By Jan Worth-Nelson
A visit to Flint by a Boston film crew in July led to a gathering of 18 Flint residents invited by East Village Magazine to talk about their lives in the city and their reflections on the water crisis and its effects.
Their comments that night, all filmed and on the record, were heartfelt, honest, sometimes emotional and often gripping. Not everyone there was in perfect agreement, but the listening was open and respectful. In the stained-glass window light of Woodside’s chapel in the College Cultural neighborhood, we sat in a circle while the film crew moved around and behind us.
The catalyst for the visit of the film crew, from Northern Light Productions, was a project exploring the effect of a 1963 speech by John F. Kennedy on lives of a group of 1964 Amherst College graduates, including my husband, Ted Nelson. Ted was among those who met JFK after that speech that day and who took the President’s call to activism to heart. My husband says that event, followed only three weeks later by JFK’s assassination, changed the arc of his life.
Fifty-four years later, the film crew, funded by Amherst College, a group from the Amherst Class of ’64, and grants and other donations, came to Flint see what has happened to Ted. They found him devoted to a community struggling with its own desperate need for justice and demonstrating determined activism.
East Village Magazine sponsored this community meeting initially to offer the film crew a opportunity to see what we’re made of. As it turned out, the conversation also opened up an occasion for a group of us to be together, to take some deep breaths, to reflect on our griefs, our grievances, our guilts, and our hopes.
It felt good and it felt important. So we decided to transcribe the entire hour-long conversation and post it here in its entirety. The gathering, in our view, offered a memorable snapshot of a community wracked by crisis while invoking its complex history and demonstrating resilience and hope — it is what emerged from one night in the lives of 18 Flint residents at a significant moment in our collective history.
We have edited slightly for readability and highlighted particular quotes that to us captured the essence of the conversation.
Jane Bingham, president of the East Village Magazine board, retired Oakland University professor, resident of the CCN.
Ed Custer, Vietnam veteran, retired Flint city planner, landlord in East Village, artist and photographer, East Village Magazine board member, distribution manager and chief photographer, resident of Central Park neighborhood.
Monica Galloway, Seventh Ward city councilwoman/
Elder Allen Gilbert, GM retiree and apostolic minister of Continue Steadfastly Ministries
Don Harbin, Vietnam veteran, retired U.S.P.S. mail carrier, artist, resident of the CCN.
Gary Jones, UM – Flint graduate, constituency services representative for U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee.
Aubrey McClain, middle school English teacher, EVM contributing writer and resident of the CCN.
Jack Minore, former Flint city councilperson and state representative; longtime Flint River Watershed member and environmental advocate, board member of East Village Magazine, resident of the CCN
Ted Nelson, CEO of Hollywood Awards, former Peace Corps volunteer to Turkey and Peace Corps Washington staff, East Village Magazine “eminence grise” doing layout, ad design and editorial support, resident of the CCN.
Dr. Ashley Nickels, assistant professor from Kent State University conducting research in Flint since 2012. Resident of Cleveland, OH.
Dr. Ben Pauli, assistant professor at Kettering University and a CCN resident
Paul Rozycki, retired professor from Mott Community College, political commentator for East Village Magazine and a CCN resident
Pastor Dan Scheid, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and a CCN resident
Nariyyah Shariff, social justice advocate, community activist, water warrior.
Dr. Laura Sullivan, professor of engineering at Kettering University, water activist.
Robert Thomas, former priest, former cable car driver in San Francisco, contributing writer and board member at East Village Magazine and a Central Park resident.
Shani Womack, musician, composer, storyteller, resident of the CCN
Jan Worth-Nelson, former UM-Flint writing teacher and administrator, currently editor of East Village Magazine, a resident of the CCN.
After Jane Bingham, EVM board president, welcomed the group and the film crew introduced themselves, we began.
Jan: So I’ve asked you here to do two things: the one thing would be to tell us your individual story about what’s happened to you in Flint the last three years, and the second part is to talk about the impact of community activism for you and for the community.
