Since 2016, Tanaisha Sanders has expanded its Newark, New Jersey business, a childcare learning center called The Institute of Intriguing Minds, from one to four locations in the area. For all five years, Sanders has felt uncomfortable letting the children drink tap water.
Newark’s water crisis Just as Sanders was starting business, it became popular in the form of a record high lead content in the drinking water of schools. In 2017, the lead content reported by the city was above the federal action level, and in 2018 and 2019 the lead content rose to one of the highest values of any major city in the country. “Imagine a child who drinks this water from childhood to teenagers and knows how harmful it is and what it can do for their brains,” she says.
Sanders needs to devote valuable educational space, not to mention significant funding, to an ongoing inventory of plastic water bottles. That will change when the institute secures access to fascinating minds a Water Box, a $ 50,000 portable filtration system that removes lead and other contaminants and delivers 10 gallons of clean water every minute.
By the end of March, there will be four water boxes across town thanks to the advocacy Newark Water Coalition. Founded in 2018 with a mission to “show up in Newark with clean water where we need to,” the organization has partnered with nonprofit 501CTHREE, Newark residents, houses of worship, small business and mutual aid networks to create the resource provide and get the word out. “To me, it’s all mutual help – this is the kind of intangible mutual help people don’t talk about, skill sharing, and fellowship,” said Anthony Diaz, co-founder of the Newark Water Coalition. “This is community.”
Since its inception, the Newark Water Coalition has worked to expose environmental racism at the heart of the city’s water crisis. Their request was that the city replace residents ‘water pipes, carry out blood tests for all residents, and establish mandatory tests on residents’ water – all of this is currently in progress. Two other demands to set up a long-term support program for victims of lead poisoning and to impose a moratorium on water bills until lead levels reach zero were not implemented by the city.
These demands were linked to an urgent question: How do we distribute as much clean water as possible to residents? Following an EPA regulation in July 2018 that required the city to distribute bottled water, the coalition began distributing bottles and gallon jugs at two distribution locations and was planning to open a third.
“When COVID arrived, we closed the distribution centers for security reasons,” says Diaz. The coalition switched to touchless home delivery, asking for donations of bottled water at a time when grocery stores had limited shopping. “We got 75 requests a day to supply water,” he adds.
Six months before the lockdown, the Newark Water Coalition began talks with 501CTHREE, a nonprofit that incubated the Water Box in Flint, Michigan. The Water Box was designed as a “bridging solution for systemic changes,” says co-founder Drew Fitzgerald. (The other founder is musician Jaden Smith.) Fitzgerald and Smith were drawn to Newark because the Newark Water Coalition was closely associated with their community.
COVID hasn’t stopped the team from installing the city’s first water box. The team stopped last summer Outdoor community meetings to explain the Water Box’s filter and test system. The residents simply bring a jug from home and fill it. The box uses a water pipe to filter tap water so residents can fill their jugs, eliminating the need to use plastic bottles. Testing is an important component – water out of the box is tested on site by organizers from the Newark Water Coalition. (If residents want their house water tested, the coalition sends it to a laboratory. Organizers are also working on a testing method on site.)
“The average person with public drinking water has no control over whether their drinking water is good or bad. She has to trust the provider and the leadership, ”says Fitzgerald. “A test regiment … offers ultimate transparency. Power is in the hands of the people. ”
The first Water Box opened in a Newark church last October and was later relocated to another church – St. Stephen’s, where the first Water Box was permanently housed. The Newark Water Coalition has developed a pickup system to ensure social distancing and regular water testing. “We don’t have to pay for it, we don’t have to scrape our pennies together at Shoprite,” says Diaz of the shift from buying water to distributing it. “It’s this self-sufficiency – that’s what the Water Box made possible for us in the service we provide.”
Since March, the Newark Water Coalition has been working with mutual aid networks to distribute water, food and supplies to residents during COVID-19. These partnerships continued with the introduction of the Water Box. At St. Stephen’s, the Newark Water Coalition is investigating how the existing food distribution system can be expanded into a permanent communal refrigerator.
Shortly before the Newark Water Coalition’s two-year anniversary in December of that year, 501CTHREE called Diaz to inform him about the charitable funding for three more boxes. “It was crazy!” Diaz remembers. You opened the second location in the Alkaline XPress Holistic Wellness Center in January and plan to open the next two locations in February and March.
“Each location represents a different level of partnership,” explains Diaz. The Newark Water Coalition wanted to partner with Alkaline XPress as a local black-owned company practicing community wellness. Another black-owned company, the Institute of Intriguing Minds has proven to be an ideal location because it serves children. “We know that lead poisoning affects children under the age of six disproportionately,” says Diaz.
In those first few months of the Water Box, the Newark Water Coalition quadrupled its capacity to distribute filtered water, according to Diaz. With all four water boxes in operation, he expects the Newark Water Coalition to distribute 4,000 gallons per month.
When a water box arrives at the Institute of Intriguing Minds, Sanders doesn’t have to replace the boxes of bottled water that are currently stacked on the walls of classrooms. The money she spent on bottled water is used for things like hiring staff and purchasing study materials. And she’ll activate her wide social media network and the childcare app that connects her with parents to invite other community members to use the box.
“You never want to question whether or not the water is safe for your child in an academic center,” she says. “I know this will make a difference in our church.”
Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, New York-based reporter who writes on real estate, architecture, urban development, and design. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Curbed, and other publications.