‘What’s Been Done & What’s Been Won’ with Michigan Welfare Rights Activist Maureen Taylor
By Bob Ostertag
My name is Bob Ostertag. I play music, write books, and make movies. I play concerts all over the world. In March 2014, I visited Detroit as an artist-in-residence at Trinosophes. My stay ended with a performance, featuring a composition of mine from the 1980s. It was a sound piece that incorporated devastating events from the decade I’d spent trying to help overthrow the military dictatorship in El Salvador.
Maureen Taylor, chair of Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, attended the concert that night. She invited me to an upcoming Welfare Rights event, at which she stunned me by reciting a review she’d written of my performance and publicly appointing me her Ambassador, charged with carrying the story of Detroit’s struggling citizens through my travels. I have won music prizes and awards in many countries, some quite prestigious, but this honor touched me most deeply. Maureen is an extraordinary person by any standard, a tireless soldier for the poor for more than half a century. She is tough as nails, funny as hell, and loving as can be. She is very Detroit. Old school.
We had met a few years earlier at a woodland retreat for artists and activists in upstate New York. Today, she recalls the profound impact it had on her.
“I’m a city kid,” Maureen explains. “Born and raised in Detroit. So I’m familiar with cars, automobile factories, bright clothes, your hair is always beautiful and fly, dancing, good times. But here I was out in the woods. It took two, three, four days for me to figure out how I could sleep at night because I was so afraid of the surroundings. I kept hearing this noise. I finally figured it out. The noise was the sound of silence. And I had never heard the sound of silence. My goodness. I had never heard a time at night where you didn't hear sirens, you didn't hear the fire department, you didn't hear trucks whizzing by… At night when the lights went out and people actually went to bed, it was quiet. It stands to this day as one of the moments that helped create a calm in my heart.”
During my time in Detroit nearly seven years ago, I shadowed Maureen at work. And just as she will never forget those nights in the woods, I will never forget that day at her office downtown. It was March. Early that morning, a woman walked in who had just spent the entire winter huddling with her children in a house that had no heat—no gas or electricity—yet she had just received a $600 bill for utilities she had never used. She needed help. In utter despair.
Next up, a gentleman caring for his bedridden granddaughter who was in a permanent vegetative state. He had received a notice saying that his welfare funds would be cut off if his granddaughter did not attend school. What should he do?
Those were just the first two cases.
“Anybody that makes their way to Welfare Rights, the first thing we recognize is that this is probably one of the worst days in your life. This is why you’re seeking help. Because you've been through everything else and nothing else works. So we come to the table with that kind of acknowledgement.
The second thing is, if you come to Welfare Rights, we do not tell you, ‘Well, I've taken a look at your problem and there's nothing we can do. You're on your own.’ We don't do that...We get down to an analysis and a description of what the problem is because that's so important. So many times someone will come to Welfare Rights and they're talking about a water problem or they're talking about a utility problem, and then, as we get into the interview, you see that is not the problem at all.”
I was in awe. After just one day at Welfare Rights I was thoroughly beaten down. Maureen has been doing this for more than 50 years. With righteous anger. And grace. And patience. And humor (at night she decompresses by watching old Westerns). What’s her secret? Clearly, she’s cut from a different cloth. This is a woman whose voice should be amplified, and it is my mission to get that voice heard.
Maureen and I recently launched a podcast. I proposed calling it What’s Been Did and What’s Been Hid. Maureen immediately countered with What's Been Done and What’s Been Won. That right there, those words, that's Maureen. She doesn't have time to be “making points” when there’s urgent need all around. If there is not something to be won, she isn't interested. And I don't mean winning some ideological debate. I am talking about winning something real that will matter immediately in someone's life—a better place to sleep, more food to eat, or heat in a house that has none in the dead of Detroit winter, occupied by a single mother and several kids.