Nayyirah: I had some total breakdowns. I remember one of the breakdowns was in August of 2014 when they had a boil water advisory, and I basically discovered the boil water advisory because they had a grainy picture on M-Live on the website and it was a highlighted area and I can’t read maps so I was just trying to figure out whether or not I lived in that area and I found out like three days into the boil water advisory. I can in the summer, so I was canning, and then I used my big pressure canner, 24-quarts, I was using it to boil water so I could take a bath. And I’m calling my mother because she grew up in abject poverty and she grew up with a well and I’m like, what was it like when you didn’t have water? Because I don’t know that, and it just felt so weird that you have water coming out of your tap that you’re paying for and you can’t use it and you have to like fill up water and then boil it and use it to wash your dishes and use it to bathe and use it for all the other things.
I felt like, if I was living in a developing country and there was a stream, to me that was an easier hurdle for me to tackle psychologically than having water out of my tap that I’m paying for and they will shut my water off if I don’t pay for it, and I gotta boil it to bathe.
Jan: that is a perfect story to start with, isn’t it — this is rock bottom – this was when you realized something big was going on. This changed you.
Nayyirah: Yeah. [Nayyirah had to leave right after this to go to another meeting. She came back toward the end but did not comment further.]
Ashley Nickels: I’ve been using this term regularly: the encouraged interloper, I’m not From Flint, but Flint has been part of my life since 2012. I have studied municipal takeovers and emergency managers — that’s what brought me to Flint, but I’ve stayed involved since then, and I’m back here again, and I was invited to participate, so I welcome that opportunity.[Nickels did not further contribute to the conversation].
Paul R: I have been in Flint for almost 50 years, from Illinois originally. I have been involved in almost every campaign for some candidates for almost all those 50 years and involved in a lot of protests and a lot of causes. One thing that strikes me in terms of the topic of the JFK assassination and water crisis now – a thing I’ve written about a lot — is the lack of trust. You take a look at trust in government, the high point was pretty much the Kennedy years, and since then, with Watergate, Vietnam, and lots of other stuff since then. it has for the most part declined. In many ways,
…the key thing that strikes me about the whole Flint water crisis is we just don’t trust anybody anymore – the local, the state, the national — when all the numbers come out about saying the water’s okay, it’s gonna take a long time before anybody trusts those numbers even though they may be very solid and very accurate. That trust has been destroyed very heavily.
Bob Thomas; I am a member of the EVM board and I live in the neighborhood. I would just take off on what Paul just said. I lived in San Francisco, came back here in 2005. The first thing I encountered here in Flint, the government wants to tax my pension from out-of-state, I can’t vote under the emergency manager, my trust was lost pretty fast. And the only thing that brought it back was, like Ted, I met a woman here. We got married, so I ended up retiring. You need some kind of community. And the fact that we are with Village Magazine impresses me,
…because it was the village here who saved my life. Because they taught me about human trust again, never mind the authorities, talking about the people, you know. And I agree with Ted that you’ve got great people here, as good as any of my friends in SF were, and little bit better because there it’s a little soft, and here you’re under the gun and that’s how you find out where your true community is.
Ben Pauli: I live just down the road, and I am an assistant professor of social science at Kettering. I moved to Flint in June 2015. When I got here there wasn’t any talk of lead, quite yet, at least nobody that I knew was talking about lead. Some of the activists were already focused on that issue but I didn’t know about any of that yet. I had been told that there had been some issues with the water, but I was under the impression that I was not putting my family at any risk, at that time, to use the water, but then
…the water crisis took on a grave personal aspect for me when the lead story broke and we had our water tested and there was indeed some lead in our water. My son at that time was three years old, so he had been consuming the water, indirectly at least, through his food, unfiltered for a period of a couple of months. So, that personal aspect of the crisis really resonated with me, because I experienced the range of emotions you experience, that you feel as a parent, when you learn that you have willingly although not wittingly exposed someone that you love to something harmful.
And I had a little bit of a history as an activist going way back to before I went into the cave of graduate school, and I did not get involved in the water struggle right away–but at some point I just decided that it was irresistible, that this was really going to be one of the defining moments in Flint’s history, and because I was committed to being part of the community I felt like I needed to be part of that.
For me, it has been a profoundly humbling experience. It’s been one of those moments in my life when I feel I have been profoundly re-educated (small laugh). Coming here with a Ph.D in political science, I was supposed to understand something about how society and government work and I kind of feel like I had to go back to square one and start all over again.
