The Jackson, Mississippi, water crisis captured national headlines in 2022.
But as local families know too well, Jackson’s crisis has a decades-long history. And when Bishop Dr. Dwayne K. Pickett Sr. decided to plant his roots in Jackson – a city his family has called home for generations – he knew that the crisis was impossible to ignore.
History of the Jackson water crisis
Low water pressure and water plant failures left residents, businesses and schools unable to flush toilets or have running water on several occasions. Even if they had running water, it came out contaminated, brown and unusable.
“There’s always been a water issue here in some shape, form or fashion. And until last year, whenever it first hit, they already knew that it was going to happen because the infrastructure is crumbling, and so nobody really trusts the water,” Dr. Pickett said.
Years of failure to invest in city infrastructure left the local water plant vulnerable to natural disasters. In 2015, the Jackson mayor declared a state of emergency due to water main breaks flooding roads. However, the City Council denied the funding needed to fix the water mains. In 2021, a winter storm hit Jackson, leading to frozen pipes and equipment and over 80 water main breaks.
“During the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, Jackson was being talked about, but nobody was really listening. This is a devastating issue,” Dr. Pickett said. “I can’t even describe how tough it is because it’s actually a highly educated city. There are seven colleges in and around Jackson and people actually go, but with the water crisis, Jackson is as if we’re a mission project.”
Due to the freeze, residents went weeks without water and resorted to using bottled water to bathe, flush toilets, wash dishes and clean.
“I haven’t drank water out of the faucet in Jackson in 20 years,” Dr. Pickett said. “I don’t know a single person who drinks tap water in Jackson.”
“Not having water has impacted every business, church and school. The schools have [had] to go virtual because water is not running in the schools. When you start talking about starting a business, some of it is certainly the water, but it’s mostly the frustration of not knowing what’s next, because there’s no quick fix.”
It’s not a matter of if Jackson will continue to face water plant failures but when. Repairs on the plant and water system are estimated to cost billions of dollars. The funding is mired in political conflict, and it’s unclear for residents where the money will come from.
“The frustration comes from more than just the water crisis. It’s just like: ‘How do I make it from here?’ How do they keep pressuring these people to put their life savings into starting businesses when they can’t open?”
“To think that in one of the richest nations in the world, we don’t have clean drinking water for people. The water is not running in their homes, they can’t flush their toilets. That’s devastating. Once you take a city’s water, you don’t have anything left.”
Becoming part of the Mississippi water crisis solution
Dr. Pickett decided it was up to him and his team to hand out water to meet residents’ needs in the crisis.
“I just heard the pain and sort of understood the pain of people and just said to myself, ‘We’ve got to hand it out. We’ve got to be a part of the solution.”
And they have. Dr. Pickett and his church have coordinated and handed out over 249,000 bottles of water. Despite future uncertainty, they’re still dedicated to being a resource and showing up for the residents of Jackson day after day.
Leading through burnout
Nonprofit and faith leaders face many obstacles that can be exacerbated in times of crisis or when creating crisis response plans. Dr. Pickett felt this exhaustion firsthand when working to provide water to Jackson residents and considered giving up.
“It took such a toll on me. I was tapped out because I was using all my money, and my assistant was using all his money. We were putting gas in the truck. My trailer got wrecked and totaled out, which was hard because we were having to go pick up water from other cities. I was just at my water limit, me and my team. I decided I wasn’t going to do it anymore.”
“And one of the ladies from the Poor People’s Campaign confronted me. ‘What do you mean you’re not giving out water?’ As a leader in the community, what was I talking about? ‘You gotta give out this water!’ So the team went back at it, delivering water every day,” Dr. Pickett said.
And as leaders work through the weariness, it’s important to remember to keep good people around who can help lighten the load, remind them of their purpose and provide encouragement through burnout.