Maisie Brown, 21, Is Becoming the Face and Voice of the Jackson Water Crisis
Activism often means going big—organizing a march for justice or starting a social media campaign—but for Maisie Brown, activism starts locally. In response to the ongoing Mississippi water crisis, the 21-year-old sophomore and political science major at Jackson State University, one of the largest HBCUs, is leading the effort to deliver drinking water to residents who can’t make it to the city’s distribution centers.
The grassroots activist is dedicated to community-driven social change focusing on local issues requiring a local solution. Earlier this month Brown distributed 250 LifeStraw Home water-filtering pitchers to households across west and south Jackson. “These 10-cup water filters can filter out lead, bacteria, parasites, silt, etc.,” read the comment on a recent Instagram post that showed her standing next to a stack of shipment boxes. “We could NOT stop at water cases and knew folks needed a more sustainable solution because these boil-water notices aren’t going anywhere.”
Confident and humble at the same time, Brown may seem to present a bit of a contradiction, but her confident humility is a way that leads everyone to win. “I don’t know how else to put it. It just feels racist—I don’t know how else to sugarcoat it. If Jackson was a majority-white city or had a largely white population, we wouldn’t be facing this water crisis,” Brown said in an interview with Morning Joe.
Her upbringing not only shaped her thoughts about racial inequities but became the breeding ground for the activist she is today. Born in Natchez, Mississippi, before moving to Jackson with her family around the age of five in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Brown has always been a Jackson Public School student. In her district, 95% of students are Black and 73.8% are economically disadvantaged, with 73.8% of students eligible to participate in the federal free and reduced-price meal programs. Brown recognizes that she and her peers were not given the same opportunity or resources as most.
But keeping the people she’s helping at the forefront of her mind, Brown says, “I often feel like people try to hop in front of too many issues without recognizing when it's their time to step back or stop taking up as much space. And I think my ability to be conscious of where I’m supposed to be and where I should either elevate the voice of someone else or step back from it allows me to be different in my activism.”
Brown, mother to a one-year-old daughter, D’Mari, is a testament to the power of local leaders—and the importance of supporting them both early and long-term. “We stan an activist who’s active,” read a pinned comment by a peer on her post. The emerging voice, when asked to identify her long-term goal, said, “I want to be in a position or run for something eventually. But I always say that when I get to a point where I can’t interact on the ground with the people I'm impacting—then I’ve gotten too far—I don’t want to do it anymore.”
Glamour: You talked about shame in your application, which resonated with me as it played a pivotal role in my college journey. You became pregnant with your daughter upon graduating from high school. Talk about that journey of overcoming shame.
Maisie Brown: I think a lot of times when people talk about having children early or getting pregnant young, there’s this idea that your life has come to a hard stop. You can’t do what you want to do anymore. All you have to do is focus on getting a job and making money to take care of them. And not to say I’m all for teen pregnancy, but we have to change the narrative. The world is not over. Your world is not over—I’ve had the most success recently, on the other side, than ever before. And a large part of that is due to a strong support system, a good foundation, a great mom, a great boyfriend, and his family. So that plays a part in still being able to go out and chase those dreams. And I recognize that in itself comes from a place of privilege—not having to drop school or drop everything and go to work. And that’s the only way I’ve been able to sustain myself. There were a lot of naysayers in the beginning, saying, “It’s over for her.” But a lot of girls also reached out and said that I showed them that regardless of what they go through or what happens, it doesn’t mean that they are not worthy of pursuing their dreams.
What’s one thing you wish more people knew about Jackson State or other HBCUs?
I think many people now, especially with Coach Prime [Deion Sanders], are assuming that the energy around Jackson State is something new. No. Even when the football team was losing terribly for seasons at a time. There’s a very different energy for the Jackson State community. They didn’t even have to graduate. They could’ve just gone there for a little while. People take a lot of pride, so the attention Jackson State has been getting has been way overdue.
We have great professors in our political science department, students pursuing their PhDs, and increasing the diversity needed in that field. We are the top producer of Black meteorologists in the country. We produce a large percentage of Black doctors here in Mississippi and across the country. So we have a lot to offer outside of athletics.
