The People’s Movement for Safe, Affordable Water and Sanitation in the United States

Across the United States, nearly 2.2 million people lack safe or affordable water in their homes. Another 1.7 million lack proper sanitation systems. Whose Water?: The People’s Movement for Safe, Affordable Water and Sanitation in the United States travels to five drastically different regions of the country that are facing the impacts of this troubling trend–Lowndes County, Alabama; Flint, Detroit, and Highland Park, Michigan; Philadelphia; Navajo Nation; Martin County, Kentucky and Des Moines, Iowa. Through the stories of communities fighting for safe, affordable water and sanitation, the film examines the industrial and governmental systems that prevent so many people from accessing this basic necessity of life and offers concrete solutions to address this unprecedented human rights crisis.

Film Locations


Surrounded by 20% of the world’s fresh water, communities across Michigan are facing astronomical water bills, compounded by unprecedented storms and aging infrastructure. It’s primarily low income, majority black communities facing the brunt of these issues, and who are at the forefront of the fight for safe, affordable water.

Navajo Nation

In the1864 Treaty with the US government, the Diné people were stripped of their ability to   control minerals on their land. Since then, industrial and governmental coal and uranium mining operations have drained their water aquifer and contaminated indiviual wells. While 30% of Navajo Nation residents lack access to potable water, Navajo leaders, scientists and activists are working to hold the federal government accountable.

Lowndes County, Alabama

Inadequate governmental investment in rural infrastructure has left many residents of Lowndes County, Alabama, which is 70% black, with overpriced, malfunctioning septic systems, compounded by predatory home lending. These conditions have led to a major hookworm outbreak in the county. But after years of organizing, community members have overcome tremendous barriers to take their fight for rural wastewater infrastructure to US Congress.

Martin County, Kentucky

Martin County, Kentucky was once the center of the US coal industry, reaping billions of dollars in profits for mining companies, and causing billions more in damage to Appalaichan communities. As coal mining rendered most individual wells unusable, poorly constructed infrastructure was built, but funding to maintain this infrastructure never materialized. Compounding this issue is water contamination, as elected officials, heavily influenced by coal mining companies have looked the other way. As prices for contaminated water in Appalachia has increased exponentially, an unlikely coalition of former coal miners, environmental activists and lawyers are working to hold elected officials accountable and regain control of their water system.

Des Moines, Iowa

Iowa is the largest corn and soybean producer in the United States, a commodity that has become increasingly precious as an alternative to fossil fuels. In order to maximize production, industrial agricultural operations drain water from their fields, polluting rivers and streams with nitrates, costing water utilities millions of dollars to treat drinking water. The farm and soybean industry are not required to clean up their farm runoff under the Clean Water Act, thus the Des Moines water department filed an unprecedented lawsuit in an attempt to force regulation over these enormous farming operations.


As water bills become more unaffordable for Philadelphians, specifically African Americans, arrears, which are added to property taxes began to pile up, resulting in the loss of many Black-owned family homes. Community Legal Services of Philadelphia began to advocate for a water affordability plan and arrearage forgiveness program, tying water bills to a percentage of a household’s income.

Alice Jennings

Antonio Cosme

Alice Jennings is legendary civil rights and environmental justice lawyer fighting corporate pollution in low-income communities of color since the 1980s. In 2014, she was lead counsel in a lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of mass-water shutoffs, resulting in the implementation of many protections for low-income Detroiters.
Antonio Cosme is an internationally renowned indigenous Xicana Boricua public intellectual, artist and ecologist. Active in the water rights movement, he has protested water shutoffs in his neighborhood by blocking water shutoff trucks. In 2014, he was arrested for spray-painting “Free the Water” on the defunct water tower in Highland Park Michigan.

BarbiAnn Maynard

Bill Stowe

Barbi Ann Maynard is a lifelong resident of Martin County, Kentucky, who has lived with contaminated water since the 1990s. She is a Spokesperson for the White House National Infrastructure Campaign. In 2021, she was named by the Guardiaas one of the top 3 most powerful women in water.
As the director of Des Moines Water Works, Bill Stowe sued industrial agriculture operations for polluting Des Moines’ drinking water source, leading the first water department in the US to do so. In 2020, Bill died of pancreatic cancer.

