The Overstory: Resistance Is Fertile

Season Two, Episode Three

June 18, 2020

On the latest installment of The Overstory, we talk with some of the people who are coping with the pandemic by getting closer -- much closer -- to the earth. The co-CEO of Johnny's Selected Seeds discusses the skyrocketing demand for vegetable seeds sparked by "pandemic planting," while urban farmers Kanchan Dawn Hunter and Novella Carpenter answer listeners' gardening questions. Our advice columnist, Ms. Green, talks with her mom about how to grow "zombie" crops on the kitchen counter. Plus: A radio diary from Nicole Hill, a woman in Detroit who is organizing against water shut-offs.

The Overstory: That’s the word ecologists use to describe the treetops. There’s a riot of life above us, but usually we’re so focused on what’s right in front that we forget to look up. Season One took us from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the wilds of Patagonia. Season Two will continue to explore the world with changemakers and storytellers who offer different perspectives of the natural world. See all episodes.


Jason Mark:  Since the pandemic started, a number of things have suddenly been in very short supply. But there's one thing in particular that caught me by surprise. No, I'm not talking about toilet paper or baking flour. I'm talking about seeds.

Operator: Thank you for calling Johnny’s Selected Seed. Please note due to a recent surge of 

Another Operator: Thank you for your patience and support during this busy time.

Third Operator: We are little behind due to the volume of orders being received.

(theme music fades in)

Introduction (0:25)

Jason Mark:  On this episode of The Overstory, we're going to hear about the current seed surge and about how seed producers are trying to keep up with all of this new demand. And for those of you who did get some seeds in the ground, well we've heard a lot from you. You've got questions and we'll call up some master gardeners to answer some of those burning questions.

Novella Carpenter:  Honey, you don't want to have an acre of tomatoes. Like just pick the tomato hornworms off with your hands. Go hunting for the slugs at night.

Jason Mark:  And Ms. Green tells a curious questioner about how to bring food scraps back from the dead and how to use the latest remote recording technology.

Jessian Choy:  Mom, can you hear me?

Jessian’s mom:  Are you asking me a question? I can't hear you.

Jessian Choy:  Yeah. (laughter)

Jason Mark:  Plus we've got a conversation with the novelist, Kawai Strong Washburn, about his debut novel Sharks in the Time of Saviors, a Sierra Quarantine Book Club pick that follows a Filipino Hawaiian family grappling with the mysticism of the native culture that helped shape them.

Kawai Strong Washburn: Hawaiian culture included things that have to do with mythology, and it's still very present today in the way people talk about the island.

Jason Mark:  For the last segment of our show, we're going to Detroit. For years activist groups in Detroit have been working to defend what they see as a basic human right, access to clean water.

Nicole Hill:  A large majority of this is being perpetrated against primarily black and brown low income areas. I really firmly believe people don't care if these communities live or die.

Jason Mark:  I'm Jason Mark and this is The Overstory.

(theme music fades out)

Surge in Seed Demands (2:01)

Jason Mark: Back in mid-March Johnny's Selected Seeds in Maine experienced a 300% increase in orders. There's been this whole rush of pandemic planting. Some folks are worried about food security and don't want to rely on the grocery store. Others, maybe newly unemployed, perhaps can't afford groceries. And some people are just stuck at home looking for something to do. All those new gardeners has meant a big demand for seeds. Many seed companies have struggled to keep up. To find out more about what's going on, I called up Gretchen Kreisman, who's the co CEO at Johnny's Selected Seeds. That's an employee-owned, Maine-based seed supplier that's been around since 1973. Gretchen, welcome to The Overstory.

Gretchen Kruysman:  It's nice to be here, Jason.

Jason Mark:  So I'm so curious, when did you all first notice or start to experience this just surge in demand for your products? For the seeds, the fruit, vegetable and flower seeds that guys sell.