Laura Sullivan: I teach mechanical engineering at Kettering, and about 12 or 13 years ago students started coming to me asking me to write them letters of recommendation to join the Peace Corps. It got me to thinking that there was something new and different about the students I was working with than the students at Kettering than when I first started. They were somewhat ashamed or embarrassed about talking about that they had pursued a degree in engineering because they could make money. That was not something that they felt proud of anymore, and that as millenials, they really wanted to make a difference. So I started to look into…was there something we could do for you while you’re at Kettering to prepare you for the Peace Corps, or whatever that is, so after some exploring we formed Kettering’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders in 2006.
Students are very good at listening to me, and in 2014 students started coming to me and saying there’s an issue because people’s water is being shut off in Flint and you taught us that when people don’t have access to water there’s a problem with sanitation and if there’s a problem with sanitation, then the whole water supply can be contaminated and we have to do something, because people should not be without access to water.
At that point we’d been on big projects in Mexico and Africa. And all of a sudden I’m thinking oh my gosh what do we do when it’s in our own back yard? So that grew from there to exploring the idea of rain harvesting so that people would have water just to flush their toilets with, and from that it grew to coming to understand more about the economic climate and about how difficult it was for people in Flint even to get assistance paying their water bills, and about how the fact that a person might not have access to water in their home wasn’t necessarily something that the city even knew – the city wasn’t even able to know who did have water and who didn’t, and how families were afraid to accept our help in providing rainwater because then somebody would know they didn’t have water, and then if somebody knew they didn’t have water, their children would be taken.
And so I went really quickly from worry about affordability to worrying about access and then very soon thereafter of course to worrying about the quality of the water.
Aubrey McClain: I’m a middle school English teacher who moved into this neighborhood about a year and a half ago. We bought a house over here And what led us here was the fact that I had been educating the youth of Flint for 16 years and my husband and I decided that it was time we should put our money where our mouth was, bec if my students are going be from Flint and deal with things, I need to be here, too. So we didn’t hesitate to move here, but Jan asked what word would describe this. For us, it has been expensive and stressful. Our mortgage broker didn’t have any trouble giving us our home loan, and then, in Dec. of 2015, but for four months after that they could not get any bank to purchase the loan, and so it sat in house at the mortgage broker until finally we had to have a whole house system filtration system, we lucked out, they paid for it for a year, but now in order for us to keep that system and the clean water we do have because of it ,up we have to pay about $700/year, on top of the ridiculously high water bills.
We moved from Burton here and our water bill here in Flint is about the same for one month as it is for three months over there. We find it extremely stressful and expensive when we just wanted to move here to help, and we feel like we’re being punished because we chose to be here.
Allen Gilbert: I’m minister here in the city of Flint. I came here in 1974 this week from a little town on the banks of the Ohio River, by the name of Owens Grove, Kentucky. I left there at 18 years of age, and many of my relatives wound up in Michigan. They all came here before I was ever born..
So I wound up here because I fell asleep in the Greyhound Bus. I was supposed to get off in of all cities, Detroit – my uncle had been there at that time 31 years at the Ford River Rouge company. I had a job, but I fell asleep. My cousins didn’t see me — they just didn’t see me on the bus. And I came to Flint. The bus driver came back and woke me up and told me, “Son, I don’t know where you’re going and I don’t know how you’re going to get there, but this is the last stop.” True story. It’s a true story.
So I just happened to have an aunt and uncle here as well, so I called my first cousin to come and she came and picked me up.
