By Nic Custer
Author’s Note: This essay is the result of my role as a Flint citizen and not while acting as a journalist. It is in that spirit and in that voice that I am offering this piece to share my experience with the community.
In the age of constant communication, a letter is a powerful tool. A letter written by an eight-year-old Flint resident imploring the president to see Flint for himself led to the commander-in-chief’s early May visit and speech at Northwestern High School.
Similarly, an email I sent to the White House in early January seeking federal assistance led to response letters from the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Health and Human Services at the end of February.
I would have been fine if my presidential correspondence ended there, knowing that someone had heard my concerns but thankfully, it didn’t. That letter resulted in an invitation to join a neighborhood roundtable with President Barack Obama during his visit to Flint.
The roundtable was made up of nine individuals including change makers, activists and letter writers, who met with the president inside the school’s library. The group was composed of a college student, a woman’s center director, a pastor, a water distribution coordinator, a plumber, a pediatrician, two parents and myself.
As soon as the president entered, he tried to make us feel comfortable, immediately removing his suit coat and creating a more informal, conversational atmosphere. He shook each person’s hand and gave us a half-hug before inviting us all to sit.
Much of the meeting involved the president listening to our experiences during the crisis and our concerns about long-term health impacts, psychological impacts and the lack of progress in replacing infrastructure. He addressed many of the points he made later during his speech about short term and long term solutions as well as acknowledging the limitations of his remaining tenure in office. President Obama spoke about how Flint deserves to be set up for success beyond the water crisis including an appropriately staffed city government and rebuilding the local economy.
While the conversation lasted for about an hour, it seemed to breeze by within a matter of minutes. It included moments of disarming humor like when someone said they were thankful for his actions and the president responded with a wry “Thanks, Obama!” The most important take away I had was that the fix will take time but things are moving forward. In the mean time, residents should not despair. More than ever, they need to encourage their children to achieve great things and believe that they can do anything they put their minds to. He reiterated this point in his speech later, saying even a child from a single parent home, like himself, could be president and the kids in Flint should keep striving for greatness.
The meeting ended with the group symbolically drinking glasses of filtered tap water alongside the President. This moment was reminiscent of the clinked glasses that accompanied the Flint River switchover. But it felt different. There was a sense that people at the highest levels are watching out for Flint and that the city will once again rewrite the narrative of what its future can be.
Even though no major new funding announcements were made, I saw that our President deeply cares about the citizens of Flint, that he understands our anger, grief and guilt. His message back to the city is during the slow road to recovery we need to focus that energy in productive ways towards supporting our children’s aspirations and now more than ever, we need to believe in the audacity of hope.
EVM Managing Editor Nic Custer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.