Gretchen Kruysman:  Well, really it started almost immediately after the President declared a national emergency on Friday, March 13th. So that weekend, the 14th and 15th, our orders just skyrocketed. We came in on Monday morning and just had a 300% increase in orders. And then we thought maybe it was just going to be the weekend's worth, but it just kept building and building, day after day that week. And it really hasn't stopped since. So we've continued to have a tremendous number of orders and it really meant we had to kind of bring in extra people. We added a second shift to our warehouse. We brought people in on the weekends. At the same time we were adjusting to social distancing to allow our employees to be six feet apart. So it was quite a rapid change in our business in just a week's time.

Jason Mark:  Did you guys see any trends on what folks were into? I mean, were there certain crops or categories or plant families that were especially popular, like any trends?

Gretchen Kruysman:  90% of the increase has been with home gardeners and not as much with our commercial farmers. So in the home gardeners we saw people really ordering things that were kind of the most popular crops in general for home gardeners, but they were the things that people can kind of make a salad with. Tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, green beans, summer squash, onions, that kind of thing. Peas, always popular. So it was really the basics I would say.

Jason Mark:  And did you spot, I don't want to make anybody feel embarrassed out there listening, but did you spot any rookie moves? Like a home gardener account buying like three pounds of beet seeds or something like that?

Gretchen Kruysman:  I don't know if we saw actual rookie moves like that. We found that our phone lines were tied up talking, rather than talking to sort of seasoned growers, about half of our orders were coming in from brand new customers. And they clearly were new to growing as well. So we had to spend quite a bit of time on the phone lines with them, coaching them on how to grow.

Jason Mark:  What are you all sort of anticipating going forward? Do you think some of this will stick and that some of those customers who are first time growers will keep at it?

Gretchen Kruysman:  We really want people to learn how to grow healthy foods themselves. So our hope is that we can help coach these new growers throughout the year, give them the support they need so that they will stick with it. And then on the farming side, we're also really, that's a big part of it.  Johnny’s supports small farmers who are selling to local markets and we really want to help them. We're concerned about them, their ability to weather the situation with all the closures with restaurants. So we're trying to do our best to support them and how they're trying to change their business model.

Jason Mark:  Well, I'm glad to hear that and I hope people stick with it and that they're successful in their gardens and find it rewarding more than it is as it sometimes can be frustrating. Thank you so much again, Gretchen. I really appreciate it.

Gretchen Kruysman:  Thank you, Jason. Thank you for your time.

Home Gardening Tips (6:22)

Jason Mark:  If you're one of those first time quarantine gardeners, chances are you've got some questions. Of course you do. I mean, I've been farming for like 15 summer seasons. And if I've learned anything from the trials of growing organic fruits and vegetables, it's that there's always more to learn. There's always a problem to figure out. So we put out on social media, a call for questions, from you, our listeners, about the troubles that you might be facing or the questions you might have about your gardens.

Jason Mark:  To answer them, I brought in a couple of experts. We've got here today Novella Carpenter, she's an urban farmer and author who you might remember from our last episode. And we also have Kanchan Dawn Hunter, who's the co-director of Spiral Gardens, a community garden in South Berkeley. Kanchan, Novella, thank you guys so much for joining us.

Novella Carpenter:  It's good to be here.

Kanchan Dawn Hunter:  Thank you.

Jason Mark:  So, one question we have from Linda in Florida, who's got a question about non, or let's call them organic certified pesticides. What do y'all use?

Novella Carpenter:  You know, I feel like sometimes home gardeners think they need to have all these sprays and stuff. And I feel like honey, you don't have an acre of tomatoes. Like just pick the tomato hornworms off with your hands. Make it a fun thing that you do with your kids. Go hunting for the slugs at night. One of my favorite things to do is sit there on my citrus tree and literally pick scale off the branches. Then nothing makes me happier than destroying those little bastards.

Novella Carpenter:  And I mean, come on, this is what gardening's about. We're not just going to like walk out in our white linen and just like spray some stuff and then walk back into our house and have a cup of tea. Like let's get dirty, let's kill these things that are trying to kill our plants and make it a game. So what was your experience with that, Kanchan?

