What Overworked Flint Water Activists Do To Stay Healthy

02/07/2017 09:39 pm ET | Updated Feb 08, 2017
Photo Credit: Sarah Raymond Cunningham. Used with permission.

Do busy, grassroots activists know the secret to staying balanced in the middle of consuming life work? If they don’t, they learn fast. That’s the experience of Flint Water Crisis leader, Dr.Laura Sullivan, anyways. And the secret, she says, is that anyone who maintains good emotional health has to work hard at it because It requires ongoing adjustments.

Dr. Sullivan, an engineering professor at Michigan’s Kettering University, was appointed to the Flint Water Inter-Agency Coordinating Committee by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. She has taken on the task of mediating between Flint residents and the government they often no longer trust, after the city’s water supply was contaminated due to failure to appropriately treat the water.

After more than 1,000 days of the Flint Water Crisis, she readily admits, activism is not easy.

When Fighting for Water Consumes You

“At one point, I had become so passionate about fighting for clean water, I began to sense my friends and family would cringe when I walked into the room.” Dr.Sullivan tells me. The water issues consumed her, she admits, and talking to friends about it helped her process things and check her ideas.

While interacting with friends was daunting at times, figuring out how to best cooperate with other activists was also sometimes a challenge. “When I was appointed by Governor Snyder, some people wondered if being selected would make me switch sides―to forget about the people of Flint and their needs. Being questioned by my own support group caused a whole different kind of grief for me.”

And then things got worse.

Dr.Sullivan says when she was hospitalized for Shigella, an infectious disease likely caused by bacteria in the water supply, she hit an all time low. “I felt alone. I felt cut off. I started to say I couldn’t go on, I couldn’t be part of this.”

It was obvious, she says, that neither she nor anyone else has a no-fail formula that prevents a person from burning out. Rather, the pursuit of balance, requires constantly adjusting on the fly.

“I had to make some changes. Dealing with a contaminated water supply and its impact on the residents around me obviously required me to constantly confront negatives. But I determined, after my hospitalization, that I was going to try to involve myself in things that were positive. For starters, I chose to do something pretty simple. I had a friend whose daughter had developed asthma, which is a possible side effect of the contaminated water supply. And I determined to do something to help her.”

A Lesson in Positivity

Dr.Sullivan recounts how she learned that asthmatic children who play wind instruments sometimes have improved health. “So I determined I was going to try to find an instrument for this girl as well as a way to connect her with free music lessons.”

It wasn’t long before Dr.Sullivan sent out an email to her college students asking if any of them had an old instrument they were no longer using that they would be willing to donate. “What happened was amazing.” She remembers, “Within an hour, multiple students had offered instruments and also many people pledged to donate to lessons. We were eventually able to set up a new program at the Flint Institute of Music that provides instruments and free lessons to children in Flint who have asthma.”

When Dr.Sullivan took a break from the constant meetings and sunk her energy into something positive, she found it boosted her mood. “I know now I can go on and continue to serve the people of Flint. I can work on these committees and keep fighting. I just need to stay more positive.”

One might think that Dr.Sullivan would’ve already known how to maintain her mental health while working on a good cause. She has a professional degree and has even served in trying situations, such as volunteering with Engineers Without Borders to improve conditions in developing countries. But because life is always throwing new curve balls into the mix, Sullivan says, she is still learning to adapt and adjust to stay healthy.

Everyone is.

“I had to find a way to recover my energy and keep my spirits up to continue the fight. And when I started pursuing these positive outlets, it showed the community I cared about them and was still advocating for their needs too.”

Dr.Sullivan’s revelation is a good thing not just for her, but for the city. Because more than 1,000 days in, when the news headlines move on, Flint still needs people like Laura Sullivan to keep waking up and pitching in every day.

You can read more of my observations from my most recent visit to Flint, along with ways to help, HERE.

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