in her hometown of Kingsport, Tennessee was set to remove black literature from the curriculum. “In my small town, the African American population was less that 2%, but I wanted to take that class.” She and a few friends organized students to resist the school board’s decision – and they won. “That was the first time I was able to change policy,” she says. But it would not be not the last.
Lewis-Patrick – who holds a bachelor’s in sociology and a master’s in both criminology and public administration from East Tennessee State University – advocated all through her college years, too. “I was very vocal that the Klan had marched through the campus (of historic Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina) and I was very much an advocate for students,” she explains.
When she saw that kids with special needs weren’t getting all of the services they qualified for, she fought to make sure they got those services and even spent time managing an emergency crisis unit that serviced children in eight counties of northern Tennessee.
She moved to Detroit after grad school, a divorce and other life changes, but the city wasn’t unfamiliar to Lewis-Patrick. Her grandparents lived in Detroit and she spent a lot of time visiting with them in her youth. “I always tell folks that I’m not a native Detroit, but I’m an adopted Detroiter,” she says.
Once in Detroit, Lewis-Patrick would continue her advocacy work and when talks of emergency management started in the late 2000s, she’d join forces with other parents and grandparents who were concerned about public education and wanted to make sure the people of Detroit had a voice.
“We gathered around a kitchen table and saw the work that needed to be done around the community and started more conversations driven by the community rather (than) the political voice doing the decision-making,” she says.
In 2009, this group of concerned citizens would become We the People of Detroit, a community-based nonprofit that aims to educate and empower Detroit residents on important civil rights issues. Water access has been one of We the People’s biggest fights.
“(Water access) is a daily struggle and part of that struggle is (that) there’s not enough information about water access. Water rates have increased 120% and that makes it unaffordable,” she says. “On top of that storm, there’s little empathy and compassion for those persons, so some of the work that we’ve done is to bring more validity to the voice of the communities impacted by the water shut-offs.”
In one year, Lewis-Patrick – known as the Water Warrior – and the We the People of Detroit team were able to save 800 homes from water debt foreclosure, and in 2014, she became president and CEO. “I was unanimously selected and elected by our board and I think it was also a true vote of confidence in me as a young leader,” she says.
“Our oldest leader is 89 and she set up the first methadone clinic under Mayor Young. So, to sit with this caliber of women that I’m speaking of, to be the youngest among them and for them to see me as a mentee, to know they saw something in me (is an honor).”
Lewis-Patrick says, “We’re committed to building transformative work that our young people can build off. There’s always some struggle but we don’t have to have the same struggles. We don’t have to just accept that things are just bad. We have the opportunity to really make this an equitable and compassionate and fair community we all can live in.”
For more information on We the People of Detroit and the advocacy work they do for their communities, including details for their international water access meeting, Jan. 23-24, 2020, visit wethepeopleofdetroit.com.