While the Mississippi city of Jackson works to fully restore water, various community organizations have been filling in the gaps with relief. Mutual aid is a new term for some, but providing it is an old practice in many Black communities.
“As a southern Black girl, who grew up in rural Mississippi, mutual aid has always existed in my life,” Calandra Davis, an organizer with the Jackson chapter of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100), told NewsOne. Davis said community institutions have always provided aid in times of need. “The churches [and families] in my community always provided mutual aid,” she added.
Providing support to communities in Jackson and across the state, the Mississippi Rapid Response & Relief Coalition is a statewide coalition, including rural partners. Member organizations include the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign, the People’s Advocacy Institute, the Milestone Cooperative, Mississippi M.O.V.E., Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition, BYP 100 and Sarah’s Touch.
Davis said the organizations took on various roles in the storm’s aftermath, each finding its own lane.
“Some people were preparing and delivering food,” Davis explained. “Others were helping to find water and get it out to people.”
She said BYP 100 helped get money into the hands and pockets of people who lost income.
“We also secured hotels for folks who were without power and water,” Davis shared.
Members of the coalition were engaged in community outreach work even before the current water crisis.
“We take a holistic approach,” Sharon Brown, founder and executive director of the Council of Sisterhood, a philanthropic organization, said. “[Our] work didn’t shift, it became harder because we couldn’t get the supplies that we needed to provide for the people in the community.”
Brown said she founded the Council of Sisterhood in 2013 with her sister Valerie Brown.
“We started the organization because we saw the needs of our community not being met because of systemic racism,” Brown explained. She said that her organization has provided everything from clothing to food and even money to help pay utility bills.
“The village is only as strong as the members,” said Brown. “And so if you have one family hurting, then the whole community hurts and suffers.”
The disregard for Black lives has been clear even before the pandemic, but existing through the layered crisis has been a real eye-opener for some people.
“We’re really just seeing environmental issues and racism paired together,” Davis said. “And [there are] no real systemic solutions are being offered.”
Rukia Lumumba agreed with Davis and framed the current crisis as a part of a larger challenge.
“Over the last few years, we’ve just been seeing the weather changes become more significant,” Lumumba said in an interview with NewsOne. “And it has consistently harmed our communities, more so than any other community.”
Lumumba is the founder and executive director of the People’s Advocacy Institute, an organization she envisioned alongside her father, the late Mayor Chokwe Lumumba. She is also the older sister of Jackson’s current mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba. At its core, the People’s Advocacy Institute is a community capacity-building and training organization. Lumumba and her team, along with partner organizations, work to uplift impacted communities.
While the city has set up local distribution sites, Lumumba sees the grassroots relief effort as people stepping up to do what needs to be done. She said once the roads were safe, some people drove as long as two hours to find water.
As a part of the Rapid Response and Relief Coalition, Lumumba and the People’s Advocacy Institute fielded requests for food or hotel assistance, water distribution and even money.
“We’ve seen a decline in people asking for hotels,” Lumumba explained. “But now we’ve seen an increase in people asking for financial assistance to cover everything that they lost.”
From pipe repairs and fixing other related damage to buying groceries, people have incurred additional expenses because of the winter weather and water outage.
She said the groups have provided support in Jackson and the greater Hind County area as well as several rural communities from the Mississippi Delta to communities in central and northern Mississippi.
“The collective effort is critical to our sustainability,” said Lumumba. “Our livelihood [and] our ability to survive is intertwined with our ability to work together.”
Lumumba recounted the first week of the winter storm that left highways closed and services disrupted all over.
“Prior to this, anytime there were any major weather changes, our water system was in jeopardy of shutting down in certain areas of town,” explained Lumumba.
She said this impacted South and West Jackson more than any other areas, noting these are predominantly Black and poor areas of the city.
When asked about the state response, Lumumba described the governor’s attitude and approach as a part of a long-held disregard the state’s white elected officials have for both the city’s Black leadership and residents. At one point late last month, the governor made a comment about the state taking over Jackson’s water system.
“What really needs to be done is major infrastructure investment on the federal and state level,” Laurie Bertram Roberts, co-founder and Executive Director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, said last week on MSNBC show “The Reid Out.” She challenged claims that the governor could not reach Mayor Lumumba, as Jackson is the Mississippi state capitol placing the governor in close proximity to city government officials handling a crisis.
“But that’s how little the priority is,” Roberts continued. “And it’s not just Jackson, the Mississippi Delta is without water right now.”
Looking forward, Lumumba said the coalition is thinking about how to operationalize how they do rapid response.
“What we’re trying to do now is think about how we create these rapid response hubs,” she shared. “We know that there are going to be more and more storms and changing weather conditions that shift how we’re currently living. There is no guarantee that we are not going to be able to live the way [we do].”
Brown said climate change is real and needs to be a factor considered in whatever next steps are taken.
“And this will not be the first crisis, but one of many crises,” she said. “Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the nation, but at the end of the day, it’s a group of folks that really love and care genuinely about what happens with our community…we represent, and we stand in love.”
Davis compared the current moment to other times of awakening that brought people into organizing. She said some people had “an aha moment” after the killing of Trayvon Martin or last summer with the killing of George Floyd.
“For some folks in rural Mississippi and Jackson it is going to be the ice storm and water crisis,” said Davis. “I believe [this crisis] will cause people to collectively come together [and] use their power to make some structural changes to what has been happening in the city for decades now.”
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