By Jan Worth-Nelson
Is Flint a city rich with art, a beautiful recuperating river and a school district offering first-rate primary school education, or is it a traumatized community rife with fear, anger and damage, where nobody drinks the water?
It turns out it’s both, according to presenters at a taping in front of a live audience for Michigan Radio at the Flint Institute of Arts Saturday night.
The schizophrenia of that poignant dichotomy — a set of exasperations and hopeful omens familiar to anyone who’s lived in Flint recently — was in full display as the audience of about 100 mostly white residents heard from Flint Community Schools Superintendent Bilal Tawwab, Flint Institute of Arts director John Henry, Flint River Watershed Coalition Executive Director Rebecca Fedewa, State Senator Jim Ananich and Flint water crisis voices Laura McIntire and Camryn Banks.
The University of Michigan jazz combo, conducted by UM – Flint music associate professor Brian DiBlassio, played before and between segments.
The event was recorded for Cynthia Canty’s Michigan Radio show Stateside. While the show routinely broadcasts from the studio in Ann Arbor, executive producer Joe Linstoth told the crowd the show goes on the road once or twice a year. The one-hour recording will air in segments over the next week, Canty said.
School superintendent Bilal Tawwab kicked things off by citing several promising recent accomplishments in the city’s public schools. He said a combination of state support, particularly from the lieutenant governor and the state superintendent of schools, along with local foundations and universities, had helped the district create new educational opportunities. One example, he said, is the reopening and repurposing last year of Cummings Elementary as an early childhood education center, citing it as a “wonderful partnership” with the C.S. Mott Foundation and UM – Flint.
He noted Walmart has kept the district in bottled water with “huge donations” of weekly deliveries to each school, and Sodexo has provided school lunches prepared with safe water. Noting that while there are 15,000 school age children in Flint, only 5,000 of them are in the public school system — the others opting for charters and open enrollment. He said one challenge is winning back more of those students by convincing them the district is a quality choice.
Expanding athletic and art opportunities and “a laser-like focus on academics” are key, he said.
“What keeps me up at night is the sustainability piece,” Tawwab said, “I really want to know how long will these resources be provided for the district. We’re looking at a lot of unknowns, and I want to know there’s a commitment for years to come.”
“We’re going to be number one,” he said, “we’re awakening a sleeping giant.” Flint has “a storied past,” he noted, alluding to the city’s national reputation in community education, concluding, “I’m happy to be leading our efforts.”
Flint Institute of Arts Executive Director John Henry described how the museum, the state’s second largest, is “a scrapbook reflecting the intellect and taste of those who lived here before and those who continue to give today.” He explained that the FIA stands on land originally the farm of C.S Mott and that the cultural center represented the vision of the “captains of industry” in the 1950s to provide a cultural complex to complement nearby schools.
Henry also noted that “we serve everybody — you don’t even have to be potty-trained,” Henry said to laughter in response to one of Canty’s questions about the FIA’s art school.
Also in hopeful news for the FIA is construction of a contemporary craft wing, a glass studio “maker space” created in part in connection with the recent receipt of two major collections. One includes more than 400 pieces of contemporary ceramics, and the other is a contribution of contemporary glass pieces, purchased by a local collector who also is supporting the new glass studio, he said.
He also noted an exhibit of works by the sculptor Auguste Rodin will open in the museum May 6.
Challenging the Flint River’s “bad rap”
Canty asked Rebecca Fedewa about how the Flint River had been tagged “a nonhuman culprit” in the water crisis.
“Did the Flint River get a bad rap?” Canty asked.
“It sure did,” Fedewa said. “We saw a whole lot of blame at the local, state and national level, that it was such a folly of a decision to switch [to Flint River water in 2014] but we know from the data we have collected over the years that we have a fantastic river system and we were confident that the river could serve as a quality water source.”
Acknowledging that “the river doesn’t look that great flowing through downtown Flint” and still is recovering from a legacy of industry and pollution, she said the bad reputation just kind of “stuck.” It was easy, she suggested, to wrongly include the river itself in an indictment of what went wrong,
“Maybe it was a bad decision because they weren’t ready to treat river water, but the river was fully capable of serving as that source,” she said.
She described recent initiatives to dredge coal tar out of the Consumers’ Energy part of the river at East Boulevard Drive and plans for removing the crumbling Hamilton Dam as evidence that the downtown portion of the river is dramatically improving, noting that a two-and-a-half hour long kayak stretch of the river today includes sightings of eagles, osprey, ducks, deer and other fauna. “You don’t have to go up north for that wonderful river,” she said, noting the Flint River flows 142 miles through five counties.