But what happened that really stirred me the most was I had an individual, an activist, some of us remember her, her name was Barbara Griffith Wilson, I met her many years at the Buick complex and she used to always tell me about Fannie Lou Hamer and people that she knew so one day she comes by my house, and I’d been looking at the news about people’s hair and they got some problems with the water, and I’m out cutting my yard and she comes by my house and she tells me, and she stops and says. “What are you doing over there, you no good preacher? You just over there cutting your yard?” and I looked up and saw her, and said, “Well, Sister Barbara, I gotta take care of my yard, I’m a lawn junkie, I like my yard straightened up,”
So she says, “Well, you need to leave that yard alone and help God’s people in this city because they’re poisoning us. They’ve taken our democracy away,” and boy, she preached a sermon to the preacher. And if anyone knew sister Barbara Griffith Wilson, she was good at that, and so that’s how I got involved. She told me, she says,”if you leave here today, what impact have you left on your ledger?” and she drove away, and I called her up and I said, “you don’t get off that easy, how can I help?” And I’ve been into being an activist, and that was in 2012…and here I sit today and I’ve never regretted it,
My mother didn’t want me to do it, some of my longtime minister friends told me not to do it. But I like to say it this way, the Lord blessed me to retire from GM after 32 years, I have two journeyman cards in my pocket. When I left GM I was making $96K a year. I went to college, through all of my courses passed them quite well, so the Lord had blessed me, but there were those in this city that were suffering – such as pregnant women, seniors and just regular citizens that I knew but I didn’t pay any attention to. And that’s what moved me. So I’ve been fighting and learning, and trying to do all that I can so that I can leave some impact on somebody’s life that their life would be better. We sing these songs in the churches, we don’t think about them, that says, only what you do for Christ is going to last. So you have to serve. If you don’t serve, it won’t last.
Gary Jones: I am, according to my baby picture, born in St. Joe’s Hospital, based on an image of myself with my mother with a little shirt on in a hospital I never got to see. I’m a Flint product, born and raised.
Bringing it back to the activism, how did I get my footing into caring? It happened to me because of a gentleman named Tendaji Ganges.
Tendaji was an activists’ activist — when it came time to get mobilized around issues on campus, he was the guru – we were trying to get people , so…. I’m very intrigued now by this conversation that’s happening about Flint. Because it is, it is devastating. But before this crisis, there were other crises that Flint was dealing with – there was an education crisis, there was an issue of crime in the city, there still is an issue with poverty. And A lot of the reason why we probably aren’t seeing a lot of people diving in to help is because people feel like well, you know, that community did it to itself, essentially, it’s the same argument that you always hear when you come in to impoverished communities – you know, the people are lazy, all these write-off kind off words that folks use to say, well, they dug themselves in that situation, they can they can bail themselves out. So, Tendaji had this way of sort of mobilizing us – me in particular, as a student — where he didn’t make the focus about just getting an education, his thing was,
I remember this specifically, because when I graduated, I got some community service cords in addition to academic cords, so I went to tell Tendaji — I thought this was a proud moment that we both could share, and he said to me, you could have spent less time in class and more time helping other people. That’s engrained in my spirit right now – to not only build up myself, which is what academics does, but to be sure I’m sharing anything I’m learning and any resource that I have so that when somebody else needs something of me, to share. I wish that philosophy was shared more broadly in this crisis, because it’s more than just a water crisis that we’re in.
Monica Galloway: Currently I serve as the Seventh Ward City councilperson and when I was thinking about everybody’s story, I was really wondering, what am I doing here tonight? Jan??
Jan: You’re my councilperson! I really wanted you here and I appreciate you for coming.
Monica Galloway: I’ve been in Flint 22 years now, I’m from California. And I too came here literally for love – my husband and I had been married, he was born and raised here, and when he said he wanted to go to Flint, I was devastated. I had never been out of California – that where all my family is, literally, we all were there, so I had the village, and now I would be forced to go into a community that in my opinion he didn’t even really like – and, but, it made me think about if I looked at the sentence that we’ve spoken about — “Reality Check.”
This experience has caused me to have a reality check. I don’t look at myself as an activist but I don’t know if you ever relate to recognizing that there really is purpose in your life.
It takes certain events in your life for who you are to emerge, and I realize that I just hate injustice, and it’s funny because I wasn’t born when Kennedy died, and I literally was born the day that Martin Luther King was buried – my mom has told me this story my whole life, April 9, 1968, she said, “it was “Black Tuesday,” and the world was mourning, but I had you.” (chokes up).
That stuck to me all my life, and I knew that whatever Dr. King had done, some time, there would be something that would birth in me to continue what he started – but in my 49 years it’s like there has been a breakdown. And so when you get here and wonder how do we get here it seems like the activism of that age died, and we begin to become complacent, and things that we took for granted, like water, and being able to afford water, and that the state who was sovereign, and gives us our right and we’re like we’re children, it’s like you become an orphan, and everybody around you that’s supposed to see after your wellbeing is acting like they’re not responsible. So what do orphans do? They’re orphans? They don’t have anybody.