And I think that many times people have this idea like, Oh, HBCUs aren’t a true reflection of the world that we live in. You get comfortable around people who look like you and think like you. That’s not like the real world. And that’s the entire point. We must go out in this very washed-out and white rural world. We need to have these safe spaces and enjoy the camaraderie of being around people who look and think like this because of the situation on the other side of graduation.
Talk to me about the dichotomy between being a mother and an activist and organizer.
I was reading Faces at the Bottom of the Well by Derrick Bell, a very controversial book. In the book’s preface, French West Indian political philosopher Frantz Fanon is quoted as saying that racism is so ingrained in the foundation of modern society that the society we’re fighting for won’t be the one we live in. Not everybody likes what Bell is trying to insinuate about our work, but the author is saying that this doesn’t mean the work we’re doing now is in vain. We’re creating a model for future societies to live in. And so I think as a mother, I’m very interested to see what her world would look like when she’s 20 years old, or when she’s 40, 50, or 60. I think that the activism and organizing work I do now keeps me going because I’m just helping to create the model for the world that she will have to live in and lead in. And so I think that, as an organizer, I recognize where our society is and how much work must be done. I may not be working for now, but I’m working for the future.
It’s said that education happens almost everywhere except the classroom—that it’s all around us. What have been your modes of education?
I was exposed to many transformative works of literature in high school. There’s a town about 15 minutes outside of Jackson called Madison. And Madison County is a predominantly white affluent suburb of Jackson. They had a list of banned books or books that you had to get special permission from your parents to check out from the library. And a lot of those books, I was like, Hmm—we read that in class; that was a part of our required reading. We read Beloved and Song of Solomon, and Their Eyes Were Watching God—so many books that transformed my way of thinking.
What’s the last book you read?
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. She talks about the men she’s lost in her life, and even though they were completely independent, they were all connected at the same time. And I just read Sarah Jakes Roberts’s book Woman Evolve. But I’m trying to get better at reading more fiction instead of intense nonfiction all the time.
What do you feel has guided your activism?
The most impactful person to me from the Civil Rights Movement is Fannie Lou Hamer. Many people do not know who Fannie Lou Hamer is outside of the quote “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” But what she embodies is that. So much of the activism or organizing world is so focused on who went to the most prestigious college, has the fanciest degree, and has the most notable endorsements. But what Fannie teaches us is that you don’t have to be classically or traditionally educated to be able to conceptualize ideas and help change the world.
With so many campaigns and hashtags and GoFundMe pages constantly shouting for your attention on social media, it can be hard not to feel pressured toward a cause, and harder still to know what you actually feel called to do. Your advocacy has hit topics including the removal of the Confederate flag, reproductive issues, restrictive voter laws, the Mississippi water crisis, and educational equity. Is there a specific cause you feel more tied to than the others?
It’s crazy my focus has recently shifted to environmental justice. I’m used to the boil-water notices, but recently it’s been blowing my mind even though this is something we’ve become accustomed to. So when we think about racism, a lot of time you think about Confederate flags, and a lot of time you think about police brutality. And I think the reason those resonate with people so much is because they can see it. There were clips of George Floyd going, and Philando Castile. But environmental racism and environmental inequities are silent killers.
Sometimes it doesn’t hit hard, and it’s hard for us to conceptualize precisely how it’s racist and just about the long-term effects. So the water issue here in Jackson has opened my eyes to the fact that there will be a lot of other urban communities facing this problem in the coming years. What’s happening in Jackson is a mirror to many places across the country that haven’t made maintaining infrastructure or their water systems a priority. So environmental justice has been filling my brain lately.
What would you name this chapter of your life, and what chapter do you hope to come next?
I’m going to call this chapter “Butterfly” because I finally feel like I’m becoming the person I am supposed to be or want to be. Spreading my wings and honestly doing what I want to do unapologetically—I don’t feel confined to any boxes or limitations right now. I’m on my own time, on my own vibes.
I want to call the next chapter of my life “Foundation” because I want to be in my own space, in my own home, and branch out into creating my own family, my processes, and my structure. And I want to start with a really solid foundation.