If you don’t think scrolling social media can change your life, much less help you improve the well-being of thousands of strangers, talk to Tiffani Ashley Bell. In 2014, the software engineer read an article in the Atlantic about 100,000 Detroit residents whose water had been shut off because of past-due bills. They had no running water for drinking, bathing, flushing the toilet, or washing dishes. Some people even lost custody of their children when they couldn’t supply for their basic needs.
Bell, MSM ’21, tweeted about how frustrated she felt about it, and her followers quickly expressed their desire to help. Poking around the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s website, she found a 400-page PDF with a list of customer accounts whose bills were undeliverable by mail, some of which were noted as delinquent. She plugged an account number into the website and found her way to a “make a payment” button.
“I’m a programmer by training,” she says, “so I decided to try to match those unpaid water bills with anyone who wanted to help pay them off.” She created a bare-bones website that enabled her to collect information from customers in need as well as would-be donors, then shared it on Twitter.
In about 40 days, donors paid off more than $100,000 of water bills in Detroit.
“It was one of those things where I didn’t think it would really work, but it did, thanks to people having that urge to help someone,” she says.
At first, Bell and her collaborators directed donors to the department’s website to make payments toward delinquent accounts’ bills. Her team would then send the payment confirmation to the household receiving assistance. The next year, Bell founded the nonprofit Detroit Water Project, now known as The Human Utility, which can confer tax benefits to donors, better track payments, and accept donations paid by credit card. Bell wrote the organization’s original crowdfunding software and, later, its case management software.
‘I didn’t think it would really work, but it did, thanks to people having that urge to help someone.’
Today, the three-employee organization assists people in Michigan, Maryland, and Florida, with the Philadelphia area soon to follow. As its full-time executive director, Bell manages fundraising and community partnerships while aiding case intake and management—“talking directly to the people we help,” she says. She also works with researchers and policymakers on public policy related to water affordability.
“Good water affordability policy,” Bell says, “would balance the costs for maintenance and improvement of the water system with making sure water is accessible and affordable to everyone who gets water from a public utility.
“Assistance,” she adds, “is not the same as affordability.”
Bell, who lives in Los Angeles but has often traveled to Detroit for her work, has heard many stories of the people behind the account numbers.
“I remember learning about a Detroit woman, the breadwinner for her family, who was stricken with breast cancer, and she couldn’t pay her bills after all the hospital fees,” Bell says. “This can happen to anyone.”
David Silverberg is a writer based in Toronto. Email him at email@example.com.