Those who listen to our podcast will learn a lot about Detroit. About Maureen's family migrating up from the South before her birth. About Black auto workers building not just cars but also the first Black middle class in the nation. About the era when the home of every Black worker had, as Maureen says, “a couple of chickens out front and a couple more in the back.” About how she cut her political teeth in the late 1960s at the Chrysler Dodge main factory with the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (D.R.U.M). About her years working as a crash test driver for General Motors, driving cars into piles of mattresses at 100 mph, before automation showed up and the jobs disappeared.
Times are so grim in our country right now. Victories are so hard to come by for those at the bottom. Maureen kicked off the podcast series by recounting the details of the profound victory she and others recently won regarding access to water in Detroit:
“It’s been probably 15 years that Welfare Rights has been working on water issues. It was 2005, 2006, when a bunch of groups including Welfare Rights came together at the Hannan House to see what we could do about rising water shutoffs. And we came up with something called the Water Affordability Plan, which allowed low-income people to pay water bills based on their income.
Skip ahead to 2014. Michigan Welfare Rights started to get a lot of telephone calls. ‘Welfare Rights? You have to do something because the water department is on my porch and they're telling me if I don't pay my water bills, they'll turn my water off.’ Fifteen to twenty calls an hour, just about water shutoffs. We made some calls and discovered that 59,990 addresses in Detroit were on a list to be shut off. I thought that was a typo. I did. I did not think it was possible. But it was true. They were very aggressive. They had trucks going up and down the street and water employees jumping off the back, cutting people's water off, jumping back on, going to the next block to disconnect and to the next... It was demonic.
So we engaged everybody—the People's Water Board, the NAACP—everybody. We even went to the United Nations (UN) and they sent a special rapporteur to Detroit because access to water is recognized by the UN as a basic human right, and the United States, as a member, is obligated to uphold that right. The state can actually take your children away from you if you don't have running water in your house.”
Then a global pandemic shows up. Governor Gretchen Whitmer appoints Maureen to the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. Big Gretch, as Maureen and some rappers call her, gets briefed on the situation and issues an executive order guaranteeing access to fresh water for every Michigander for the duration of the pandemic. Boom. Done.
If you think it is impossible to win big victories in the age of Trump and Covid, think again.
And, as you probably know, bold executive orders like that one sparked a plot to kidnap and murder the Governor. But no sooner had access to water been guaranteed that access to gas and electricity was called into question.
“In mid-March, DTE Energy instituted a moratorium on utility shutoffs, just as the pandemic was arriving. So for six months, we were living with this moratorium... Now they've decided that it’s been long enough and they're going to start shutting off lights and gas. We’re in Michigan. The high today is going to be 50 degrees.
Well, wait just a minute. What if you’ve got a nine-year-old child that needs insulin? And you say you have the right to shut down the refrigerator the insulin is in? When you say you have that right, what are you saying? Who gives you that right? Where do you derive that right? And they say, ‘we’re the city of Detroit’ or ‘we are DTE, we want to provide and we can take away.’ You know, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Well, you ain't the Lord. You have that right to cause not only pain to a family or a family member, but you can even cause their death? Who the hell says you have the right to do that? This moment will turn ugly unless DTE stands down because Welfare Rights is not going to tolerate it.”
I invite you all to follow Maureen and me on What’s Been Done and What’s Been Won. More than that, please send an email to DTE Customer Service Director Tamara Johnson at tamara.johnson@DTEenergy.com and let her know what you think about shutting of the heat and refrigerators of your neighbors in the middle of a global pandemic with winter coming on, and cc: Maureen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tell Ms. Johnson that you are concerned about the ability of poor people to survive the pandemic without basic necessities of life like water, electricity, heat, and gas, and that you are supporting the efforts of Maureen Taylor.
This text includes excerpts of audio transcripts from Bob Ostertag and Maureen Taylor’s new podcast, What’s Been Done and What’s Been Won, available on Apple, Spotify, Google, and elswhere.
Bob Ostertag is Professor of Cinema and Digital Media at UC-Davis and lives in San Francisco.
Since 1993, Detroiter Maureen Taylor has served as Chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, a union of public assistance recipients, low-income workers and the unemployed that organizes members to fight for their rights and to eliminate poverty in this country.
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