This New Jersey city’s water crisis is an emergency akin to that of Flint, Michigan, with poor, Black people its main victims
Naomi Extra Oct 7, 2019·12 min read
Naomi Extra is a freelance writer, poet, and doctoral candidate in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark.
2016, when Shakima Thomas first found out that the water was being shutdown in 30 Newark schools, her mind raced through a set of nerve-wracking possibilities. Immediately, she thought back to her own memories of grade school days as a kid at Dayton Street Elementary School in the South Ward in Newark, New Jersey. Thomas had read about the detrimental effects that lead exposure could cause in children — behavior and learning problems, slowed growth, and lower IQ. She thought about the possibility that she and her peers, some of whom had histories of violent behavior, had consumed lead contaminated water. She worried that her then two-year-old son could have been exposed to lead. When Thomas tried to inquire more about the water at a community meeting, she was reassured by the city that the lead contamination was limited to the schools and that they had matters under control.
While walking down the street one day in 2017, someone handed Thomas a flier for a Newark Education Workers (NEW) Caucus meeting at a church in Newark. It was at that meeting where she came across the first rumblings of lead contamination as a more pervasive issue in the city. She heard that the lead was not just limited to sinks and water fountains in some of the city’s schools, but it was also flowing through the pipes in some residents’ homes as well. Thomas began to regularly attend town hall meetings and became increasingly disappointed with the city. “They were not addressing anyone’s needs at all,” Thomas said. “And if somebody did ask a question, they would try to dismiss their question…”
With herself, her five year old son, and the violent histories of her former classmates in mind, in September 2017, Thomas decided to have the water tested in her home located in the West Ward of Newark. When the results came back, they revealed lead levels at 9.12 parts per billion (ppb). “I was told by the water department… as long as it’s not 16, you’re okay. A little bit is not going to hurt. I believed that because chemistry is not my thing.” In that letter, Thomas was also informed that her water would be tested by city every six months.
In 2018, nearly a year later, when no one from the water department had returned to Thomas’ home to test the water as promised, she knew she had to take matters into her own hands. She sent her water out to a private company to be tested and the results that came back shocked her into more drastic action: The water analysis reported that the lead levels flowing through her faucet were 27.1 ppb — nearly double the limit of what the city deemed as “acceptable.” According to the Centers for Disease Control, there is no known safe lead level for children.
Upon receiving this information, Thomas did not keep her rage silent. In November 2018, she took to social media where she posted an image of her water tests results from 2017 (9.12 ppb) and from 2018 (27.1 ppb). She captioned the image, “You get an F on this water test… Not only were we miseducated about the lead in our water but the lead level in my household increased…” The photo of Thomas’ lead tests were soon reposted on the Instagram page of a Newark based activist she was acquainted with, Anthony Diaz.
Mayor Ras J. Baraka responded to the photo via comment on Diaz’s Instagram page with an air of defensiveness. He stated that the city had made efforts to provide water filters to residents in the West Ward, where Thomas lives, and even went so far as to suggest that she should “help make sure that everyone who needs a filter has one” in her area “instead of trying to spread erroneous information.” Baraka also claimed that Thomas’ household had received two water filters. Thomas chimed back, adamantly informing Baraka that not only had she not received a water filter, her request for a filter had been denied by the city. A little after 8 p.m., on the day of the exchange with Baraka, Thomas recalls noticing a tinted SUV lingering in front of her residence. Eventually, she saw a man in plain clothes get into the car and then another man in a suit exit and approach her home. Because it was dark outside and she did not know the man, out of caution, Thomas decided not to answer the door. When the vehicle continued to sit in front of her home, she got nervous. Thomas perceived the unannounced visit as an act of intimidation and decided to contact the police for assistance. Thomas later learned that the man in the suit who had knocked on her door was the director of the water department and that he had dropped by to bring her a water filter.
It’s unclear exactly why city officials made an unannounced visit to Thomas’ home at night or how Thomas ended up not receiving the two water filters that were allegedly sent to her home by the city. What is clear, however, is that Thomas has taken Baraka to task. She has set out to protect both her family and her city from from the colossal detriments of lead contamination by taking part in a campaign to educate residents. Since 2018, Thomas has become increasingly vocal on social media about lead contamination in the city’s water and she has also taken on a leadership role in the Newark Water Coalition, an intergenerational, interracial organization of groups that joined forces in 2018 to address the water crisis.
Thomas is among several Black women at the core of leadership in the movement for clean water in Newark. Black women activists and advocates like Shakima Thomas, Sabre Bee, Yvette Thomas, Munirah Bomani, and others have been leading the charge in informing their neighbors about lead risk, instructing them on how to get their water and bodies tested, and pushing for collective action to keep public officials accountable in a city that has a long history tied to political corruption and negligence. These women have been important civic watchdogs, pressuring the administration of Mayor Ras J. Baraka to generate solutions to a public health crisis.
A year later in September 2017, 11 community groups sent a letter to the city urging them to better inform residents about lead exposure risks, testing, and the location of lead service lines. By the end of 2017, Newark Water Department showed lead levels in excess of 26 ppb — nearly twice the federal action level — in more than 10% of samples collected in the city. Approximately 20% of samples taken at the time exceeded the federal action level overall.