Catarina de Alburquerque

Catherine Flowers

A Portugeuse Lawyer and human rights activist, Catarina de Albuquerque was the first United Natons Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation
An environmental health researcher and author, Catherine grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama, in a family of civil rights activists. When she moved back to Lowndes County as an adult, she began advocating for better sanitation systems for Black residents across the state. For her work, she won a MacArthur Genius Grant Award in 2020. Her book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret was also published in 2020.

Charity Hicks

Chili Yazzi

Charity Hicks was a beloved Detroit community leader and commons advocate. She co-founded the People’s Water Board Coalition as a response to the city of Detroit’s campaign to shut-off of thousands of Detroit households for non-payment of water bills.
Chili Yazzie is a Navajo historian, poet and activist. After the shooting of a Navajo man by a white police officer, Chili was appointed to the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, working with the United Nations on indigenous issues. He continues to fight against coal, uranium and oil extraction on Diné land.

Claire McClinton

David Osterberg

Claire McClinton was raised in Flint, Michigan in a family of union organizeres and is a retiree from General Motors, and active in the  Auto Workers Local 659. Is a co- founder of Flint Democracy Defense League, and was pivotal in exposing the Flint Water Crisis to the world.
David Osterberg served as an Iowa State Representative from 1983-1995. He saw first hand the devastation of corporatization of farming during the Farm Crisis, and learned the influence chemical and agricultural companies have over laws governing water safety.

Debra McCarty

Gary Hunt

Debra McCarty is the former director of the Philadelphia Water Department. Under her direction, the department implemented its pathbreaking income-based water affordability program, the first in the US.
Gary Hunt comes from a family of coal miners. In 2013, he was injured in the mines and is no longer able to work. Since then, he has been standing up for the right to clean water across Kentucky.

Gavonne and Sandra Dixon

George and Patti Naylor

The son of Sandra Dixon, Gavonne grew up in Chicago. As he helped his mother to save the family home, he studied digital media and marketing. Hi still lives in Philadelphia, where he works as a Digital Media and marketing expert. The son of Sandra Dixon, Gavonne grew up in Chicago. As he helped his mother to save the family home, he studied digital media and marketing. Hi still lives in Philadelphia, where he works as a Digital Media and marketing expert.
George and Patti have been farming their family farm since 1976, chosing to never raise GMO crops. In the 1980s, during the farm crisis, he was active in the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition. The Naylors are environmental activists, taking part in a lawsuit against the chemical company, Monsanto, in the 2000s.

Josie Pickens

Lila Cabil

Lila Cabil was a relentless activist for the human right to water, fighting racism inherent in the mass water shutoffs taking place across Michigan.

Lisa Morererand

Marian Kramer

Lisa Morarend was raised in Des Moines, Iowa, wondering why all the rivers were brown. She is currently a chemist at the Des Moines Water Works.
Marian Kramer has been in the front lines of the welfare rights and civil rights movement from its origin in the 1960s. She is a cofounder of the National Welfare Rights Union (NWRU) an organization of, by, and for the poor in America, and a key leader in the fight to keep the water on in homes of poor families across the US.

Mary Cromer

Maureen Taylor

As a child, Mary Cromer’s family lost their well to underground coal mining in Appalaicha. When she graduated from law school she came back home to practice environmental law at the Appalachain Citizen’s Law Center, working with community groups to hold polluters accountable.