And so that’s kind of the way I feel Flint has been – we’ve been the orphan trying to fight for somebody to come forward and help us to get our rights back. So I don’t do activism like people think – like I respect the stand in front and picket folks — but what I’m doing is studying charters, I’m studying the basic rights you’re supposed to have, you’re supposed to have a right to safe water, you’re supposed to not have to pay as much for safe water and yet here we are and three years in, and that hasn’t changed, and it doesn’t look like the sun horizon is anywhere near.
And so, for me, it’s just being forged into a place. even as a council person. I met Pastor Gilbert in ’13, and I was campaigning, like lost, I don’t know what I’m doing – but for the record, I knew my council person was not running. And so I was compelled to do something. He said to me, you’re gonna be forged into this – and I literally have learned everything that I’ve learned and it’s not a lot, but it’s enough for me to recognize injustice and not roll over for it. So I’m just thankful to be in the room with all of you and to continue the conversation and the learning.
Father Dan Scheid: I am the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church downtown. My wife and I moved here just over two years ago from Benton Harbor. And one of the things I’ve noticed about Flint that one of the divisions within Flint I think is what I like to call the division between the developer class and the dispossessed class.
And I guess the word that I would use to describe my time here so far is been one of tension, because I am called to be priest and pastor to both developers and dispossessed. I am called to preach Biblical justice and the gospel of liberation in a community that is affected by the ravages by capitalism and generations of institutional racism. And somehow in the midst of that, my ordination vows call me to care for rich and poor alike.
Jack Minore: I must be the old guy here because I’ve been in Flint all my life, which is pushing 79 years now. I was very involved, by the way I saw Ted Kennedy in his campaign here, before he was president. I’ve been involved in community service, community activism, civil rights very early on, in the 60s, got called a lot of names for being involved in civil rights, public service – some people call it politics — many years on city council, the state legislature, been involved in many environmental issues, still involved very heavily, less so than I used to be, in community outreach stuff, and happy to be on the East Village board.
Don Harbin – I am no relation to anyone named Donald, except my father. I was born in Flint in 1950, lived in a brand new house on the north end of Flint, on a new street, all the schools I went to were brand new, a brand new elementary school, brand new jr hi, brand new h.s., rode my bicycle to a brand new shopping center and movie theater, my father was a policeman who worked at a brand new city hall downtown, in Flint, where everything was new.
When I graduated from high school. in 1968, like a lot of other guys, I walked out of high school. and walked over to Buick to get a job, I got drafted into the Army, did my tour of duty in Vietnam. When I was in Vietnam President Nixon told the American public that no we were not in Cambodia, and of course the people that I was with knew that to be a lie, that was not true, and that probably one of the first times I knew that the government lied to you.
I remember when Kennedy got assassinated I was a Kennedy supporter and I got sent home from school when I was in the eighth grade. When I was in Vietnam we would drink water out of trucks in plastic canteens, and when this crisis first started, I would go down to the fire station, to get water, many of you did, so I could drink water out of a plastic bottle to survive. I was one of the guys who protested the war when I got back, so I kind of go back a long ways in the protests. My church I belong to, Woodside here in Flint, is active in the water crisis – we’ve had donations come in from around the country – we’ve helped people with over $100K to keep their water from getting their water shut off, or their house repossessed. I’ve helped carry water out to the car. And sometimes you see people with water stacked to the ceiling and you joke around saying, I’m sorry we don’t have any more water, but they come in asking for more — it’s disheartening, that people would do that. So I’ve been an activist for a long time, and I still am, and I hope Flint can find its future.
Ed Custer: A lot’s been said here that I’d like to repeat, basically I’m a 65-year resident, on the board of East Village Magazine, I was a city employee, retired from that, and I think what Paul said, just to begin, was my feeling,
I don’t trust government even though I’m a retired employee of government, I have lost faith in the institutions, and I don’t know how easily that will ever change again. You almost feel like you’ve got to be independent, on your own, because nobody else is going to help you – you better do your own water testing, you better do your own systems. Now some of us have the ability to do that much more than others, and that’s the tragedy of it, we have the wherewithal, whether its knowledge, whether its resources, but so much of the community does not, and that’s really the tragedy.
