Elnora Gavin is a lifelong Benton Harbor resident and currently works as the West Michigan organizer with We the People Michigan. In this interview, she talks about her love for Benton Harbor, the challenges facing ordinary people there, and how they’re fighting to address everything from school closures to a disastrous human-made water crisis, and ultimately create a Benton Harbor where everyone flourishes. Eli Day, a Detroit-based writer and We the People Michigan communications director, interviewed Gavin for Convergence.
Eli Day: Can you say a little about Benton Harbor and what Benton Harbor means to you?
Elnora Gavin: Well, of course, you know, Benton Harbor is in Southwest Michigan and it’s my home. I was born and raised here. And it’s a bit of a struggle. There’s negative portraits and statistics connected to Benton Harbor—high poverty rate, high crime rate. And, you know, we’ve lost a lot of our institutions that connected us. We used to have a neighborhood school in every neighborhood, and we’re down to about six schools now. But there’s also a high demographic of Black folks here, which is amazing. We’re more than 83% Black. The culture is rich. We have a lot of pride. But we’re fighting for our lives. That’s, that’s how I describe it.
ED: You’re deeply involved in so many corners of local activism and organizing. So I’m wondering what you get to see that somebody who’s just scanning those statistics or just drives through Benton Harbor on the way to St. Joseph or something doesn’t get to see.
EG: Yeah, so you mentioned our counterpart, St. Joe. They call us Twin Cities, but we kind of like step kids. We’re over 80% Black and St. Joe’s 80-something percent white. But their household income is three times ours. So there’s a stark racial and economic divide.
But what’s missing in the story is how resilient our people are. It’s kind of weird, I keep likening it to a horror movie. Because when you’re in a horror movie, sometimes everybody around you seems to think everything’s okay. But you’ve seen the monster.
And then all of a sudden, one crisis pops up after the other, and people start to realize what’s happening. And you have to decide whether to help yourself, or whether to help your neighbor. And what I’ve seen in Benton Harbor is that we are doing both. We are going through a struggle, it’s a very public struggle, but we’ve been fighting for each other. We are seeing people, you know, figure out really creative ways to fight for one another, whether it’s delivering food to each other. Whether it’s standing together to fight when we were about to lose our only high school in 2019. And we’ve created really beautiful ways to embed music and art in our fight, and really creative ways to force government officials to listen to us to understand that we are human beings who are going through this. It’s amazing to see.
ED: Can you talk a little more about the challenges facing ordinary people in Benton Harbor?
Like I said, Governor Whitmer tried to shut down the high school till we fought against that, and made our voices known through music, through petitions, through sharing our stories. Folks from all over the state and the country came to support. We used to have a school in every neighborhood and our school system was one of our top employers. Most of our schools have been shut down due to budget cuts and politics and we are fighting to keep open the six remaining schools that we have left.
Communities like ours have not only been grossly neglected but targeted for gentrification. Our people and institutions have been targeted in efforts to recapture full control of the land. When top officials go along with flashy plans to gentrify the community, they inadvertently give the green light to cut resources, cut jobs, outsource opportunities and leave the residents to fend for themselves in survival mode.
And, you know, we’re in the middle of a water crisis and we’re still overcoming health issues, skin rashes and tooth decay in our children and families that could likely relate to the lead, stress or both.
But, you know, our City Commission listens to the corporations who make millions for this. And their initial proposal was a 20-year fix. And we had a grassroots organizer, Reverend Pinkney, who started the Benton Harbor Water Council, and they raised the alarm, they got other organizations involved, and they submitted a petition to the state.
Reverend Pinkney is an important figure in Benton Harbor’s and Michigan’s civil rights history. He’s been fighting for poor and working people his entire career, and has been a consistent target of state surveillance, repression, and imprisonment. He was locked up on phony charges back in 2014 for the crime of standing up to the Whirlpool Corporation and government corruption. They stole two years of his life before the Michigan Supreme Court overturned the conviction. But he’s still a ferocious champion for our people.
So under his leadership, the Water Council submitted the petition and the state listened finally, and now we have over 67% of our lead pipes replaced, and we’re on track to get that done in less than 18 months. And it is because the community set their personal differences aside and fought. Because the people here put boots on the ground and cared enough to say, “Hey, we’re being neglected, our people are being neglected, and you will listen.” So, the crisis is troubling, but to also see folks come together and fight for each other, and force corporations and government officials to listen is amazing to watch.
ED: Is there anything else you’ve observed about people’s ability to come together to address problems?