Kanchan Dawn Hunter:  Yeah, well, go hands on. That's always the best way, I agree. And also I love to tell people, look, if you're really worried about aphids and you're really worried about other pests getting at your plants, start with a really healthy plant. So fertilize well your soil using organic materials like worm castings, or chicken manure or whatever natural fertilizers you have available to you. And there's so many, many, many, many of them that you can make yourself at home and then just really give the soil a good dosing of compost, a good dose of nutrients for your plants and a good, strong, healthy plant repels pest better than any artificial or whatever different outsider or pest control could ever do.

Jason Mark:  So we've got a question here from Maggie in Ohio, who sounds like she's having a little bit of a challenge with the soil that's in her backyard, that she kind of inherited whatever, when she bought the place or rented the place. She says it's very clay-ey, it's a very heavy soil. So what would you two recommend for someone who's struggling with soil that's very heavy and very clay based?

Kanchan Dawn Hunter:  In this case with clay soil, you don't want to get rid of it, you want to amend it. And so I'm thinking heavy doses of compost, like really hot, fresh compost, like really pile it on thick, get up, even if you can get up to about six inches of organic material and then cover that over with cardboard. And then you want to cover that up with some wood chips if you can find them.

It's like putting a top on a pot of really good bone broth, you'll lock in all of the seasonings and the strength of the herbs that you've put in and the bones and everything's just in the pot and it's cooking and the nutrients are just cycling and cycling within the pods but nothing's escaping. And then leave it alone for a year. And then when it's done, it's like so nutrient dense and it's ready to receive some little plants.

Jason Mark:  We've heard also from listeners who, yeah, they might have either a small urban backyard or say they only have a patio. They might not have local soil to grow into. So if you're going to grow in a container, what's kind of the minimum dimensions you'd want to see, what's the minimum depth typically to really get the biggest bang out of your buck, especially in a small amount of space for people who are in urban environments.

Novella Carpenter:  I get this question a lot. Just my friends will text me, I want to put in some container gardens, what should I do? They make all these different sizes of these stock tanks and containers. And I would say the minimum would be two feet and really the better size would be three feet because when you're growing stuff like tomatoes, tomatoes have a crazy root system that goes down three feet if it's able to. And so if you can mimic that by a larger container, then I would highly recommend that. Carrots, same thing. They need really deep soils.

Novella Carpenter:  Most things that are, you know, a lot of people, they sell these, you've seen those wooden little cube containers, they're like a foot tall, I mean, that's really only going to be good for maybe some herbs, some basil, and not much else. So if you really want to grow vegetables in these containers, you're going to need a deep container.

Kanchan Dawn Hunter:  It certainly does depend on what you're growing. If you just want to grow some lettuces for your kitchen salad, you can get away with six inches, eight inches, they don't require a lot of root space, but for tomatoes, give them their own room.

Novella Carpenter:  Yeah.

Jason Mark:  Give them room to grow. What do you think is sparking this new interest, this fervor in backyard gardening and home scale food production in the midst of pandemic and now I should say, having this conversation early June, in the midst of nationwide protest over the killing of George Floyd, over systemic police violence against African American communities and against communities of color?

Kanchan Dawn Hunter:  Honestly, from where I sit, I feel like it's really important to understand that as human beings, coexisting with this amazing gift of a planet that we are honored and blessed to share, no matter what we think we have power over, no matter what we think we control, we have nothing without her. And so I love to bring that all the way into the conversation, very single conversation I'm having with everyone about whether it be food justice, police violence, inequities within communities of color, everything, everything, all of the things that you do against people unjustly, if you are in a position of power, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. You're going to fall because that goes against nature. Absolutely.

Kanchan Dawn Hunter:  So from there, I'll back it up and say, yes, yes, there is a climate of unrest and it's been that way for a long time now, this is not the first incident that's occurred around police violence against black people, but against black bodies, this has been going on for 400 years. It took a coronavirus to slow people down enough so that you could crack the egg and everybody sees the whole damn yolk. As far as growing food, at Spiral Gardens we experienced for the first time in our 27 years of existence in South Berkeley lines down the block full of people wanting to start their garden for the very first time. And it's like, yes, finally. Our soap box is breaking. Now you're ready, okay, okay, it's back to whatever it takes. Yay, good, good, good, good. Right, Novella?