Following a pre-recorded segment on local businesses by Michigan Radio reporter Steve Carmody, themes of the evening took a darker turn when State Senator Jim Ananich, a longtime Flint resident and former Flint city councilman, took the stage.
Asked what he thinks about the recently announced recommendation by Mayor Karen Weaver to stay on Great Lakes Water Authority water instead of switching to the new pipeline of the Karegnondi Water Authority, Ananich said, “The recommendation is pretty fresh, and we’re all still digesting it.
“The citizens of Flint wanted to make sure we have a long-term, reliable water source. Questions still need to be answered — we still have one of the highest rates for our water in the country and that needs to be addressed. And we need to have representation on this board, when we’re going to be the second largest customer.”
As for the city’s water rates, Ananich stated, “It’s an issue we have to resolve. It’s inhumane to expect people to have to choose between paying their water bill and other necessities. Water is a right,” he said to applause.
When Canty asked if Ananich is drinking the water, he slowly replied, “No, I’m not going to lie to you, no,” adding that he and his wife and son use filtered and bottled water. Reflecting on the ongoing lack of trust of what residents are being told, he said, “I’ve been lied to like everybody else in Flint.
“Our city is a stressful city, and it shouldn’t be — we did nothing wrong. That needs to be acknowledged.”
“These are people’s lives”
“If we don’t make changes,” he said, referring to state legislative considerations based on the Flint situation, “shame on anybody who doesn’t learn from this tragedy. Michigan could have the best standards of any place in the country, and it should start here in Flint,” he said.
“I’m sorry, I don’t care what the costs are,” Ananich said, “These are people’s lives. If we’re thinking about costs, that’s a ridiculous reason not to take action.”
Asked why the state legislature seems to be dragging its feet on policy proposals to address the water crisis, Ananich said, “There’s a term that’s really offensive: a term called ‘Flint fatigue.’
“When people say that to me I say, I’m sorry you had to push a button [to vote in the legislature] if that’s too much for you, well, you shouldn’t have put into place an emergency manager law that took our democracy away,” he said, to another round of applause. “This was one hundred percent avoidable.”
Flint resident Laura McIntire and former Flint resident Camryn Banks concluded the evening with a bleak picture of the consequences of the crisis.
McIntire described severe effects her family experienced in their home and said she and her family have continued to refuse to pay $200 monthly water bills for “water we really can’t use.” She said they are on the shutoff list and are receiving “outright abusive” letters from the city.
Her Mott Park home, she said, “is pretty much destroyed, the pipes have disintegrated and the walls just stream water. It’s pretty much a wash — at this point it would take more to replace the pipes and put in a filtration system than the home is worth. We’re just going to have to walk away from it. Plus it damages anything the water has touched–we’re on our third or fourth washing machine. It’s just disgusting. The water is terrible.”
“It’s absolutely enraging,” McIntire said, adding that she believes Governor Snyder should be in jail and the emergency manager law repealed.
She said “we’re still being told it’s safe to take showers — that is not true. We are still being told that the water is safe to drink with filters, which is not true. Not all houses have been tested, and some places the water is worse because of bacteria in the filters.
“We demand to be made whole again,” she said, tearfully. “People are dying, people are sick, people are suffering, and it’s not getting addressed.”
“Tired of being lied to”
Alluding to the town hall last week where six people were arrested, she said, “We’re still wondering why nothing is getting done except a lot of public relations spin. We’re sick and tired of being lied to.”
Banks’ family took advantage of a graduate program opportunity for her father to leave Flint and move to Ann Arbor. “It was the best choice for our family” she said. “My sisters and I tested high for lead in our hair and bodies. Emotionally it was very difficult.” Going into her senior year, Banks said she felt like a refugee.
But on the other hand, she said, “It has been such a pleasure, it’s been a break.
“There is no such thing as ‘Flint fatigue’ in Ann Arbor,” she said. “Everything is very clean — there’s a general vibe of health and happiness — it’s a luxury, it’s so nice. When we come back we almost feel down — this is how we used to live all the time.
“In Ann Arbor we don’t have to worry about simple basic rights like water, not always the urge keep your guard up, and feel like somebody’s trying to come after you or harm you, which is very fatiguing.”
Noting that Tuesday is the third anniversary of the disastrous switch to Flint River water, McIntire said, “We’re fed up, we’re tired.”
“In my mind, I feel like there is nothing left for Flint,” Banks said. “It’s really heartbreaking, because you don’t want to think of your home as a place that cannot be repaired. You don’t want to think of your home as a wasteland, but it seems like that’s what it’s turning into.”
But as a last thought, Bank managed to suggest, “People in Flint are resilient — this is not the first catastrophe that Flint has had. Don’t ignore us — nobody is going to roll over while there is poison water coming from the tap.”
EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.