forced drought in detroit

forced drought in detroit

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is knocking on doors—not to collect what is owed—but to turn off the water at any homes owing at least $150, or who are behind on two months worth of water payments. Yes, you need to pay your bills. And if you don’t pay those bills, those services are taken away. Water, however, isn’t a service. Safe access to clean water is a basic human right. The lack of running water in a home is grounds for being charged with child neglect.

So far, over 17,000 homes in Detroit have had their water turned off. Detroit Water and Sewerage Department spokesman Bill Johnson estimates 89,000 customers owe near $91M to the city of Detroit, and are under threat of losing their access.  Amid rallies, protests, and public outcry, the department has put a hold on turning off water for 15 days, as of July 21. They insist this is not permanent and is only to give the city a chance to conduct outreach to residents about their options.

The city is working with residents to put them on payment plans, and says they will work with anyone who genuinely cannot pay their bill. With 38.1% of Detroit’s population under the poverty line, how do you decide who is destitute enough to be worthy of access to clean water and who is not? In the meantime, neighbors are borrowing from neighbors. People are spending money they don’t have on bottled water to keep their children hydrated. Some are even turning a profit by illegally turning the water back on. When those residents are caught with water turned back on, they are fined a hefty fee.

Last year, the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy. They need the money. The city began shutting off water as debt piled up, but has been targeting individuals and not the companies in Detroit that also owe, to the tune of an estimated $30M. Is anyone knocking on the doors of the hockey arena, the football stadium, the high-end golf course, or the commercial businesses? Is the city turning off their water? The answer is a resounding, “No.”

A group has started an online campaign to bring attention to this issue. More importantly, they are working directly with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to link those who need assistance with those who are willing to give.

Turn on Detroit’s Water takes your email address and asks you to indicate the amount you would like to pay. They then match you with a Detroit resident in need. After you verify the account and payment due, your donation goes straight to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department on behalf of the resident.

Aggregate made a donation and it couldn’t have been easier—or more rewarding. So many of us say if our neighbors were in need we would help them in a heartbeat. Here’s your chance.

Image by Mike Boening. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

radical comedy: you are what you eat

radical comedy: you are what you eat

An open comedy competition that simultaneously benefits the arts and sustainable agriculture? That’s radical.

As a (relative) newcomer to Seattle, I’m enjoying learning about the diverse organizations and causes with roots in the Pacific Northwest. Each month, I will highlight a local group whose radical work inspires me to be more radical in my own work and daily life. 

For the second year in a row, Comedy Contest for a Cause will combine comedy, the arts, and social change into one great event. Last year, comedians performed sketches that promoted moving the world beyond oil toward sustainable energy use. This year’s theme is Food of the Future with the aim of increasing awareness about sustainable agriculture and raising money for local farm and permaculture project Morethana Farm.

Led and maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers, Morethana Farm is a six-acre working organic agriculture and agroforestry project located 35 miles outside downtown Seattle. The farm is supported by a partnership of several local organizations, including Antioch University Seattle, sustainable agriculture nonprofit Pacific Bamboo Resources, and clean energy nonprofit SeaChar.

Comedy Contest for a Cause aims to educate the public on the importance of sustainable agriculture while supporting and encouraging people to express themselves through art and comedy. An open call for stand up and sketches allows anyone to write a sketch and have a chance to perform. The winner, selected by a panel of judges, will receive bragging rights and a $500 cash prize. Proceeds from the event will be donated to Morethana Farm.

The show is June 6 at The Ballard Underground at 8:30 p.m. For information on tickets, check out their Facebook page and be sure to RSVP. I’ll be there, so find me and say hello!

Are you interested in learning more and volunteering with Morethana Farm? Check out their volunteer opportunities, follow them on Twitter, and like them on Facebook.

Learn about other radical local organizations we’ve featured, including Project VioletRain City Rock Camp for Girls, Seal Sitters, Undriving, and Blue Earth Alliance.

Image by Eliza Mutino, Sterling College.

powerful photography for social change

powerful photography for social change

Using documentary photography to inspire positive change in attitudes, behavior, and policy? That’s radical.