Novella Carpenter:  Oh yeah, there is that parallel. It's like they're running next to each other. It's like the political conscious waking up and then the gardening conscience waking up. I don't think it's an accident. I think those things are going to eventually come together and that's going to be powerful.

Kanchan Dawn Hunter:  Oh yes. This is the moment we've been waiting for. This is the time we were born for it, and we're ready, we're geared up. We're ready.

Novella Carpenter:  Totally.

Jason Mark:  I just want to say how happy I am that history has caught up to you both. Kanchan, and Novella, thank you both so much for taking the time today to talk. I really appreciate it.

Kanchan Dawn Hunter:  Thank you, thanks for having us.

Novella Carpenter:  Yeah, it was fun.

Jason Mark:  Novella Carpenter, she's an urban farmer and an author and also Kanchan Dawn Hunter, who's the co director of Spiral Gardens, the community garden in South Berkeley, California.

(music fades in)

Ms. Green Shares Family Tips on Food Scraps (15:14)

Jason Mark: So let's say you got your hands on some seeds that you've nurtured into seedlings that have finally become food, and you got to make a meal, and you're about to toss your food scraps into the trash. Stop. Not too fast. Because you might be able to actually bring those scraps back to life. Ms. Green, AKA, Jessian Choy, grew up learning that no food should be wasted. Literally.

Jessian Choy:  Mom, isn't there a saying in Chinese, isn't it, [speaking Chinese 00:15:50].

Hsiangling Ma:  [speaking Chinese 00:15:51], yes, yes. That's right.

Jessian Choy:  It's not just a saying it's like I was not allowed to leave the table.

Hsiangling Ma:  Yeah.

Jessian Choy:  My mom was the original environmentalist in the house. Mom, have you ever considered yourself an environmentalist?

Hsiangling Ma:  Well, not really by that term, but I do care about the Earth. Maybe not as vigilant as you are, picking up all the garbage wherever I walk.

Jessian Choy:  I don't know if I told you that I went hiking on the beach and I pick up bags of dog poop that people leave and you would be horrified. But what happened was the bag, I guess it'd been sitting in the sun and disintegrating and I didn't realize and so the poop got all over me and I didn't realize it also and when I was...

Hsiangling Ma:  Oh no. You got to be careful, you got to be careful, because those poops, they may be harboring some bacteria and disease. You be careful, wearing gloves, too.

Jessian Choy:  Well it wouldn't have mattered because the poop got all over my pants.

Hsiangling Ma:  Please, don't do that. Otherwise I'll have to set some guidelines not to see you. You're dangerous.

Jason Mark:  And now Jessian has got a lesson or two for the woman who first taught her waste not want not.

Hsiangling Ma:  Well I heard that I can grow food from food scraps. That would help me avoid trips to the grocery store during this coronavirus crisis. So what are the easiest, greenest ways to grow food, if I live in a condominium without a yard?

Jessian Choy:  Well, before you compost food scraps, you can turn some of them into zombies that might never die. So you can take things that you might think you need to put in the compost, because after all you were the one that wouldn't even let me waste a grain of rice. So I'm now not wasting even food scraps. I'm also doing it because putting compostable in the landfill can contribute to the climate crisis. If you don't have soil, you can try growing celery and lettuce and instead of plucking the leaves or stems, you keep them as a bunch and then chop them three inches from the bottom. And then you just put the bottom and an inch of water and put it under bright, indirect sunlight. And then just change the water every few days.

Hsiangling Ma:  What about garlic?

Jessian Choy:  Well, the next time you see a little bulb of garlic sprouting, a green stem, you can grow new garlic to ward off, you can ward off actual zombies. You can put each bulb and not the whole bunched head, you can put each bulb unpeeled with a sprout facing up one inch deep in soil, about an inch apart from each other in a pot, like a tiny pot. And just put that in a sunny spot and keep the soil moist. So don't let it dry out, which I know I've seen you do. And then snip the sprouts and eat them. It's like a garlic-like flavor. There's this great book, it's a lot more comprehensive out of all the books and articles I read, and it's by Katie Elzer Peters. It's called No Waste Kitchen Gardening.

