Keep the heat on the Flint story, UM-Flint Chancellor and residents tell national journalists
By Jan Worth-Nelson
Don’t let the “Flint story” drop out of view, UM – Flint Chancellor Susan Borrego and local residents implored a panel of national environmental journalists meeting in Flint last weekend.
What’s at stake is not abandoning a city whose struggles are of national significance, Borrego said.
“Flint was important in the history of this country,” she said. “It should be equally important in its present and future.
“You simply cannot throw a city that’s struggling, that’s predominantly of color and predominantly poor, away. We could be a model for what happens in this country with a commitment to justice and equity, and that’s an important aspect of what we’re doing here.”
Fourteen board members from the Society of Environmental Journalists were in town to investigate possibilities for holding their 2018 conference in Flint. As part of their visit, they sponsored a public “listening session” to learn more about the water crisis and Flint in general.
Speakers in addition to Borrego were ACLU investigative reporter Curt Guyette, Flint Democracy Defense League activist Nayyirah Shariff, and Henry Henderson, Midwest director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Several local residents also made remarks.
Reflecting on what she called the “parallel narratives” of the city’s difficulties, Borrego urged the journalists to acknowledge Flint’s stories as complex and many-dimensional in their reporting.
“Make sure you get to know us,” she said, “because this story can be pretty one-dimensional.”
As an example, she noted her concerns about media coverage of Flint during the March 6 CCN/Democratic Party primary debate co-sponsored by UM – Flint.
She said she went back and forth with CNN after Wolf Blitzer set up “The Situation Room” in the Thompson Library with the Flint River in the background because “I didn’t want them to say ‘this is the poison river.’ Because the river is not poison.”
Many experts and advocates for the Flint River contend that it was the lack of corrosion control that led to Flint’s lead-in-the-water crisis, not the river itself, which according to many accounts is now one of the state’s cleanest.
Borrego, who arrived as UM – Flint’s eighth chancellor in August, 2014, acknowledged that leading the downtown campus and facing outside attention to the city in the midst of the water crisis has been a challenge.
“On one hand, it’s a tough hazing – it’s a tough club to be in. We’re not the worst, and we’re not the only, but we are where people tried to cover up the story. There are a lot of things to learn from being in this community.
“The reality is, I can’t close the institution and go open up someplace else, nor would I. At its core, as a state college or university our goal is to provide access to high quality degrees and to enhance the life of the region.
“So to be a participant in everything that was going on was really critical for us,” she said.
Local resident Robert Thomas, a Flint native and East Village Magazine writer who has resettled in Flint after many years in San Francisco, added his plea for “real journalism” around the Flint water crisis.
“The story has got to be hammered and hammered and hammered, for all the reasons you people know,” Thomas said. “We’ve seen them come in and drift away, and we want none of that here.
“I have no confidence in this state or in the federal government,” Thomas added to applause and cheers. “What I have confidence in is journalism — real journalism — where the truth gets lit up.
“If you guys don’t keep putting the heat on, we are cooked,” he said.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.