Detroit Water Stories Project draws on different Communication skills, training, and research areas to highlight the impact of mass water shutoffs in the city

Two Professors from the Department of Communication are working on a project that takes a look at a systemic issue that has affected thousands of Detroiters since 2014. Dr. Rahul Mitra and Professor Kelly Donnellan are working together on a trans-media project called Detroit Water Stories. The purpose is to highlight the Detroit mass water shutoffs, and how it has affected thousands of residents in the city, by gathering oral histories from stakeholders and creating online webisodes that address the crisis.

Dr. Rahul Mitra, Professor Kelly Donnellan, PhD Candidate Kelsey Mesmer and MA alumnus Jacinda Gant take a selfie after spending the day at the Michigan Science Center
Dr. Rahul Mitra, Professor Kelly Donnellan, PhD Candidate Kelsey Mesmer and MA alumnus Jacinda Gant after spending the day at the Michigan Science Center.

What initially started as a collaborative research project in Fall 2017, soon turned into a catalyst for the Detroit Water Stories project. Through a group research study about the mass water shutoffs, conducted as part of a graduate seminar (COM 7235: Ethnographic Research Methods) Mitra was inspired to team up with community organizers to start this endeavor.

"We realized very quickly through our interviews that there was a bunch of misinformation about who was impacted, what was the social, environmental, and health impact of it," Mitra said.

The following semester, Mitra reached out to Donnellan, and they both came up with a multi-media project that would come to be the Detroit Water Stories project. Donnellan says that she was aware of the water shutoffs, but didn't know how systemic the problem was in Detroit and other cities.

"I really wanted to be a part of the project and to help make a difference, and to enlighten and make a positive change in people's lives," said Donnellan.

According to Mitra, the feedback of the project has been largely positive. He noted that the goals and process of the project have changed and evolved over time, thanks to the help of their community partners. One significant example of this change is realizing how the project could help proactively stop the flow of a harmful narrative, rather than just examine the situation.

"We could play a part in amplifying the voices and concerns in grassroot organizers," said Mitra.

Dr. Mitra giving a talk at a forum
Dr. Rahul Mitra giving a talk at the 2019 Sustainable Detroit Forum about the need to ensure water affordability (and the role of the DWS project).

He goes onto say that amplifying grassroots voices be heard can create a narrative disruption, which would put an end to the misinformation about the massive water shutoffs, and the reasons justifying it.

"Water should be affordable, you shouldn't be priced out of the ability to have running water in your home," Donnellan said.

Both Professors noted that since this is a trans-media and interdisciplinary project there does exist a difference in approach to completing certain tasks for the project, notably interviews.

Having worked on ethnographic research, Mitra says that he is no stranger to performing interviews. However, he has never video recorded them.

"There were specific dynamics involved in doing a video interview that I still want it to be sufficiently personal and intimate," he said.

He added that, for most projects, there is not much time for getting to know the interviewee beforehand. For Detroit Water Stories, however, he tries to build a relationship over time with the people that he speaks with. This grants him the ability to conduct a more engaging conversation when the time comes for the actual interview.

As a documentary filmmaker, Donnellan is familiar with media projects and giving interviews in this medium. She says having pre-interviews with people often helped with building a great rapport between her and the guests. She mentions that while looking at transcripts, she is thinking of visuals or archival footage to match with the interview content.

 Professor Kelly Donnellan filming for the DWS project at the Detroit quarterfinals of the 2019 Erie Hack Challenge
Professor Kelly Donnellan filming for the DWS project at the Detroit quarterfinals of the 2019 Erie Hack Challenge.

Both Professors are still hard at work on the project, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. They find time to conduct online interviews, when they are not teaching, attending zoom meetings, and tending to their other research and creative work.

They both hope that the Detroit Water Stories will create a broader discussion about the problem of water affordability and water insecurity in Michigan. Mitra says that he wants this project to be the first step in an ongoing conversation and future projects that address access to and sufficient investment in water infrastructure.

"We don't want to cut and run. We want to make sure that we remain engaged with our partners, and can help when we can," he said.

Donnellan wants the project to change how the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department handles its protocols overall.

"My greatest hope would be that the water shutoffs will be suspended completely," she said.

In addition, she would like the city to adopt a progressive, income-based water affordability plan. Donnellan is also looking forward to completing the webisodes in a way that is compelling to viewers.

For more information on the Detroit Water Stories, visit their official website, YouTube page, and on Twitter at #DetroitWaterStories.

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