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Public Health Students Learn Firsthand That Jackson, Mississippi’s Problems Go Far Beyond Water

November 15, 2022
by Fran Fried

It was major national news in late August when the main water treatment plant in Mississippi’s capital city, Jackson, broke down following the flooding of the Pearl River, leaving tens of thousands of people without water to drink, cook with, bathe with, or to flush toilets. But the city’s water crisis was a problem long before the mass media arrived and remains so long after the national reporters have gone.

And, as the Yale School of Public Health’s Activist in Residence Angelo Pinto, Assistant Professor Ijeoma Opara, several students, and a postdoctoral researcher found out during a recent visit, it’s far from the only problem Jackson’s citizens face. Challenges such as poverty and a high crime rate – including one of the country’s highest per capita murder rates – loom just as large to the people who live there.

“Everyone we talked to spoke of issues they had that were not related to water,” Pinto said. “Because the water crisis is such a big deal, we thought that would be the focus, but that wasn’t always the case.”

Said Opara: “I think it’s important for the federal government to step in. It’s not just about the water. It’s poverty, unsafe living conditions, unemployment, and food shortages.” A faculty member in the YSPH Department of Social & Behavioral Sciences, Opara was one of the creators of the Activist in Residence program through the U.S. Health Justice Concentration. She and Pinto brought five students and Sitara Weerakoon, a postdoc in Opara’s Substance Abuse and Sexual Health (SASH) Lab, with them to Jackson.

“In one day,” she said, “we were able to understand the problems that the people of Jackson were facing. I think it’s important to put a national spotlight on Jackson so that they receive the support and help that they need.”

The visit was a result of Pinto’s first Change Talk on September 30. He invited several activists from Jackson to come to Yale to discuss the water crisis. Among the participants were Rukia Lumumba, sister of Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, and, via Zoom, Safiya R. Omari, the mayor’s chief of staff.

Lumumba suggested that the YSPH group visit Jackson; “She said we should have students come down,” Pinto said. “It happened very quickly and organically.”

The timing of the visit couldn’t have been better in terms of being a case study in social activism. Hours before Pinto, Opara, and the students arrived in Jackson on October 31, local activists staged the third in a series of Moral Monday protests in front of the Governor’s Mansion. It included a speech by noted civil rights activist the Rev. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. The next day, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that the water from both of Jackson’s treatment plants was safe to drink again.

Jackson’s water problems and its racial undertones have been well-documented. A few days prior to the Yale group’s visit, the EPA opened a civil rights investigation into whether state agencies have discriminated against Jackson by refusing to fund water system improvements in a city of 150,000 that is 83% Black and where a quarter of the population lives in poverty. Meanwhile, Jackson Mayor Lumumba is scrambling to find a vendor to run the plants before a state emergency declaration expires on November 22 and state assistance in running the plants is withdrawn. He has asked President Joe Biden for federal aid.

A Congressional investigative committee, co-chaired by Representatives Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi (whose district includes parts of Jackson), and Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, is investigating how the state plans to spend $10 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act and from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and $429 million earmarked to enhance water infrastructure. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves responded to the inquiry by placing the blame for Jackson’s water troubles on the city and its mayor.

“The water crisis is nothing new to the people in Jackson,” Opara said. “They’ve been dealing with water issues for years. Elderly citizens there told us that they boiled water or drank bottled water as a matter of course. It shouldn’t happen in any city in America, but this was done by design. This is the result of institutional racism. They can’t get clean water, or the system is so vulnerable that at any moment it could be destroyed.”

Jackson’s struggles with clean water have existed for decades, a situation chronicled earlier this month in an article by the nonprofit news organization Mississippi Today. But the city’s struggles also go beyond water. The Wall Street Journal last month wrote that Jackson reported 154 homicides last year, up from 128 in 2020 and 82 in 2019. As of October 26, 114 homicides were reported this year. That’s 76 per 100,000 residents. (Chicago, long known for his high murder rate, had about 21 homicides per 100,000 for the same period.)

It was this more complex picture of Jackson that Pinto, Opara, and the students encountered while talking with residents.

“In Jackson, we just went on the ground to see what we could do to help,” Pinto said. “We were training first with activists and organizers, then we did community canvassing and water distribution. We were specifically talking to seniors. Many of them had pre-existing conditions and economic problems, a robust amount of challenges.”

So, what were Pinto’s and Opara’s takeaways from this experience?

As an activist, Pinto said he hopes to make a deeper connection with people in Jackson.

“One of the things we discussed at the first Change Talk was to assess how Jackson moves forward after the water crisis,” he said. “Rukia and other people on the ground can become long-term partners. There are a lot of potential options. It’s a matter of gauging students’ interest in what’s going on in Jackson.”

As a professor and researcher, Opara saw the visit as a window to further learning.

“I was grateful to be able to come down with the students and to talk with marginalized communities,” she said. “It allows you, as a researcher, to remain humble, to see what is happening, to listen to what they have to say.”

“While you come in with a specific focus, as researchers …when you listen to people, hear their stories, and give them the opportunity to share what their needs are, you realize that your focus as a researcher is limited in respect to what residents are actually concerned about,” she said. “We started to see how issues of public health are complemented. We need to address the communities’ immediate basic needs in addition to the water crisis. I was grateful for the experience.”

And what about the students? One, speaking to the Yale Daily News, viewed the journey to Jackson as a revelation.

“It made me cry a little bit listening to other people who were volunteers in the community, and then meeting new people and seeing their life perspectives,” said Maame-Owusua Boateng, MPH ’23 (Social & Behavioral Sciences). “How they came to be and how they’re impacted by these issues, [including] the water crisis and incarceration.”

And Weerakoon, the postdoc, told YDN of a wellness check she made on a visit to a senior center. She asked one woman how she was coping with the water crisis, but the first thing the woman said was that she was hungry and dying of cancer. All she wanted was for someone to get her food. After their conversation, Pinto and Opara brought food to her doorstep.

“If we hadn’t knocked on her door and asked her that question, we would have never known that she needed that,” Weerakoon told YDN. “She might not have gotten food that day, who knows what could have happened. To me, the biggest takeaway from this was how important it is to be in the community and figure out what their individual needs are.”

Submitted by Fran Fried on November 16, 2022