When Pittsburgh’s lead-in-the-water crisis news broke in 2016, I was a Ph.D. student in sociology at Pitt. I knew my scholarship could not be separate from my activism.

A few months earlier, sensing that lead contamination in the water could be more of a widespread problem nationally than was understood amid a focus on Flint, I decided to test my own Greenfield home’s lead-water levels. 

The results came back at 100 ppb lead level. That’s about seven times higher than the level that the Environmental Protection Agency says is safe and 100 times more than what scientists think is safe.

Many people think an academic’s role is to stand back and study people, processes and institutions in a neutral way.

I came into the Ph.D. after years working as an organizer and researching social movements. I had already grappled with the academic-versus-organizer question, and I intended to continue to be engaged in social justice organizing work. 

I didn’t intend to focus on water. But the circumstances convinced me I had (and have) a responsibility to fight for clean, safe, public water in my new city. 

Whether it’s water activists in Nigeria, right-to-water organizers in Brazil or parents concerned about lead speaking at a Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority board meeting, I hear the same refrain. Another academic study isn’t needed.

To sum up the collective’s suggestions:

“We don’t need to be studied — again.”

“The way scholars could help movements is to pay attention and listen to what we are already doing and find ways to join those efforts or distill that information for a broader audience.”

My research on water and social movements has taken me to multiple continents. It has shaped my understanding of how the local is global, and the global local.  I have written about these experiences and ideas and continue to be engaged in solidarity work with movements fighting against water privatization around the world. Everyone deserves clean, sustainable and affordable water, no matter who we are, where we live or how much money we have. The water we drink shouldn’t poison us. And we know that private corporations will always put profits over people. 

Even though I had been an organizer for years before, on multiple issues, I thought that to be a “good” scholar, to publish, to get a Ph.D., I had to separate — at least a little — my researcher self from my political work. 

“In the back of my mind was a nagging voice saying, ‘You aren’t doing this right. You need to be more objective, less engaged.'” (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

I would show up early and stay late to events, helping with setting up and cleaning up. I would use my citizen role to speak at public meetings. 

But in the back of my mind was a nagging voice saying, “You aren’t doing this right. You need to be more objective, less engaged.” 

Yet, through my research in places outside Pittsburgh and the United States, it became clear that I could not separate my academic and political work. I saw how the same multinational corporations were seeking to extract, exploit and profit off of water everywhere. Politics and power are a part of everything, including who does and who does not have access to clean water. To be a “neutral” academic is also a political choice.

Everywhere I traveled, people asked me how the water is where I live. Is it safe? Drinkable? Is water viewed as a right?

Explaining Pittsburgh’s lead crisis and how my own home had high lead levels strengthened my own understanding and commitment to fight for safe, local, public, affordable water.

People power for clean water

I have been engaged with the Our Water Campaign — a coalition of environmental, labor, public health, social justice organizations and community members in Pittsburgh — since it formed in early 2017. The group was a response to concerns about lead, affordability and privatization of the city’s water.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA], the city’s public water utility, had been plagued by administrative problems and financial difficulties. To “fix” this problem, Pittsburgh sought help from a private company — like other cities in the country that sought short-term savings by entering into public-private partnerships. PWSA hired Veolia in 2012 to manage operations, and the contract stipulated that Veolia would keep up to 50 cents for every dollar saved under its management. 

City Controller Michael Lamb, in his later audit of the PWSA, found that questionable changes to cut costs at PWSA’s lab were part of “improvement initiatives that Veolia negotiated and for which they were paid.In February 2018, Veolia decided to end the “peer performance solutions” approach it took in Pittsburgh, with industry analysts citing the public relations disaster here as the reason.

About two dozen activists gathered in front of Peoples Natural Gas headquarters on the North Shore in June 2018 to oppose the company’s effort to take ownership of parts of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. (Photo by J. Dale Shoemaker/PublicSource)

I participated in over 100 events with the Our Water Campaign, including board meetings with water authorities, meetings with public officials, public actions, community events and canvassing.

For example, at one PWSA board meeting, many water activists acknowledged that the authority had made strides with lead line replacements and customer assistance programs. But they argued that PWSA had more work to do and called for not just a moratorium on winter shut-offs but a total ban. Soon after, PWSA passed a moratorium on winter shut-offs and has been following through on its commitment to fully replace the city’s lead lines.

Thanks to the Our Water Campaign’s “people power,” we changed the trajectory in Pittsburgh. We pushed public officials to take heed and listen to their (organized) constituents’ demands. We understood the need for rate increases for necessary infrastructure improvements to keep the utility public, and advocated for assistance programs to prevent rate increases from disproportionately impacting the city’s low-income and most vulnerable residents. We educated residents and mobilized them to push for safe, clean, public water.  

As the group detailed in a 2019 campaign flyer: 

“Together, we’ve won: 

  • The distribution of thousands of free water filters; 
  • Stopping of dangerous partial lead line replacement practices in Pittsburgh; 
  • Full lead service line replacements that come at no cost to the homeowner; 
  • New water affordability programs in Pittsburgh and the region; 
  • Keeping the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority publicly owned and operated.” 

I have much righteous anger over the state of our world today, and the rampant racial, gender, economic and environmental injustice that exists. But I continue to believe in people power. I believe it is the engine that changes history, and I think that we can create a different world. It is a dangerous trap to decide that just because things have always been terrible or just because we can only imagine things to be a certain way, that that means they stay that way.

My work as an organizer showed me that there is power in organized people to change our realities. One individual constituent contacting their elected official or speaking out and sharing information is unlikely to have much impact; it is only when there is significant pressure from many people that public officials will “hear” the information and change their stance.

I also came to see the local struggle as an example of what is called “translocal” organizing: the connection between local and global networks and spaces where people fighting for clean and public water in various locales around the world can connect and learn from each other. The demand for publicly owned, democratically and transparently governed water that I saw in Pittsburgh, I also saw in Nigeria, in Brazil and elsewhere in the world. 

I have found the idea of “translocality” fruitful — even though it is not a word I hear movements using. What the term captures is that people understand that their struggle might be local, with a local target like the mayor, while at the same time understanding that the pressure creating the need for the fight is coming from corporate power that is seeking to exploit communities around the globe, albeit in varying forms. 

Translocal resistance is a way for activists to come together to address their own specific local issues but also draw from similar work all across the world. Just as corporations operate together, so too does the resistance. 

I believe that all people have a right to clean and safe water. No one’s water should ever be shut off as punishment for an inability to pay. I know how critical it is to keep water public. Community control of public assets is critical to a healthy democracy and a healthy community. I continue to work to be a part of making those beliefs realities.

Explore more stories in this series: “A water crisis swept through Pittsburgh five years ago: This is the fullest account of what happened.”

Caitlin Schroering (she/her) has a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pittsburgh. She has 16 years of experience in community, political, environmental and labor organizing, and is engaged in ongoing work for water justice. If you want to send Caitlin a message, email firstperson@publicsource.org.

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