EG: When a crisis hits and the solution is clear, we are resilient people who will fight for each other even when we are at odds. I’ll give you another example. When threats came that a militia was planning to come to Benton Harbor to intimidate voters on Election Day, we recognized that asking for police protection would deter voters with nonviolent warrants hanging in the balance of our backed-up court system. So the community called for an Election Day of Grace so that we could both protect the polls and the voters without intimidation from the militia or the police. It turned out to be a beautiful day.
And one more thing on the water crisis—on top of all that, the city attempted to criminally punish residents who did not opt in to lead replacement services within a deadline that few residents were even aware of. We hosted town hall meetings and actions to call for our elected officials to increase awareness and remove the jail penalty. Together, we achieved an amendment to remove the jail penalty from the Lead Law Ordinance.
ED: You mentioned the importance of local institutions. That’s deeply connected to who sits in positions of power at the local and state level, and how responsive they are to the will of people in these communities. Can you say a little bit about the importance of who’s in those positions, and also, staying vigilant and watchful of who’s in those positions when they get elected?
EG: I would say that the design of the country is to serve white men with land and power. And we haven’t moved too far from that structure. And so when you look at a community such as ours with a highly vulnerable population, we’re going to always get the bare minimum of resources in that equation.
And so if we are not putting things in place to protect ourselves, and hold our government officials and corporations accountable, then everyone is going to do what they’ve been conditioned to do, which is neglect us. I think what happens is that a lot of times we don’t get activated until the crisis is obvious. But by the time the crisis is obvious, so much damage has been done, which is why we have to be organized. And be proactively putting things in place to make sure that we are considered all along the way, as opposed to after the crisis has already emerged publicly.
And just like in high school, we’re conditioned to vote for the popular, charismatic person who everybody likes, even if they’ve been cruel to others. But when you’re talking about somebody who’s creating policies that impact your everyday lives, we can’t afford to be fans of candidates. We have to be wise voters. And we have to pick folks who have a heart for what we’re going through and who have proven that they care and have the courage to stand up to these oppressive systems. We need to choose empathetic leaders versus narcissistic leaders, which is what we’ve been used to.
ED: And then there’s emergency management, which basically takes a sledgehammer to local democracy. How would you describe that experience? And what do you see as the other path? Not just on emergency management, but for getting ordinary people involved in decision making?
EG: To even be in a position in which we would get an emergency manager, it is because we believe the lie that Black folks couldn’t govern themselves. And what we ended up doing is putting the folks in charge who planned our demise.
When you look at government, you have these city commissioners who meet maybe a couple times a month. And then you’re hoping that you get on their agenda, hoping that they address your issue. And by the time your issue is addressed, you’re in major crisis mode. We need to have something in place so that our issues are addressed on a daily basis.
Racism has already been documented as the number one health crisis in a community such as ours. And so we need to have racial equity officers in place, who will, 1) review policies that are already in place, and make recommendations for change that include community input in those policies, and 2) create a timeline for executing immediate action and change that centers blackness.
ED: Can you say a little bit about the organizing y’all are doing to make that a reality?
EG: So one, we’re creating awareness so folks know the power we have to demand racial equity from all who serve them. We’ve surveyed folks and created a Fresh Start Revitalization Plan for the community that centers equity. And right now, we have a few commissioners who are pushing it. We’ve also helped inspire a few commissioners who are pushing for a reparations resolution that would demand the City Commission to establish a budget for racial equity office in the city. We’ll have three but we need six.
ED: And how do elections factor into that? Is there a possibility that that majority could be created?
EG: Absolutely. There are five seats up next year. Which is pretty exciting. And so it’s important to have those champions who prioritize racial equity in those spots, not only in the city, but also in the school system, where three seats are up. Because when they’re in those seats, and they prioritize racial equity, then you can get things done way faster.
And we have some folks in mind. We’re letting city commissioners know, your seats are about to be up so this needs to be a priority.
ED: And lastly, what would the future of BH look like ideally?
EG: Oh, my goodness. That is a safe haven for Black folks. And when you have a safe haven for Black folks, that means a safe haven for everybody. You take care of what they statistically consider to be the least of these, then everybody can come through. And that’s exciting because our people are so creative. They have so many great ideas that need to be funded. And so you’re talking about fully funded creative solutions.
Just with the school system alone, as one example. You can literally re-create your community when your school systems are thriving. You’re talking about creating hundreds of well-paid jobs for folks. How many hours are kids in school? How many years are kids in school? So if the school is not working, you’re talking about 12 years wasted, as opposed to if the school has programs that actually meet the needs of our children. And they’re amazing now, but they’re fighting for their lives. Imagine if they’re in creation mode instead of survival mode. Imagine a beautiful city where the system is working for the people as opposed to working against them.
Our biggest problem is neglect, gross neglect. It’s almost like you’re starving somebody. What happens when you start feeding them? Completely different experience.