As a (relative) newcomer to Seattle, I’m enjoying learning about the diverse organizations and causes with roots in the Pacific Northwest. Each month, I will highlight a local group whose radical work inspires me to be more radical in my own work and daily life.

Photography speaks to people differently, and often a simple image isn’t simply an image. As a photographer I’ve always been enamored with the art form and the myriad ways it can be used to improve the world by mobilizing a community to make a change, or even just brighten someone’s day.

Blue Earth Alliance sponsors artists and works to ensure photographers and filmmakers around the world are given a stage to present their work on critical environmental and social issues. They have helped raise almost a million dollars through membership donations, and require all sponsored work to be educational or informational in some capacity. The Alliance has focused its efforts on issues like global warming and the Artic, but also issues that are sometimes outside of the scope of the mainstream media, such as racism in the farming community, grandmothers in AIDS-ravaged Africa, and the loss of open space in Los Angeles.

Many of the artists who have worked with the Alliance have gone on to win accolades, be featured in galleries, publish books, and receive grants. One such artist—Seattle-based Daniel Beltrá—is currently a featured artist and was the 2011 Wildlife Photographer of the Year for the Natural History Museum. Daniel Beltrá’s newest project, Our Warming World, “asks us to consider the landscape as a place we have altered, all while striving to coexist within the natural world.” According to Beltrá, “rather than merely recording the changes in the environment, this body of work seeks to enhance our awareness of the intersection of nature’s power and fragility, asking us to reconsider our view of the planet and how we inhabit it.”

Also currently featured is Amazon Headwaters by Bruce Farnsworth, which highlights small groups of residents across the upper Amazon region leading cutting-edge programs in research, conservation, education, and sustainable communities. The final featured project is The Truth Told Project by Sarah Fretwell, which highlights the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including daily realities and the rampant sexual violence.

Later in 2014, Blue Earth Alliance will host Collaborations for Cause, a two-day conference in Seattle for nonprofits, photographers, change-makers, and communications professionals. The conference will cover the collaborative future of storytelling and will feature panel discussions, case studies, and breakout sessions. Keep an eye on their news page for more details in the coming months.

Want to learn more about Blue Earth Alliance? Like it on Facebook, follow it on Twitter, learn more about their featured projects, read their blog, and be sure not to miss them on Instagram.

Did you miss our other Radical Locals features? Read more about Project Violet, Seattle’s Rain City Rock Camp for Girls, the Seal Sitters, and Undriving.

Image by Daniel Beltrá from his new book SPILL.

giving away money

giving away money

It’s time again for our end of year donations, but the truth is that Aggregate gives money throughout the year. Sometimes we do so to show our admiration and other times our love. Sometimes we do so because a great story compels us or because we want to support our friends. We always do so because the missions that these organizations pursue—as well as generosity—are core to our values.

  • In February, we donated to the True Life Fund at the True/False Film Fest, which is run by our Creative Director, David Wilson. Each year, True/False selects one of the films in their program and raises money to “support and honor those who appear in front of the camera.” In 2013, the True Life Fund film was Which Way is the Front Line from Here?, about Tim Hetherington, a conflict zone photojournalist who was killed in 2011 while covering the civil war in Libya. The money we donated went to support Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues and the Milton Margai School for the Blind in Sierra Leone, an organization that Tim supported when he was alive.
  • In March we donated to the Brothers of a Boston Fraternity because we were so impressed with their decision to support their transgender brother to have top surgery after his insurance company denied his claim.
  • In June we donated to PATH, our neighbors in Seattle, to support their efforts to transform global health through innovation.
  • In August we donated to the Maplewood Barn Community Theater to support the Willy Wilson Scholarship to support high school graduates to study performing arts in college. Willy, David’s dad, passed away this summer. In addition to being a talented performer, Willy gave us David, for which we are eternally grateful.
  • In September, we donated to support friends who were riding in the Canary Challenge to raise money for cancer research at the Stanford Cancer Institute.
  • In November, we donated to charity: water because it was the least we could do to show Paull Young that we admired his willingness to wear a Speedo on the streets of Philadelphia in November.

