The many faces of safe water marginalization

We have seen many different views on marginalization in our readings this semester and we have discussed the topic extensively in class.  One thing stands out to me from these readings and discussions.  That thing is power!  The marginalized lack the power and the dominant have it.  Without power, one lacks voice.  One lacks influence.  One lacks basic security of their person.  Further damage to the powerless is that the marginalized story may never be told or if it is told it will be spun in favor of the dominant forces in society.  Why then is it so important for the marginalized story be told?

To this questions, we have answered three basic things.  First was the idea that local marginalized knowledge can be valuable knowledge.  It can help us do better science, as shown in Wynne’s study of Cumbrian sheep farmers.  Next, bringing voice to the marginalized promotes democratic ideals.  The dominant groups with power get their voices heard.  If we are really dedicated to democracy, should not all voices be heard?  As Bohman suggests, deliberative democracy must be sought after.  It does not spontaneously generate.  Third, the voices of the marginalized can also be beneficial to other groups and to society at large.  This idea was put forth in our readings last week by Wehling, Viehover and Koenen.

So, we have three strong reason to seek out the marginalized voice, but there is still the question of where to find this voice.  This week we read the work of Sandra Harding, who puts a new dimension on what it means to be marginalized.  Harding reminds us that marginalization and lack of power is not necessarily associate with being economically disadvantaged.  Harding takes the question of marginalization to the epistemological level.  As Fricker pointed out the epistemic injustice of sexism, Harding expands the epistemic injustice to include other powerless positions that are marginalized, such as race, gender, ethnic background, religion, age and community.   The idea of marginalized community is especially pertinent to the Flint and Washington DC cases of lead poisoning.

If we look at Flint, we see what I will call a classic marginalization of a disadvantaged community.  The marginalization is occurring on political (governor take-over), economic (poor and budget crisis), racial (minority) and health (lead poisoning) levels.  But, in the case of Washington DC, the marginalization is taking place on different levels.  The worst community hit in Washington DC was not poor, lacking political savvy, or a high minority concentration.   The community had power in all those community aspects.  Where the community lacked power was in the management of safe drinking water.  The community also lacked a knowledge of water quality.  Unlike Flint where many knew the water was bad due to the taste and smell (not to mention the rashes), the water in Washington DC appeared safe and unchanged.  To me, this really shows the different faces of marginalization and lack of power.  You would not think of this community as being marginalized, but it was.  It had little power over the water coming from the pipes and permanent brain damage to your children qualifies as marginalization, despite the community wealth.  I conclude that if you rely upon any municipal water source in the US, you are a marginalized community.  It is not a question of whether you are being lead poisoned, but how much?

Charles Dickens told the story of the poor and powerless in London.  He spoke for the poor with emotionally captivating fictional individuals such as Tiny Tim in the Christmas Carol.  Similarly, Karl Marx spoke for the poor of the same historical period telling the story of the poor and powerless with his material historical analysis.  Marx give voice to the proletariat.   Who then will speak for the powerless and marginalized concerning safe drinking water?  It is a story of the poor and the rich.  It is a story of communities without power and communities with power.  It’s everyone!  There are many faces to clean water marginalization, but they all have one thing in common.   All believe that the water in their glass is safe.  Are we powerless to confirm this?  And if lead is present are we powerless to do anything about it?  Lead knows not who it poisons, it just poisons.  Welcome to the marginalized world everyone.


Bohman, J. (1996). Public deliberation: pluralism, complexity, and democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fricker, Miranda, Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

“Harding, S. 2005. Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is “Strong Objectivity”? In A. E. Cudd and R. O. Andreasen, eds., Feminist Theory: A Philosophical Anthology, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Wehling, P., Viehöver, W., & Koenen, S. (2015). The public shaping of medical research: patient associations, health movements and biomedicine. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Wynne, B. (n.d.). May the Sheep Safely Graze? A Reflexive View of the Expert–Lay Knowledge Divide. Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology,44-83.




Why do we trust the local government?

As we just celebrated the Fourth of July and the big group hug that all Americans take, we have an opportunity to ask why Americans trust the government?  Some might argue that we do not trust the government that much.  If we are talking about the Federal government, the case is true. Gallop polls  show that from the early 1970’s to 2016 the trust Americans had in the federal government went down from 70% to 44%.  We dropped below the 50% trust point in 2006.  That is quite a drop in those decades.  Interesting to note is the fact that faith in the media has dropped even worst during this timeframe from 68% to 32%.  Surprisingly, American’s trust is local government went up from 63% to 71% in this same period.  How do we account for this?

Just this past week I received my quarterly water bill from the Fairfax Water, which is the non-profit public utility that supplies water to northern Virginia and over two million people.  With the bill was their summer newsletter, “Straight from the tap.” Right away the newsletter evoke “straight talk”, which is a virtue most Americans find appealing.  In the newsletter there is a warning about scammers targeting customer.  Clearly, Fairfax Water looks out for their customers.  There are announcements of the major water projects under way.  Clearly, Fairfax water is investing in the community infrastructure.  There is a Kid’s coloring contest with back to school prizes.  Clearly Fairfax water cares about the kids.  There is a advertisement to go paperless for our bill and water saving tips.  Clearly, Fairfax Water is looking out for the environment.   Looking at this newsletter, why wouldn’t I trust the local government?  The newsletter suggests that they really care.

BUT, there is a notice of the release of the annual water quality report.  It’s the report that federal law says they have to create, but they are not sending copies and Fairfax Water has not burdened any of the customers with a summary of the finding.  If you want to know the results you must actively seek a copy via mail or find it on the web.  Seek the report I did and the URL can be found at the bottom of this post.  The good news is that our water quality is excellent according to the general manager and his dedicated team of scientists, operators, engineers, and field technicians.  To their credit, lead in water is specifically addressed on three of the 28 pages.  The good news is that the Fairfax Water system contains no lead pipes and is below the Lead and Copper pipe trigger of 15 ppb.  The bad news (if you continue reading the small print on the slide) is that your house may have a lead connector pipe.  Concerned water users should flush pipes for 30 seconds and consider using filters.  Everything sounds like it is under control.

The people of Washington, D.C. and Flint, Michigan trusted that the government was doing the right thing and protecting them.  In Flint, it was reported that many residents kept using the water even as they experienced problem of taste, smell and skin reaction.  But, the authorities said the water was OK.  The mayor drank a glass of the water on TV.  Why would the government lie about the water?  Looking at the Fairfax Water newsletter, the normal populous must have an impression of an organization of experts dedicated to safe water.  Even if the water quality report is hard to understand, why would we not trust them?

There is a warning about drinking from water hoses.  The plastic in hoses are not food grade, but there is nothing about lead pipes in the newsletter, only on the report.  How about a summary of the water quality in the newsletter, say maybe on page 1?  Would I ever know that as a homeowner I am responsible for the lead connector pipe to my house looking at this newsletter or the more detailed report?  I think not.  Trust means the hard stuff like lead, not just the easy stuff like water conservation and drinking from garden hoses.  With this newsletter I trust, with the example of Flint, I doubt all.


Fairfax Water Straight from the Tap Summer 2017