The Flint Lesson: When the Poor Talk, We Must Listen

by Wendi C. Thomas | February 3, 2016 3:14 pm

Photo courtesy of Steve Neavling/Motor City Muckraker

Imagine the harm that could have been avoided in Flint if only government officials believed the residents.

As far back as May 2014, Flint residents complained about the water piped from the Flint River into their sinks and tubs.

To save money, the city had switched from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River the month before.

The Flint River water smelled funny, looked dirty and tasted bad. Holding bottles of brown water, Flint residents took their worries to city council meetings and a forum called to address water issues. Their very bodies – riddled with rashes and bare patches on their scalps – testified to a tragedy in the making.

Still, it wasn’t until October 2015 that Flint officials instructed residents – 57 percent of whom are black and 40 percent of whom live below the poverty line – to stop drinking the lead-poisoned water.

That’s 18 months in which officials said to citizens, in essence: We don’t believe you. We’re not listening to you.

The story of Flint has largely been told through what the community lacks – decent jobs, access to nutritious food, money, influence. Viewed through that lens, it’s no wonder that so many state and local officials concluded this community couldn’t reliably narrate their lives.

Take then-Mayor Dayne Walling’s viewpoint in June 2014: “I think people are wasting their precious money buying bottled water.”

Then there’s the false reassurances from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokesman who said in July 2015 that “anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.”

And don’t forget the assessment of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief of staff, who in a September 2015 email, labeled concerned residents as the “anti-everything group”?

A few persistent residents turned to the state Department of Environmental Quality and a Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards to validate their concerns. Then a local pediatrician found elevated lead levels in children’s blood.

But all these professionals did was confirm what residents said: There’s something horribly wrong with the water.

Yet that was when government officials finally decided to listen. And act.

The attention led President Obama to declare an emergency in Flint that would open the way to millions of dollars in aid and the FBI to open an investigation into the water contamination.

The local pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, told The New York Times, “If you were going to put something in a population to keep them down for generations to come, it would be lead.”

Lead poisoning has been shown to lower IQs, stunt growth, slow children’s ability to learn and increase the risk of attention deficit disorder and impulsive behavior. All of the children under the age of six – more than 8,000 children – have been exposed to lead. For children, there is no safe exposure level to the neurotoxin.

It gets worse for undocumented residents, most of whom are Spanish-speaking. At some water distribution centers, some undocumented residents were asked for ID they can’t get in Michigan. Worried that immigration agents would deport them, they left empty-handed.

Whatever money Flint officials hoped to save by switching to the Flint River has been eclipsed by the cost of supplying water filters, testing blood and meeting the long-term developmental needs of poisoned children. Simply repairing the corroded system alone could cost as much as $200 million.

In recent weeks, the city of about 100,000 has been flooded with millions of bottles of clean water donated by celebrities and well-meaning people across the country.

But, as the saying goes, when the issue is justice, charity is sin.

Charity is patting yourself on the back for sending water. Justice is demanding an end to the environmental racism that disproportionately affects black and brown communities.

Gov. Snyder, who has rebuffed calls for him to resign, has dismissed accusations that Flint’s crisis is the result of environmental racism, but it’s likely that Snyder defines racism only as nefarious intent.

But it’s not the intent of Snyder or EPA officials or state environmental experts that matters. It’s the impact. And the impact of this avoidable disaster has fallen squarely on the shoulders of low-income families, the majority of whom are black, already struggling to make ends meet in a city with few jobs.

The NAACP has made several recommendations, including hiring teens to distribute the water instead of outsourcing the job to the National Guard.

In a scathing letter posted online, film maker Michael Moore, who is from Flint, called not for bottled water, but a revolt.

“No check you write, no truckloads of Fiji Water or Poland Spring, will bring their innocence or their health back to normal,” Moore wrote.

What Flint needs, Moore wrote, “is a nonviolent army of people who are willing to stand up for this nation, and go to bat for the forgotten of Flint.”

Moore wants Snyder impeached and the evacuation of any homeowners who want to leave. And he suggests that the state’s surplus and rainy day fund should be used to bail out Flint’s residents. As of Tuesday, more than 576,000 people had signed Moore’s petition.

But perhaps the most important lesson from Flint is to respect the value of the lived experiences of the poor, especially when they are black and brown.

The next time citizens – even if they don’t have a degree or scientific evidence – tell you that something is wrong where they live, listen to them.

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