How the Water Box is fostering community trust across Flint

FLINT, Michigan—At first glance, it looks like a blue box on wheels with a few buttons and a hose, but it's breaking barriers in communities hit deepest by the water crisis. It’s called the Water Box, a portable filtration system you’ll find in three Flint locations, with the fourth finding its home on the city’s east side at the Latinx Technology and Community Center.


Residents in this largely Latinx community are welcoming the Water Box with open arms as it removes the possibility of being turned away in distribution lines due to lack of identification and language barriers.


“I’m really excited about the residents having an option to standing in line for three hours to get bottled water,” said east-side resident and board member Mary Vizcarra at the town hall on Nov. 25. “For the Hispanic community, I’m also happy that those that don’t have identification will be able to go somewhere—a safe trusted place—and get water."


A Community Introduction


The Latinx Tech Center will join First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village, and Metropolitan Tabernacle Baptist Church to adopt the filtration technology developed by celebrity Jaden Smith's environment nonprofit 501cThree.

The fourth Water Box had its first formal introduction during an evening community town hall A resident listens to a live audio translation of a presentation of the Water Box at a community town hall at the Latinx Community and Technology Center on Monday, Nov. 25.Nov. 25 at the Latinx Tech Center, an organization that fosters bilingualism through cross-cultural community programming.


Residents were encouraged to ask questions of the panel featuring Jaron Rothkop, head engineer of 501cThree, and the Rev. Ezra and First Lady Catrina Tillman of First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church.


It was imperative to reach vulnerable communities, especially those uninformed about best water practices due to linguistic barriers, said Lady Tillman. First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, a long-standing site of bottled water giveaways, has hosted The Water Box since March 2019 through their year-long partnership with Smith and 501cThree.


“In the beginning, you had to show an ID in order to get bottles of water,” said Tillman. “And that was just something we didn’t believe in. We didn’t think that people had to show an ID to get water especially regardless of your race, ethnicity, background…an animal needs water. We all need water.”


To date, First Trinity’s Water Box has replaced almost 112,000 single-use 16-ounce plastic water bottles, serving as an example of how putting water in the hands of the community is a necessary step forward. With the provided refillable 5-gallon jugs from 501cThree, residents have an alternative to growing plastic waste.


Testing from the Outside In


The Water Box itself functions under a rigorous schedule of preemptive filtration and testing, said Rothkop. Equipped with a 5-micron filter, a 1-micron filter, carbon filter, and ultraviolet filter, the Water Box is designed to remove everything from lead and other heavy metals to sediments and bacteria at a rate of 10 gallons per minute.


“We are testing for lead, every day that the box is used,” said Rothkop. “And then once a week, we’re taking samples and sending them out to a lab far away from Flint, closer to Detroit.” This lab would then test for bacteria and other contaminants harder to detect in the daily testing. Test results for each organization are posted to the 501cThree website for public review.

The testing and overall program of the Water Box is designed to be transparent and cost neutral to the hosting community, said Rothkop.


“We’re providing the bottles, the price of the water, and all the maintenance and replacement of these filters for an entire year,” said Rothkop, but ultimately the Water Box belongs to the community from testing, to distribution scheduling, to volunteers.


Moving Forward


The final showcase of the fourth Water Box took place Monday, Dec. 2 at the Latinx Tech Center with celebrity appearances from Jaden Smith along with his fellow 501cThree co-founder, Drew FitzGerald.

Celebrity Jaden Smith answers resident questions beside his co-founder of 501cThree Drew FitzGerald during a public showing of the Water Box on Monday, Dec. 2.

“Essentially the water that is coming outside of the community doesn’t belong to us because it’s not here. So we wanted to give it to the community,” said Smith, celebrity and founder of 501cThree. “So we know that if the water bottle donations continue to go down and down and down, we know that we have four filtration systems in the community that people can go to to access clean water.”


Asa Zuccaro, executive director of the Latinx Tech Center, intends for the Water Box to be a continuation of the organization’s core mission to bridge bilingual and cultural barriers for communities in Flint and across Genesee County.


“We are excited today because we get to present and unveil an amazing tool that our community will be able to utilize as we address a public health crisis,” said Zuccaro.


Forms were passed around during the event inviting attending residents and others to volunteer for the Center’s distribution days set to start next week.


“I think it provides a great resource as it really helps uplift the programs and services that we do that really focus on health and nutrition,” said Zuccaro. “So to be able to add the Water Box as one of those tools that we use to make an impact is definitely a powerful one.”

For more information or to volunteer with the Latinx Tech Center's water distribution, contact Health and Resource Coordinator Mildred Zuccaro at [email protected].

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Read more articles by Xandr Brown.