A Story of Survivor's Guilt: The Water Crisis in Jackson, Mississippi

Just before my dad passed away in December of 2016, we took one final drive around my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. We visited our old neighborhoods, my childhood homes, and my old schools. Things had not gotten better since I’d left Jackson, some 20 years before. In fact, they’d gotten worse.
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The two main libraries of my youth—the Charles Tisedale Library (it was The Northside Drive Library back in the day) and The Eudora Welty Library—were literally caving in due to years of neglect. These once magnificent places of reading and learning meant everything to me. They were places where I could escape my circumstances as a poor Black child in the Deep South and could immerse myself in worlds far different than my own. I remember being excited to get my hands on the latest Reading Rainbow-approved book and thinking that I could one day be as fancy as Diahann Carroll in her beautiful striped jacket on the American Library Association READ posters scattered around the library. Especially on those hot and humid summer afternoons, I vividly remember enjoying the air conditioning and that cold and delicious water fountain.  

Me (in the pink argyle sweater) and my family in Jackson, Mississippi circa 1985.

Many decades have passed since then. It is with a heavy heart that I must report that I am still not as fancy as the late Ms. Carroll. Rather, I am now an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at The Brown University School of Public Health. The splendor of the Jackson from my childhood and all its magic seems to no longer exist.  Along with deep nostalgia for the Jackson of my past,  I am filled with an immense amount of survivor’s guilt. Would I be who I am now if I lived in the Jackson that exists today?  I am also very sad. A child growing up in Jackson today won’t be able to enjoy those amazing libraries. On most days, they can’t drink the water either.  

For the past several years, multiple times a day, a Jackson child’s education is upended due to failed water infrastructure. In 2020 alone, the city of Jackson issued approximately 500 boil water advisories because of unsafe drinking water. These interruptions ranged from a few hours to weeks long and impacts anywhere from a street to the entire city.  When a boil water advisory is issued, families with school-aged children living in the impacted communities must boil their water before any consumption, making necessary school preparation chores that we normally take for granted like brushing teeth, taking medications, and preparing meals difficult, if not impossible.  

As our paper shows, boil water advisories increase the unexcused absence rate in the Jackson Public School District by up to 10%. Prior research has shown that chronic absenteeism is associated with a host of health and well-being outcomes, including graduation rates, increased likelihood to experience poverty, and decreases in both mental and physical health. 

If we can define freedom as the ability to be, in the next moment, everything we were not just the moment before, and if we believe that education is a great opportunity to change your condition, many children living in Jackson are in captivity.  Seeing the elementary school I attended as a child be currently and negatively impacted by the water crisis in Jackson, I am heartbroken,  frustrated, and angry.  At their lightest, emotions can inspire the most beautiful versions of ourselves. However, they can also destroy us if we become consumed by their darkness. This work has allowed me to come to terms with what Jackson has become. I know that this is the first stage of my healing. I also know that this isn’t about me. It is about what happens next. It is about freedom.

The most beautiful part of this journey from guilt to sadness to anger and to optimism is the work being currently conducted by the youth in and around Jackson. Since last summer, we have worked closely with high school students at the Piney Woods School, a historically Black co-educational private boarding school in Greater Jackson. Together, we have been operating a mobile tap water testing and demonstration laboratory throughout Jackson, setting up shop at community centers, summer camps, and of course, public libraries. In addition to testing tap water quality, these brilliant students have also shown Jackson Public School students how to test their water. To date, over 500 tap water samples have been tested for dissolved oxygen, pH, and turbidity and we have provided each participating resident with a detailed copy of their results.

A Piney Woods High School student in the heart of a testing and demonstration tap water quality lecture given  to Jackson, Mississippi students. 

Finally, at Community Noise Lab, we have also developed From the Ground to the Glass, an activity book for children and adults. This activity book walks readers through the life course of water, from its source to their cup, whether you have a private well or use a public water supply. It also provides information on what is in your water, the water treatment process, the health impacts of poor water quality, strategies for obtaining clean water, and fun activities to get readers to interact with their community. They also come with your choice of markers, crayons, or colored pencils!  These books are freely available at our tap water testing events and will be delivered to all public libraries in Greater Jackson. If you email me, I'll send you a copy. 

From the Ground to the Glass,  Community Noise Lab's tap water quality activity book for children and adults

While not perfect or even complete solutions to the complex issues on the ground in Jackson, I believe our work is a  powerful step in the right direction. We now have a better understanding of how poor water quality burdens all Jackson residents, especially the most vulnerable, its children. The upcoming generation of children and young adults in Jackson are leading the way, equipped with the skills, resources, and righteous anger needed to advocate not only for themselves but also for their entire community.

Post Script: These high school students are also focusing on other environmental pollutants in Jackson, Mississippi, like air and noise pollution. However, that is another story for another day. Stay tuned. They are just getting started!

High school students also measuring air and noise pollution around Jackson, Mississippi

Additional Links

Data from our study

Jackson is Boiling: A data visualization by the Senseable City Lab at MIT

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