By Virginia Myers
Akemi Stout couldn’t sleep last night.
As president of the Jackson Federation of Teachers in Jackson, Miss., she is used to juggling the many needs of teachers and school staff, but as the water crisis in her hometown continues, she is distracted by a flood of additional challenges.
After severe flooding in August the water in Jackson has been unsafe for a month. The boil water notice has been lifted, but tap water is still discolored and water pressure poor. With four people in her household, Stout needs 10 cases of water every week for basic tasks like brushing teeth, cooking pasta and feeding the dog. Just the other day she had to run out for laundry sanitizer after her teenage daughter’s clothes came out of the washer smelling foul.
When school toilets would not flush and children were sent back to remote learning, Stout fielded concerns from her union’s members and the families of the children they teach and hold dear. She juggled her own children’s schedules, and when schools opened again she drove them to unfamiliar schools when their home schools remained closed.
After severe flooding in August the water in Jackson has been unsafe for a month.
Multiply these inconveniences by the 30 days since Jackson’s most recent water system crash, then multiply again by the number of Jackson residents — including many JFT members. Think about the families without the means for meeting these sorts of challenges, and the implications for hospitals and people with serious health conditions. Consider that access to clean water has been a problem in Jackson for decades. Then maybe you can begin to understand the scope of the problem — and the sleepless nights.
“It’s just another one of those institutional things that is happening here in Mississippi yet again,” says Stout, who blames the crisis on politicians who refuse to address Jackson’s longstanding water issues — and on the kind of systemic racism and environmental injustice that leaves low-income Black communities with far fewer resources than wealthier, whiter areas.
She doesn’t dwell on it. Instead, she organizes relief. The JFT has distributed 1,000 cases of water, loading them into some 500 cars at the union office. Stout put on her blue jeans and helped keep things moving, so busy that she forgot to grab cases for herself. She’s also helped coordinate shipments of cleaning supplies from the AFT’s national office.
An Ongoing Problem Runs Deep
While many people outside Mississippi are just now learning about the water problems there, Stout — and many others — testify that this is not news. “This water system was caving in a long time ago,” she says.
Stout remembers schools closing because of water main breaks back in 2006, when she first started working in the Jackson school district. Others have said warnings about the drinking water go back to the 1990s. Boil water notices are common and in fact were in place for 30 days before the crisis was exacerbated by the severe flooding in August. Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba blames decades of delayed maintenance along with staffing shortages and failing equipment.
“Somehow, in the year 2022, equality and justice remain out of reach for Black communities across America.”
Underlying that neglect is the fact that Jackson residents are 80 percent Black, and 25 percent poor. “Somehow, in the year 2022, equality and justice remain out of reach for Black communities across America,” wrote Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, in a statement released when the crisis first escalated. “The disparities facing our community are stark — just look at the catastrophe unfolding in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. … More than a hundred thousand people, the majority of whom are Black, are without safe access to drinking water for the foreseeable future.”
“Across the nation, with …. poor communities that are often Black, brown, Indigenous and on the frontlines of the climate crisis, we see the same thing happening over and over again,” Heather McTeer Toney, an environmental justice expert at the Environmental Defense Fund, told AP News.
“We certainly have been a victim of systemic and structural racism in the city of Jackson,” says Zakiya Summers, a Mississippi state legislator quoted in the Washington Post. “And I don’t think it’s unique to Jackson. I think it’s true of majority-minority cities across the South.”
Scholars and residents point to white flight as foundational to the collapse. When Jackson’s schools integrated in the 1970s (long after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision) white people left the city and took their money with them. “When that tax base left the city you lost a lot of the funds” for maintaining schools, roads and water systems, says Stout.
The Union's Role
Fighting systemic racism and injustice is nothing new for unions, whose members and leaders are long-time advocates of fair treatment not just on the job but also in the world. Organizing in the workplace is not just about salaries and benefits, but also about ensuring a safe and enriching life for working people in general. The work the JFT is doing — distributing water, making sure members have access to what they need during the crisis, advocating for improvements and policy change — brings that concept home.
“It shows the human aspect of the union,” says Stout. “We are truly about our people being able to live day to day.” And that doesn’t mean just union members, she adds. “We are 100 percent about community.”
The American Federation of Teachers was formed by teachers more than 100 years ago and is now a 1.7 million-member union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and o