Hsiangling Ma:  Okay, sounds good.

Jessian Choy:  Well, thanks Mom for your question, and your support all these years.

Hsiangling Ma:  Thank you so much for including me in your… uh…your interview.

Jessian Choy:  Bye Mom.

Hsiangling Ma:  Okay, bye.

Jason Mark:  That's Ms Green, as always you can send your burning eco questions to her via Twitter @realmsgreen or head to our website,, click on ask Miss Green, and then send her a question.

(music fades out)

Sharks in the Time of Saviors (20:00)

Jason Mark: Kawai Strong Washburn's debut novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, is set in Hawai’i, where Washburn was born and raised. The book starts in 1995 with a seven year old boy falling off a cruise ship and into the middle of a school of sharks. But instead of eating him, the sharks delivered him safely back to his mother. The rest of the novel is about the ripple effects from this seeming miracle. We at Sierra Magazine are calling it one of the must read books of the pandemic. Sierra's Katie O'Reilly had the chance to talk to Washburn about his book.

Katie O'Reilly:  Kawai, am I pronouncing your first name correctly?

Kawai Strong Washburn: No.

Katie O'Reilly:  No?

Kawai Strong Washburn: The W is like a V.

Katie O'Reilly:  Oh okay, so Kawai?

Kawai Strong Washburn: Yeah, there you go.

Katie O'Reilly:  Kawai, okay, great. Thank you.

Kawai Strong Washburn: That happens all the time.

Katie O'Reilly:  Okay.

Kawai Strong Washburn: The only place it doesn't happen, it's the beginning of when I start to feel good about going to   Hawai’i is when I call to make a reservation for a car rental or something, and I just tell them my name and they know exactly how to spell it. I get on the phone and they're like oh, okay, what name is the reservation under, and I'm like Kawai, and they're like oh okay. It's one of those things where I'm like ah, I'm going home, it's the one place.

Katie O'Reilly:  That's awesome.

Kawai Strong Washburn: So don't feel bad, that's what happens when you have a name from another place. Something else I'll mention, which I don't think we talked about before, just upfront, because this always gets asked or it gets confused. I'm black and white. I'm mixed in terms of my race, my ethnicity, but I grew up, I was born and raised in   Hawai’i and I have a Hawaiian name. So sometimes people assume because I have a Hawaiian name that I'm native Hawaiian, which I'm not.

Katie O'Reilly:  Okay, thank you. You grew up on the Big Island?

Kawai Strong Washburn: I did, yeah. I grew up on the Big Island and some of the most formative experiences I've had in the natural environment happened there on the Big Island where I was growing up and where I had access to such amazing outdoor environments. It's one of the most beautiful places in the world. And so much of that is under threat from a variety of things. Climate change is obviously the overwhelming, the biggest specter, but there's always issues around development and urban design and what you do as a population starts to grow on different parts of the Island and how that affects the infrastructure and the spillover effects onto the natural environment. And so just those things have always been major concerns to me because of these beautiful places that I grew up in, in Hawaii.

Katie O'Reilly:  Can you talk a little bit about your climate activism and about how it has informed this book and your identity as a writer?

Kawai Strong Washburn: Yeah, so I work with a few different nonprofits that do a variety of work. The place where I invest the majority of my personal energy is in an organization called Citizens' Climate Lobby. It's a place that tries to bring together people from across the aisle to work on, in this case, we're hoping, trying to find meaningful national legislation related specifically to carbon pricing. For me, because of the place that I grew up in Hawaii, and when an author seems to have a blind spot to a topic, to me that feels sort of like it shouldn't be avoided, whether that's something like race or in my particular opinion, the environment, and sort of the interplay between humans and environment, I feel like you're at some level also making a statement about the thing by not saying anything about it, right? As far as where it fits in with that book.

