School of Social Work receives grant to help students explore social justice issues surrounding Detroit water shut-offs

The Wayne State School of Social Work has received funding from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) to launch a student-led initiative that will provide real-world political action and community organizing experience around issues of water insecurity in Detroit.

CSWE awarded the school $10,000 to implement the project, “Policy to Action: A Student-Run Initiative,” which will give both undergraduate and graduate social work students opportunities to apply their training to a key social justice issue in the city: water access. Citing delinquent residential accounts of more than $26 million, the city in 2015 cut off water service to some 23,300 residential customers due to nonpayment. However, human and citizens’ rights groups say the shut-offs disproportionately impact minorities and put low-income residents – including vulnerable populations such as children and older adults – at serious risk of a public health crisis.

The Policy to Action initiative has three components. The first will encourage policy engagement by having students identify and recruit Detroit-area community partners with which to lobby city and state officials, design a community action project, and plan symposiums and lectures. The second will assist students in analyzing and advocating on behalf of the bipartisan Michigan Water is a Human Right bill package, introduced in the state legislature last year. The third, still under development, will be a policy-to-action project centered on coalition building and community action. Students will receive support from social work faculty in each of these efforts.

Project Principal Investigator Takisha LaShore, who is assistant to the school’s director of field education and a member of the school’s Social Justice Committee, said Flint’s water crisis and Detroit’s economic resurgence have both increased the imperative to advocate for Detroiters’ access to water.

“The Flint water disaster has rightfully garnered national attention and resources, but in doing so it has unfortunately diverted attention away from the water rights issues here in Detroit,” LaShore said. “Meanwhile, we’re increasingly seeing Detroit hailed as a success story – as a phoenix rising from the ashes –  which makes it harder to see struggling populations like the residents who have been traumatized by the water shutoffs. The Policy to Action initiative reflects the School of Social Work’s commitment to advancing social work practice and social welfare policy in urban contexts, particularly in our immediate community.”

LaShore said that the Policy to Action initiative will be guided by the school’s Social Justice Committee, which in 2015-16 organized a three-part series of programs focused on racial justice and the rise of police violence and unrest on college campuses. She said the model the school develops for the Policy to Action initiative can be used to help students explore any number of social justice issues in years to come.

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