Through these donations, we nearly doubled what we gave through our year-end contributions last year.

For this year’s donations, we renewed our commitment to last year’s recipients: the Ali Forney Center (again, in honor of Spencer Cox), which provides housing for homeless LGBT youth in New York, and the Southern Center for Human Rights, which provides legal representation to people facing the death penalty, challenges human rights violations in prisons and jails, seeks to improve legal representation for poor people accused of crimes, and advocates for criminal justice system reforms on behalf of those affected by the system in the Southern United States.

As far as new recipients, staff contributed their ideas and these are the additional groups that have received our support:

  • We made a donation to KEXP in Seattle because we listen to them every day in the office and because of their own contribution to making our favorite city an amazing place to live.
  • Finally, after seeing Jim Olson speak at PopTech in October and then again this month in Seattle, we made a donation to Project Violet at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. It is Jim’s ambition, commitment, innovative approach and amazing skills as a storyteller that caught our eye. We’re honored to be able to help him and his team.

In total, our donations this year were three times what we gave away last year. We did well and we gave back. We hope you’ll consider giving to some of the same organizations to which we donate.

Best wishes for the new year.

going radical to save the seals

going radical to save the seals

As a newcomer to Seattle, I’m enjoying learning about the diverse organizations and causes with roots in the Pacific Northwest. Each month, I will highlight a local group whose radical work inspires me to be more radical in my own work and daily life. -bb

A band of individuals, comprised solely of volunteers, tirelessly protecting seals along the Puget Sound by setting up perimeters and literally babysitting them to protect them from harm? Radical.

From June to September, in the inland waters of the Puget Sound, Harbor Seal “pupping season” is in full swing. The pups “haul out” onto the urban beaches to regulate their temperatures, rest, and conserve calories. They have a limited number of calories to expend while they are learning to sustain themselves, and disturbing them or scaring off their mothers can—and often does—have fatal consequences.

This is where the Seal Sitters come in. Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network is a group of volunteers who do just that: babysit the seals.

Trained by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Seal Sitters provide rescue services and collect seal health and mortality data, aiding government agencies and biologists by researching the health of the Puget Sound ecosystem as a whole.

Although public education and data distribution are important, sometimes a situation becomes so dire that you must take the matter into your own – carefully trained – hands. The sitters search for seals on their own and respond to calls from the public. They set up safety perimeters near the animal, monitor its health from afar, and sit guard with the pup until it chooses to re-enter the water. If the animal is in need of medical assistance, the sitters take it to the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) for rehabilitation and, hopefully, an eventual release back into the wild. The goal is simple: Keep them safe where they are until they are rested enough to return to the water.

Due to harassment from humans, dogs, and boats, the seal population is suffering. Some people simply don’t know any better, and others don’t care. However, the sitters are making the public more aware of this issue through their presence on the shores of our urban beaches. More and more, people are notifying authorities and waiting with the pups until the Seal Sitters arrive. The message is reaching the public, and the seal population will reap the benefits.

To find out more about the Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network, visit the organization’s website and blog.

thoughts on how to survive a plague

thoughts on how to survive a plague

A few of the Aggregate team members recently got the chance to attend a screening of How to Survive a Plague, a documentary about the AIDS activist movement in the early days of the pandemic.

From: Alison Byrne Fields
To: Haley Sides, Melissa Duque
Subject: Thoughts on How to Survive a Plague

Melissa & Haley,

I’m really glad you finally got the chance to go see How to Survive a Plague. I’ve been in love with the film since seeing it with friends at Sundance at the beginning of the year and have been on a mission to encourage everyone I know to see it too.

There are so many things that I love about the film: how effective the use of old Hi8 and VHS footage is at conveying the intimacy and DIY nature of the movement, the message that self-interest is a perfectly justifiable motivator for becoming an activist, the “characters” in the film, how strategic the activists were to educate themselves about the science to better enable them to know what to ask for and to partner with researchers, the unexpected decision by the director, David France, not to demonize Big Pharma and to portray their researchers as heroes in their own right. This list could keep going.