Kawai Strong Washburn: And so for me as a writer, I always want to bring the issues of the interactions between and the natural world to the forefront and to have that be something that is a part of the work that I write, because to me, it feels like it is the fundamental issue that's going to drive the survival of the human species in the coming century. If humans can't decide and recognize their interconnectedness with the natural world and the fact that we both depend on each other in a way that if we are not careful in the way we shepherd the resources of this world and understand how we interact with it, it's going to be the end of the human species at some point.

The world will go on, whatever parts of the natural ecosystem that exist right now will collapse, and those will be rebuilt millions of years later after we're gone. And so for me, that idea, I have to talk about that in my writing. It's such an important issue for me that I can't avoid it or be quiet about it. So all of my writing has some level of that in it.

Katie O'Reilly:  Yeah. It's such a central human issue and this novel was such a fabulous meditation on the human condition. And since you mentioned Hawaii, it's such a central character in the book, I was hoping you could talk a little bit about the research that went into your portrayal of it's very singular, physical and mythical landscape.

Kawai Strong Washburn: Yeah. So a lot of sort of the mythology that's woven into the book was a combination of things that I had experienced just growing up there, right? The place that I grew up in Honokaa, which is where the story started, where the novel starts and ends actually, there was a lot of ghost stories and mythology that people just pass around when you're kids trying to scare each other, when somebody has a weekend where they see something that they can't explain when they're down in the valley or whatever, they come back with a ghost story about it. And those things are tied up with native Hawaiian mythology. And that's also something that we learned about when I was in elementary school and middle school. The classes we took on history and native Hawaiian culture included things that had to do with mythology and it's still very present today in the way people talk about the Island.

Katie O'Reilly:  You've said that the image of the kid Noah and the sharks just came to you. What was your connection to sharks like growing up in Hawaii?

Kawai Strong Washburn: Yeah, it was a mix of different things, on the one hand fear, obvious fear. I think it's impossible to not be afraid of sharks. There's a sense of fear, but also this sense of awe and a recognition of your place in the world. There is something that is very graceful about a shark moving through the water and the power that they contain in their bodies the same way as there is for dolphins. And I can also think of times when I've recognized their vulnerability. I remember being on a beach in   Hawai’i when I was little and a shark's body washed up onto the shore. And it was no less for me a sad moment than it would have been if that were the body of a dog or a bird.

Kawai Strong Washburn: The shark was washed up on shore and I think it had died of natural causes, but it was as vulnerable in that moment as any other animal would be, and I also had a chance to touch his body, and I didn't realize how smooth and slick the body of the shark was in parts and how there's like a grain to the shark's body. And so there was this very, I don't know, it was at once both intimate and moving. And to couple that with the times that I've encountered sharks in the water and been terrified, it kind of gives a mix of emotions about them.

Katie O'Reilly:  You left   Hawai’i and now live in Minneapolis. I'd love to hear your thoughts about the intersectional relationship between racial justice and climate justice.

Kawai Strong Washburn: They're completely inseparable because the people that are already feeling the effects of climate change in its current forms in whether we're talking about drought or sea level rise, or the sort of particulate matter in the air that comes from the pollution that's caused by industrial systems that are contributing to climate change, all of those things affect people that are socioeconomically disadvantaged, which are overwhelmingly people of color, particularly African Americans. And so all of those things come together and you can see them also playing out when you have something like this COVID-19 pandemic and people that are at higher risk of mortality as a result of this, are people that have this sort of health issues that come along with being in a place where the air pollution is worse, right?

Kawai Strong Washburn: And I think that what has been the biggest problem in my eyes is that the language of connecting those two things in a way that helps people understand that things like air pollution, when you talk about climate change, you talk about issues of the quote unquote, the environment, it doesn't mean we're talking about hugging trees in old growth forest. Not that I'm disparaging that, I'm just saying, I think a lot of people will think of this sort of like, oh, that's kind of this bougie white problem to go and protect a tree.

Katie O'Reilly:  Right.