Melissa Mays

Micky and Nina

A resident of Flint, MI, Melissa Mays was a key person in exposing the lead crisis in Flint’s water, when she co-organized an unprecedented citizen-led water testing campaign.
Mickey and Nina McCoy are veteran teachers from Martin County, Kentucky. During the sludge spill of 2000, Nina and Mickey spearheaded community responses and citizen water testing. They are the co-founders of Martin County Concerned Citizens and active members of the Poor People’s Campaign

Nayyirah Sharif

Nicole Hill

When residents of Flint started noticing problems with their water, Nayyirah Shariff became a leader in a protracted battle to get the State and Federal government to pay attention, co-organizing citizen water tests and steadfastly protesting the state’s decisions. They continue to push for accountability around the water crisis as the director of a grassroots organization Flint Rising.
Nicole Hill is a lifelong Detroiter, and a mother of 6. In 2014, after experiencing a water shutoff, she began to speak out against this draconian practice. By doing so, she risked the removal of her children from her home. 8 years later, her and her children are water rights activists who have testified in front of legislative bodies across the state and organized hundreds to stand in opposition to Detroit’s mass water shutoff campaign.

Pamela and Almedia Rush

Percy Deal

Ms. Rush is the sister of Pamela Rush. She grew up helping her family pick cotton for white landowners. Over the course of her life, she faced inadequate access to sanitation. Born and raised in Lowndes County, Alabama, Pamela Rush and her daugher Beyoncia, brought the struggles of rural residents to access sanitation systems into national dialogue, testifying in front of US congress. An active member of the Poor People’s Campaign, Ms. Rush died in 2019 of COVID-19
Percy Deal grew up as Navajo lands were beginning to experience drought. As a child he heard stories from his parents of plentiful ground water that has since been depleted by Peabody Mining Company. Now he is an activist and crusader for environmental justice.

Perry Charley

Roger Colton

After his father died from uranium exposure from working in the mines, Perry Charley helped start the Abandoned Mine Lands Program of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. He is now the Director of the Uranium Education Program at Dine College in Navajo Nation.
Roger Colton is an Economist and expert on water affordability, and has helped cities around the country design and implement income-based water affordability programs.

Sharee Hardy

Sharee Hardy is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia, and one of the first Philadelphians to benefit from their pathbreaking income-based water affordability program.

Kate Levy: Director, Writer, Cinematographer and Editor

Kate is Detroit and NYC-based filmmaker.  She received her Master in Fine Arts from International Center of Photography-Bard College in 2013. She has produced short and feature length films, storytelling platforms, installations about water, education, immigration rights, police violence and environmental racism in collaboration with legal advocacy organizations, scholars, community organizers, investigative journalists, universities, and high school students. In 2015, she worked with the ACLU of Michigan to bring national attention the Flint Water Crisis.  She is a 2018 MacDowell Fellow. 

Maureen Taylor: Narrator, Writer and Producer

Maureen has served as State Chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization since 1993, and was elected Treasurer of the National Welfare Rights Union in 1994. Since 2002, Michigan Welfare Rights has worked with thousands of concerned residents and organizations to stop water, gas, and electricity shut-offs. She has testified before Detroit City Council, in the Michigan State capitol, and before members of Congress and federal administrations on the plight of poor people, especially as safety net programs are removed without education or employment opportunities for low income families.

Maureen is dedicated community activist who represents public assistance recipients at Michigan Department of Health and Human Service (MDHHS) offices over case disputes. Along with other welfare rights members, she conducts local and state DHS policy trainings and works with elected officials and program administrators to draft policies and procedures that protect poor and low-income families.Maureen earned her Bachelor of Social Work at Marygrove College in 1983, where she was also the distinguished Valedictorian of her graduating class. In 1994, she earned her Master of Social Work degree from Wayne State University. She has received many distinguished awards for her community organizing and leadership, and speaks at conferences and college campuses across the U.S. on poverty and safety net needs; changes in labor and the economy; civil rights history; and utility shutoffs and organizing. Maureen is a mother, educator and a member of local several boards and national community organizations.

Syvia Orduño, Writer and Producer

Sylvia is a resident of Detroit where she is involved in frontline community groups, including the People’s Water Board Coalition, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and Water Is Life Alliance. In 2020, she was appointed to the first Michigan Advisory Council for Environmental Justice, which was created to ensure perspectives from impacted communities are included in state decision making; and to the EPA’s Great Lakes Advisory Board. Sylvia also serves as a Region 5 member of the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council where she serves as the current Chair.