When Jaden Smith first decided to do something to help the residents of Flint, Michigan, who faced a municipal water supply contaminated with lead starting in 2014, he went to church.
“In a community like Flint, a lot of the trust that still remained was in the faith-based community, in the churches,” says Drew FitzGerald, who cofounded the nonprofit 501CThree with Smith with the goal of solving problems relating to water, food, shelter, and energy using smart design and engineering. The project they ultimately launched, a mobile water filtration device called the Water Box, was designed and built with the full partnership of First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, which had been fielding bottled water donations and hosting water drives for the local community since the crisis began five years ago.
The first Water Box—one of the 22 winners of Fast Company‘s Innovation by Design Awards—launched in March 2019. In the months since, the device has cleaned 8,500 gallons of water, or enough to replace more than 68,000 plastic water bottles. This month, Smith and FitzGerald installed the second Water Box at a community center in northern Flint that serves 6,000 people.
“This has been one of the most rewarding and educational experiences for me personally,” Smith tells Fast Company. “Working together with people in the community experiencing the problems and designing something to help them has been a journey I will never forget. We are planning to deploy more Water Boxes in Flint and other communities facing similar challenges.”
The duo plans to bring more Water Boxes to Flint by the end of the year, including two sponsored by Apple and Ellen DeGeneres, and to other cities in the United States starting in 2020. The initiative is separate from but ideologically related to Smith’s social venture Just Water, which he cofounded at age 12 alongside FitzGerald with the help of his parents, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. The company recently hit a $100 million valuation.
Instead of marching into Flint and deciding what the right solution was, Smith and FitzGerald decided to find a way to enhance what the First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church was already doing.
“For the last five years, [the pastor and first lady of the church] were doing a water drive-through in the middle of the week,” FitzGerald says. “They had gone from people who had a spiritual mission to becoming logistics experts because so much bottled water was filtering into Flint.”
But as attention to the crisis died down and donations of bottled water stopped showing up, the church needed a different solution to generate the clean water that Flint still needed. FitzGerald and Smith realized that if they could figure out how to clean water on a larger scale, the water drives could continue. The duo tapped water engineers that they’d gotten to know through Just Water to build a portable filtration system that would enable the church to continue its role of providing clean water to locals.
The Water Box plugs into the local water supply and then runs the water through a series of different filters to ensure that it’s clean. But “Flintstones,” as residents of Flint are called, don’t have to rely on any higher authority to tell that the water has been filtered—after all, their trust on the city government to provide clean water has been shattered. Instead, the Water Box relies on trusted members of the local community, like the deacons at the church, to run cleanliness tests each time the filtration system is used. These people then post live results of the test, down to the lead and microbiological levels, in a Google Sheet on the project’s website so that anyone can check it. Then, members of the community can come to the church to fill up water jugs to take home.
The box itself uses standard, off-the-shelf filtration hardware, and includes a five micron filter, a carbon filter, a one micro filter, and a UV filter. It can produce 10 gallons of clean water per minute. “That’s like one of those yellow Igloo buckets they pour over coaches,” FitzGerald says. “It’s that size.”
Along with installing the Water Box—and paying for the equipment and the water itself, so the church’s water bill didn’t skyrocket—501CThree launched the project with a heart-wrenching video and issued a call to action, encouraging people to donate water. FitzGerald says that as a result, people from all over the world have sent more than 4,000 jugs of water to Flint as well.
Interest in the project has also poured in from people living in other cities struggling with the cleanliness of their water supply. There have also been some international requests for Water Boxes, though FitzGerald says that he and Smith want to focus on the United States for now. With more Water Boxes on the way to Flint, and others coming soon to cities in need elsewhere in the U.S., the initiative is just getting started.
“There are some distinctly un-advocated-for, left-behind communities that aren’t in the news,” he says. “No one is focusing on water in America. It’s frankly fucked up.”