Kawai Strong Washburn: When it also is like you're getting asthma because of a factory's output. And that is what we should be talking about just as well when we're talking about the environment and climate change, right? And so what I want to write towards is I want to write towards the map of how we get from where we are now to the best version of the place we can be in 20, 30, 40 years from now. Because everybody's read everything that has to do with despair and all that does is make you want to give up. I want to imagine the best version of the world. What would that world look like? So that's what I write towards in climate change.

Katie O'Reilly:  Wonderful. Well, thank you so, so much for taking the time to speak with us today, Kawai.

Kawai Strong Washburn: Thank you, thank you Katie. So much.

Jason Mark:  That was Katie O'Reilly and Kawai Strong Washburn talking about his book, Sharks in the Time of Saviors.

(music fades in)

Water Shut-offs in Detroit (29:27)

Jason Mark: For the last segment of our show, we're going to Detroit to hear from a woman named Nicole Hill. When the coronavirus was first in the news, we all heard about how important it was just to wash your hands. But for many people in Detroit, that was impossible because the Detroit water and sewage department had shut off the water to thousands of homes, homes where the occupants had fallen behind on their bills.

At the end of March, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered the water turned back on. For years you see, activist groups in Detroit have been working to defend what they see as a basic human right: access to clean water. Among those is the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. It's an antipoverty group with roots in the civil rights movement and the Poor People's Campaign. And it's where Detroit resident Nicole Hill works.

(music fades out)

Nicole Hill: In 2014, I had decided to go back to school. I had three children in the home at the time, and I had gotten up like any other day, and I tried to turn on the faucet and nothing came out. Call the water department, they told me that my bill was $3,000. And I was like, there's no way I owe a $3,000 water bill in a three bedroom, one bath home. I immediately left and went to where most people will go to seek help, which is the Department of Human Services. And I had, then my daughter was six years old, my youngest, and I had taken her with me. And by the time I had gotten there, my bill was $5,000.

So that shows you the mismanagement that the water department was doing. And she basically told me, well we offer an emergency relief fund of $175. And she called the department and they told her that's not going to do anything, and we're not going to restore our water. And then she proceeded to inform me that not having water in your home is grounds for protective services to come in and take your children. And my youngest daughter just burst into tears. And I lived like that for two months. Which is nothing, since I've been in this work that I've found residents that have been without water for years.

I got involved in a class action lawsuit against the city of Detroit and the water department and my water was restored. Through that, I got involved with Michigan Welfare Rights. I had just decided I'm going to speak out. If I have to become the poster child for this, I will, because this needs to be heard and people need to know what's going on. We're grateful that people are getting their water restored and not having to live without water, but there's a huge fear because one, you haven't restored everyone that's in need. And two, what happens post COVID? Do these people go, you're going to start a massive shutoff campaign. We already know.

A large majority of this is being perpetrated against primarily black and brown low income areas. We're always the last ones to get information. We're always the last ones to receive resources. I really firmly believe, and this is just my humble opinion, that people don't care if these communities live or die. It's almost like we're test subjects. But I'm also a member of the Poor People's Campaign, and we had this chant and every time that I get discouraged, I hear it in my head and it says, I believe that we will win. And so they just say it over again and go, I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win.

And I just try to keep that in mind, and I look at my children and I realize that they're the future and I have to keep fighting for them. So that keeps me positive, and then my daughter, she's already decided that she's going to throw her hat in the political ring and she's ready to change things.

(theme music fades in)

Notes and Thank Yous (33:47)

Jason Mark:  And that's our show. If you like it, please rate and review us on Apple podcasts or wherever you're listening. It helps us out a lot. The Overstory is produced by Josephine Holtzman and Isaac Kestenbaum at Future Projects Media with help from Daniel Roth. Our theme music is by Jeff Brodsky. This episode was mixed by Merritt Jacob. I'm Jason Mark, and you've been listening to The Overstory.

End of Transcript.

What’s Next?

 Check out Season Two, Episode Four (The Movement for Black Lives Saves the Planet), in which we explore the connections between systemic racism and environmental destruction.