A few months back, I had the opportunity to speak with David France, who said that his goal with the film was that the story of the HIV/AIDS movement would become part of the canon. After hearing him say that, I found this great quote on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s site about the Black civil rights movement in the United States:

“The civil rights movement is one of the defining events in American history, providing a bracing example of Americans fighting for the ideals of justice and equality. When students learn about the movement, they learn what it means to be an active American citizen. They learn how to recognize injustice. They learn about the role of individuals, as well as the importance of organization. And they see that people can come together to stand against oppression.”

Ensuring people see and know the story of How to Survive a Plague has that same power.

Tell me what you think. What stood out most for you?

– Alison

From: Haley Sides
To: Alison Byrne Fields, Melissa Duque
Subject: Re: Thoughts on How to Survive a Plague

Hi Alison and Meli,

Thank you for sending us to see How to Survive a Plague, Alison. Being born in the mid 80s, I was young and don’t have a strong recollection of the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s. This film beautifully portrays the extent to which AIDS activists had to go to compel society, the government and the scientific community  to act on this crisis. I found it amazing to see everyday people becoming experts and building legitimacy within the scientific community. The personal narratives of people living with HIV/AIDS combined with the evolution of activism around the HIV/AIDS crisis made for one of the most humbling, saddening, yet empowering documentaries I’ve ever seen.

The film also spoke to me on a very personal level. I found out in 2002 that a loved one of mine had just been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. This film put in perspective for me that in the U.S., between 2002 and only a decade prior, the difference in such a diagnosis is literally the difference between living with HIV/AIDS and dying from it. I couldn’t help but to reach out to Peter Staley after the film and thank him and others for fighting for not only his own life but the lives of so many others.  By the way, Alison, Peter messaged me back and said to give you a big hug for being such a great supporter of the film. (((HUGS)))

One aspect of the film that spoke to me the most was the question of how society treats people who do human things. I’ll never forget sitting in class my senior year of high school, less than a year after I saw my own family member come *this close* to death, and hearing a classmate angrily say, “Why don’t we just kill every person who has HIV/AIDS?!” As the ACT UP activist Bob Rafsky put it in the film, “A decent society does not put people out to pasture and let them die because they’ve done a human thing.” Bob did not live to see the tides turn in 1995-96, but his words, his drive, his desperate plea to society, is haunting. The work he and others did has forced society to confront the ways in which we stigmatize HIV/AIDS and those living with it.

That’s my take on the film. I hope every person I know, or don’t know for that matter, takes the time to watch How to Survive a Plague, and that it sparks more open, sincere dialogue about HIV/AIDS.

– Haley

From: Melissa Duque
To: Haley Sides, Alison Byrne Fields
Subject: Re: Thoughts on How to Survive a Plague 

Haley & Alison,

It’s been almost a week since we watched the movie and the home videos of Bob Rafsky featured in the film are still with me. The entire film was done beautifully and I respect and adore how David France was able to weave in the story of Robert Rafsky’s fight against AIDS. But I’m not talking about Bob’s speeches at ACT UP or his confrontation with then presidential candidate Bill Clinton; I’m talking about those home videos shared throughout the film documenting his relationship with his daughter, Sara.It’s those quiet moments between a father and his daughter that tell the story of AIDS that no amount of pamphlets, statistics or infographics could ever do. In the videos I saw a man fighting against AIDS, and fighting to have more time with his little girl. At times the videos made me smile and other times I cried as I watched Bob’s health deteriorate.

That night after I watched the film, I kept thinking about that little girl. I mean how could I not, my last image of her was at her dad’s funeral crying. I decided to search for Sara. I found out that she’s a research associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists Americas program. In 2008 she was awarded a Fulbright Grant to research photojournalism and the Colombian armed conflict. What an incredible woman.

Haley, I put the quote you shared from Rafsky on our wall. It’s a great reminder of what we are working towards.