Then, in 2018, the Joint Legislative Task Force on Drinking Water Infrastructure released a report outlining, in detail, the dire need to address the aging water infrastructure across the state of New Jersey, as well as concrete steps that cities like Newark could take in order to ensure access to safe drinking water to its residents, such as replacing lead service lines and improving accountability and transparency towards its residents.
City of Newark officials responded to all of this by issuing two statements in 2018 that downplayed if not outright denied the gravity of the issue. The first statement issued by the city claimed that the water “fully complied with federal and state regulations.” In a follow-up, Andrea Adebowale, the former Newark Director of Water and Sewer Utilities, told residents that “the water supplied by the city is pure, safe, and fully complies” and that the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) claim that Newark’s residents were being exposed to dangerous levels of lead was “absolutely and outrageously false.” In June of that year, the NRDC filed a lawsuit against Newark and New Jersey state officials for violating the Safe Drinking Water Act which requires city officials to effectively monitor and control lead levels in drinking water.
A few months after the lawsuit was filed, the city took a drastic turn when they announced that there were elevated lead levels in the city’s drinking water and urged residents to take precautions. By this time, Thomas, along with several other Black women citizen activists and advocates had fully entered the crusade to educate themselves and those in their community.
“We checked online and we saw the information was scarce. You couldn’t find it,” recalled activist and Newark Water Coalition member, Sabre Bee in an interview. She had been reading and comparing information that she received from the EPA, the NRDC, and from the city of Newark. Bee, along with other members of the Newark Water Coalition, began going door-to-door, providing information on lead contamination at beauty salons, barber shops, and other businesses. While many residents were grateful for the information, others chose to ignore it.
Yvette Jordan, a member of the Newark Education Workers Caucus and fierce social justice advocate, attributed some of the residents’ unawareness and unresponsiveness to lead contamination to their unwavering trust in Mayor Ras J. Baraka. “Ras is revered in the community and always has been.” Jordan continued, “So it’s really hard changing the community’s viewpoint or even acknowledging wrong. Or the possibility that maybe he’s not feeding us all the information we need.”
Too often, sexism and patriarchy cloud our notions of what counts as legitimate political work. Black women activists and advocates at the helm of the clean water movement in Newark have been described by mainstream media outlets like Rolling Stone and CBS News as “residents” — which, in fact, they are. However, this singular framing obscures their work as radical change-makers. Jordan has made it her mission to educate residents about lead in the city’s water using a variety of strategies — word of mouth, by speaking at churches, and at block association meetings. Beyond her work as an advocate for clean water, she is also a high school teacher in Newark. She has used her classroom as a way to foster a sense of investment and awareness about social justice issues in youth. “I’m really passionate about helping people understand it is their right to speak up for themselves, especially in Black and Brown communities,” she said.
For activist Munirah Bomani, the water crisis has been among her many other social justice concerns. For the past 20 years, she has been and advocate for both LGBTQ rights and prison rights. “I’ve been on the front line, advocating for the human rights of all people. I’m from the LGBT community, so LGBT rights, human rights, housing rights,” she said. “I was forced to advocate because I was in prison, and I had faced those barriers.” Bomani has been participating in conversations and protests about lead contamination in Newark since 2011. She has used her radio program, The LGBTQI Voice, on Newark.FM as a platform for covering issues related to the water crisis. She has been a critical voice in pressuring the Baraka administration to address lead contamination in the city’s water. “We will not back down. We will not be silenced,” she said during a segment covering Newark’s lead contamination last year.
To see and to value Black women’s activism requires a degree of care and attention to the wide breadth of labor performed both in front of and behind the scenes. Much of the activism in Newark is being driven by folks who not only care about clean water but by those who have the broader goal of creating a better world. Thomas, who is both a mother and has had a career as a social worker for the past eight years is well seasoned in social justice advocacy. “What I’m doing with the Newark Water Coalition is aligned with what I do 9-to-5, Monday through Friday,” she said. As a social worker, she is invested in helping those from poor and marginal communities get their employment, food, and housing needs met.
The work that these Black women and many others activists and advocates have been doing to educate residents about lead contamination — especially those who are most vulnerable — continues to be needed. Just last month, the EPA found that even with the use of filters, for some residents lead levels remained above the federal standard. While the city is in the process of collecting more data to shed light on the effectiveness of water filtration devices distributed to residents, questions remain as to just how high lead levels are in different parts of the city and exactly which parts of the city are effected.
In a city like Newark, where residents are overwhelmingly poor and working-class people of color who have limited access to resources, clear and easy access to information is critical. The lack of clear answers is compounded by a lack of resources for residents who are impacted by the crisis. Thomas remains frustrated and perplexed by the continued lack of access to clean water in some areas. “We’re not asking the city to pay us anything, we’re just asking them for water. Clean water, not just any water.”
In a move that mirrors the lack of care and concern for the welfare of poor and working class in Flint, Michigan, on August 30, a district judge ruled that the city of Newark will not have to provide bottled water to residents impacted by the water crisis. This means that those who cannot afford to purchase water may be forced to drink lead contaminated water. Because the Newark Water Coalition is an independent, nongovernment funded group, they operate solely off of funds and water donated by individuals. The Coalition continues to support residents by organizing water donations and deliveries in order to provide bottled water to residents who cannot afford to buy it and by holding community meetings where they share pertinent information on lead contamination.
“I don’t see our fight here in terms of the water in Newark as over,” said Jordan. “I’m still obviously fighting for that but more broadly… it’s about self-advocacy and helping people understand who don’t normally advocate for themselves.”