"Without water drops, there can be no oceans; without steps, there can be no stairs; without little things, there can be no big things!" -- Mehmet Murat Ildan
Last Monday night, January 25, Evanston's City Council passed a resolution spearheaded by Ald. Robin Rue Simmons mandating representative testing for lead and copper of water samples throughout the city.
Rue Simmons introduced the resolution because almost no water testing for lead and copper had taken place in Evanston’s predominantly Black 5th ward over the last 20 years. The resolution, 11-R-21, remedies that inequity and requires the City to collect at least three water samples testing for lead and copper from each of the city’s nine wards.
"It's good to know that residents in lower-income households that otherwise would not have the information or access to their water quality will now be included in a city-wide process to monitor water quality," Rue Simmons said.
The resolution's passage came about thanks to fortuitous timing and the team work with Rue Simmons of two intrepid community members, 2nd ward resident Regina Sant'Anna and 5th-ward, lifelong Evanston resident Janet Alexander Davis, and two Daily Northwestern student reporters.
On December 22, 2020, The Daily Northwestern published an extensive article written by Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava, In Focus: Loopholes in federal lead law left 5th Ward in the dark about what is in its water.
The two had spent months pouring over charts and Zoning maps, talking to elected officials, City staff, and residents, and discovered that, like so much else that has taken place historically in Evanston, water testing for lead and copper has never been equitable.
What they found is that for about two decades, Evanston collected more than 180 water samples from residents’ homes to test for lead contamination. In that time, the city only tested Evanston’s historically Black 5th ward twice, with 60 percent of all water samples coming from the 6th and 7th ward, both wards that are historically white and wealthier.
Left untested, lead in water can have damaging and long-lasting health effects.
At the same time that Luciano and Srivastava were delving into the research, Regina Sant'Anna, who lives in the 2nd ward bordering the 5th, had watched her elderly neighbor (across the street in the 5th ward) carry boxes of bottled water from her car to her home, and knew that some residents of this historically Black ward were concerned about their water quality.
She took her concern to Ald. Simmons, who, aware of the Daily Northwestern's investigations, connected Sant'Anna with the two reporters and with Janet Alexander Davis, who is co-chair of Evanston's Environmental Justice Evanston.
"It was Heena and my research that exposed the issue," Luciano told me earlier today. "But the support from community advocates like Janet and Regina helped us gain valuable insight and helped push the recent water-testing resolution. They had concerns about water during this past year and we helped inform them based on our research."
I highly recommend reading the In Focus piece by Luciano and Srivastava and especially listen to the three-episode podcast embedded in the story. It's a powerful example of how advocates, media, and leaders can work together for positive change.
"This is part of everything that we do, I think, as a community with that lens of reparations. Right? Repairing the harm that has been done in the past by creating systems that can really fix that going forward," says Sant'Anna in the last podcast episode.
“This pisses me off because this should be different,” says Alexander Davis. “There is so much that regular people have to know in order to fight the good fight. You have no idea how these things are put together and how you can change it. It’s really difficult.”
In addition to their culminating In Focus piece, read more of Luciano and Srivastava's coverage:
December 22: Lead on: Federal rule full of holes.
December 24: Lead on: Drinking from a lead straw
December 25: Lead on: Sad but all too predictable
January 29: Lead on: a City resolution