Monica Lewis-Patrick, 50, president and CEO of We the People of Detroit, is African American and has lived in Detroit for the past decade. The group advocates for water rights, workers’ rights and housing rights, among other issues, and opposes the state’s controversial emergency manager law. Her family has lived in Detroit since 1952. Her uncle is Willie Horton the famed former Detroit Tigers’ star. We the People was among of 42 researchers and activist groups that collaborated on the upcoming book, “Mapping the Water Crisis: The Dismantling of African American Communities in Detroit,” which is expected to be released Aug. 14.
Are race relations generally good or generally bad?
Lewis-Patrick: Generally bad because a majority of African-American cities in this state have been under what I consider a reptilian law called emergency management that … extracted from them not only their voting rights but their property, their pensions, control over their schools and now what we see playing out is the ability to even access clean, safe affordable water.
Compared to 10 years ago, do you think white people are getting more positive in their attitude toward black people, more negative or not really changed?
Lewis-Patrick: I have seen a combination of persons who understand their privilege in being white in America and have been willing to take that privilege and set it aside to come in as an ally and supporter of the work that’s being done at the community level. I have seen people come in -- not only white, but black elitists -- that have come in and it’s been more of extracting and examining and commentating as opposed to collaborating and working with Detroiters. And when I reference Detroiters it’s the ones that live in the neighborhoods.
Flip it, compared to 10 years ago, do you think black people are getting more positive in their attitude toward white people, more negative or not really changed?
Lewis-Patrick: They’re tremendously getting worse. We are constantly bombarded with negative messages, this whole narrative about Detroit being the murder capital, about black-on-black crime and our schools are failing and our inability to lead ourselves.
All of these mantras are actually creating an atmosphere of more divisiveness, and a targeting of our community and our people. It is definitely a very dark time in this country especially if you are a person of color. It doesn’t matter what your educational attainment is. It doesn’t matter what your zip code is. It doesn’t matter that you obeyed all the rules and you’ve never been arrested. If you find yourself in the wrong place, at the wrong time, under conditions of an antsy, anxious police officer, this could be your last day. That is a reality our children see play out day after day.
Which is the bigger problem – institutional racism or racism against individuals?
Lewis-Patrick: Institutional racism is the bigger problem because systemic processes have a broader reach. An individual being racist does not have the capacity to extract my grandmother’s pension away from her. Or take my city into bankruptcy. Or deny my voting rights. But an institution does.
Have you ever been treated unfairly by the police?
Lewis-Patrick: I can’t say that I have. As a matter of fact, I’ve been treated very well by the police, especially those that understood that our activism was supportive of them keeping their pensions.
Was the racial makeup of your community a deciding factor in your choice to live there?
Lewis-Patrick: Not at all. What was a deciding factor to me was that I wanted to be part of repopulating the city with people who really care about the city. I wanted to work with people that were about creating land trusts and co-ops and opportunities to keep Detroiters invested in the comeback of the city so they weren’t being excluded. And we wanted to do it through cooperative work and self-determination not wait for somebody to help us, not waiting on some rescue. I live on the east side off Outer Drive and Seven Mile.
I know on my block alone 22 people have had their water shut off. I have a mixture of white, Asian and blacks in my community.
If half of the people who moved into your neighborhood where people of a different race from the current residents, do you think your neighbors would move?
Lewis-Patrick: No, I don’t. It’s my understanding from what I learn from ethnic groups that aren’t black that one of the reasons they moved here was to be in a more diverse, more culturally-rich area.
Since 1967, what progress do you see in the Detroit area? Warren has a significant African-American population, isn’t that progress?
Lewis-Patrick: That was progress created by the pushout (of residents from the city). The progress I see is more at the grassroots level where we are growing our own souls, we are reimagining what community and policy should look like and unashamedly approaching entities with a boldness I don’t think they’d seen before.
Our organization is led by five black women. Over 50 percent of my volunteers are young white kids from all over the state of Michigan. They come in once a month to participate in activities we are doing around water, education, freedom schools. To me that’s where the connectivity is going to happen, not missionary acts of cutting grass and picking up trash. I think these are well-intentioned people, but it’s still a missionary, privileged mindset that, “I’m going to do good in the ‘hood,” and then you go back to where you live.” (Change) is going to be from people really connecting and understanding and allowing people in the community to lead and not be led.
How did you develop your racial awareness?
Lewis-Patrick: Growing up in northeast Tennessee, in Kingsport, I think my first encounter with racism was when I was 14 years old and they were attempting to get rid of African American studies and African American history in our high school. We mobilized and one of the things our teacher talked to us about was, “Don’t just mobilize the black students because it’s not enough of you to save the class. Mobilize with your white friends.”
And through that initiative we were able to encourage our white friends not only to join the African American studies classes, but they also joined the social clubs. The Ebony Teen Kings and Queens, every black talent show, black history events, sit-ins we had in the school. I saw them be able to actually set aside their own issues and embrace the fact that (African Americans) were being disenfranchised or marginalized in our own school.
What’s wrong with Michigan? How do we compare to other states? Is this Michissippi?
Lewis-Patrick: It’s Michissippi. As a matter of fact, it’s Michissippi, goddam.
I call Detroit beloved. When you see water hoses running from house to house, that’s belovedness. So when I talk about this city, I don’t talk about its failures or inadequacies. I will speak on it if asked, or if you want my opinion for an analysis. But for me Detroit is still beloved in spite of what other people say. With its inequities, it’s still beloved.
How do we turn the tide?
Lewis-Patrick: My job is to help black folk deal with internalized racism and oppression that keeps them from being all that they are capable of being. It has to start with us as ethnic groups doing some healing work and dressing each other up instead of dressing each other down. White people’s problem is dismantling white supremacy because they are the only people that can practice that.