Ever hear of a societal problem, shake your head, and then say, "Man, something must be done about that," only to get lost binge-watching some TV show on Netflix? The first part happens to 49-year-old Monica Lewis-Patrick, but unlike the rest of us, not the second part.
Lewis-Patrick was born into a family that believes deeply in service. She grew up in Kingsport, Tenn., but spent a lot of time visiting the Detroit area in her youth, where her grandparents had moved in 1952. Her mother was a nurse, a combat veteran, a union organizer, and simply a "one-woman social service entity; in our community she was the big mama. As a young kid I remember her taking me to organizing meetings around issues for mothers living in low-income housing," she says.
In 1994, Lewis-Patrick and her family (including husband Sherman Patrick) started a nonprofit that provided school supplies to needy children. It was named Grandslam, in part because her grandfather is Willie Horton's brother. It grew from a small fundraising event to a large organization that dispersed tens of thousands of dollars to low-income youth each year.
After being downsized, Lewis-Patrick moved to Detroit in 2009. The more she became involved in the city, the more she enjoyed learning about the history of labor in Detroit and the city's great resilience.
Lewis-Patrick, a deeply proud grandmother who has lost a son to gun violence, is so motivated to help others that should you praise her work, she'll likely relay a list of a dozen other community organizers who deserve praise too. When Dave Bing was elected mayor, she and a group of women came together under the issue of control of the schools and the corporate sponsorship behind his candidacy.
"Then we organized against the charter," she says. "And then we took on organizing against the emergency managers. And shortly after that, I was working on a labor project with Pro Literacy Detroit. Via Councilmember JoAnn Watson, I found there was an opportunity to use HUD funding to get folks into training and employment in a systematic and supportive way, so I wanted to help that happen." Watson offered Lewis-Patrick a position on her staff, where she worked from 2010 until 20013. She then ran for city council, but lost.
Today, she fights for the rights of Detroiters to have access to water, even if they cannot afford to pay their bills. With the organization We the People of Detroit, she's firing on all cylinders. Among other things, We the People manages a water rights hotline so people can get emergency assistance, and oversees four water stations that will even deliver water directly to those in need if they cannot make it to a station.
"I spoke in front of the U.N. in September, another tremendous honor," she says.
And are there more political plans in her future?
"I really like being a free black woman if there's such a thing in America, without someone else's time clock or agenda," Lewis-Patrick says.