The nightmarish water crisis unfolding in my hometown of Flint, Michigan, has turned a city that was once a bright example of prosperity and hope into a cautionary tale about what can happen when so-called “fiscal responsibility” is valued more than people’s health.
I grew up in Flint, but the city I was raised in is nothing like the Flint of today. I am always telling my nieces and nephew that I wish they could know the city of those days. Thriving employment, bustling neighborhoods, and yes, clean water. Today Flint’s population is half of what it was in the 1960s and 70s, when it was at its highest. In the past fifty years, Flint lost almost 80,000 General Motors jobs, and today more than four in ten Flint residents live below the poverty line.
As cities like Flint have struggled in recent decades, the austerity policies ostensibly aimed at addressing financial woes have brought real harm to the people forced to bear their costs. After a Michigan law put some cities, including Flint, in the hands of unelected, state-appointed “emergency managers,” the state moved in 2014 to change the city’s water source to the Flint River in order to save money. As we know now, that water was toxic, corroding the lead pipes in Flint and poisoning its residents. I never would have thought one of the hardest daily decisions my family would have to make would be whether or not to bathe, shower, wash hair, brush their teeth or wash their hands in the water they are paying high prices for that flows from the faucets in the kitchen and in the bathrooms.
Michigan’s “fiscal responsibility” plan did not affect everyone equally. The Atlantic noted in 2013 that although emergency managers were running cities that covered only nine percent of the state’s population, they included roughly half of Michigan’s black residents. The majority-African American city of Flint was under emergency management from 2011 until April 2015, and is still under state oversight.
African American leaders in Flint have highlighted how the lack of local control ran counter to representative democracy, threatened voting rights, and undercut the will of the people. As the president of the Flint NAACP chapter once noted, “It’s difficult to get folks to the polls when their votes don’t mean anything.” This direct connection between the attack on democracy and the health crisis in Flint belies a fundamental truth: when we don’t have a real voice in who’s guiding our policies, our wellbeing - our very lives - are at risk. Political power, in the form of the ability to cast a vote that counts and elect responsive representatives, is how we protect ourselves and our families.
In many ways, we don’t yet know the full damage of the water crisis. The effects of lead poisoning are irreversible. Parents are living with misinformation, unanswered questions and fear of the long-term effects on their children, many of which can’t yet be seen. Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who helped raise the alarm about blood lead levels in the city’s children, called exposure to lead “one of the most damning things that you can do to a population.”
This week I’m back in my hometown meeting with, listening to faith leaders across the state to strategize about where they are going from here. One thing is certain: we’re not going anywhere good without a working democratic process, where the voices and votes of Flint residents count, and where cost-cutting is not placed above the lives of Flint’s children and adults. The African American Ministers Leadership Council, nationally and locally, will be a part of the revitalization of Flint. We can't change the past, but we certainly can make sure my great nieces and nephews, now 2-5 years old, know we fought for them, for human rights, environmental justice and true democracy!