Jan: I love am very touched by what people are saying around this circle.
Here we took a break, and Roshanda (Shani) Womack sang her song “Water Woes,” lyrics as follows:
© Roshanda Shani Womack
As long as I can recall, parents did their best,
To protect us from water, that was often suspect.
Corporations that used the river and city as a dumping ground.
They moved away,
Leaving their workers families to stay, in a contaminated playground.
For a long, long time … We’ve had these water woes
Is this how it has to be, to gentrify our city?
Must the poor pay the price,
For water woes? (o-o-o-o-o-oh)
In our particular state, surrounded by the great lakes.
… There is water everywhere,
But in Flint, not a drop to drink.
Oh, oh, oh, oh child, you better stop, and think.
I got the water woes- (wooh)
In this peculiar state, we find ourselves living in.
Poison flows from the tap… our housing prices are flat.
But where can I go? I’m feeling so low.
I got these water woe-oh-oh’s
Is this how it has to be, to gentrify our city?
Must we all pay the price,
For water woes? (o-o-o-o-o-oh)
Finally a state, of emergency.
Finally some sense of urgency.
In this man made tragedy. Looks awfully like a conspiracy
God bless the children – don’t let them suffer…
Due to these foolish water woe-oh-oh’s
Is this how it has to be, to gentrify our city?
Must the poor pay the price?,
Must the poor pay the price?,
Must we all pay the price?,
For water woes. (o-o-o-o-o-oh)
The second half
Jan: So, what you think has been the impact of activism in Flint during the last three years? What impacts have you seen, good, bad?
Ted: One more wrinkle — all of you are activists – given the situation that all of us are now in, what is your mood for the future? Are you hopeful? Hopeless?
Pastor Gilbert: One thing we have to remember…
…You’ve got to be in it for the long haul – you can’t be tired. And so that’s one of those things I’m finding, that some of us citizens are truly weary. The Bible speaks about this, in Galatians 6:9 — “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” We have to continue to resist and fight for the justice for all of us.
Some of us here today might not be here a year from today, but what we do between now and then is certainly going to make a difference in the long haul. So that’s one of things I look at. I’m 61 now so I know I can’t go back, so all the youth is creeping up on me, leading me – I’m on the other side, now, so I got to head toward God Almighty. That’s where I’m headed. I’m going to the grave or the Rapture, I’m not going to miss both of them. So either way I’m going to heaven but it’s the work I do when I’m alive that counts. After I’m gone, they can say all they want about me, but only the work I do while I’m living will determine my destination after I’m gone. You have to have the spirit to endure and go through, and go through.
Monica Galloway: I want to say that one of the things that I was really encouraged by is when President Barack Obama came into our midst, and although there was no money at the time he came, the thing that was empowering to me is he came like a father, and one of the things he said was “stop telling your children what they cannot do.”
And for me that’s huge – there’s a proverb that says, “as a man thinketh in his heart so is he” – and so with our children, it has been studied that show that if you believe a thing long enough, you can really begin to embody it. And so is this devastating, absolutely, but to tell our children, how this is going to kill them, or how they’re going to have low IQ and they’re gonna have this, and that was what I took from his statement, the encouragement that comes to me, in a community where 40% of the population is in poverty, this crisis has caused more emphasis towards allowing our children to have exposure to programs that they normally wouldn’t have, which means that some of the children at this age will now be able to compete academically like they never would have been able to ever before.
For me, that is the light at the end of the tunnel, because what you thought would destroy our children causes them not to be — although not all of us are being focused on, our children are, their exposure to resources and literacy programs have increased in a way that their families never would have been able to afford – so now you don’t know what this is going to do for them.
So when I look at this tragedy I look at the children, and I believe and I fight for them, knowing that it won’t stop for years and years. I’m an optimist. I believe that we are resilient people, not just nationality wise, but class wise. We have to learn how to survive even when people don’t help us – because it seems like there is something innate in us that says I refuse to die, even though you won’t help me. And that’s what excites me.
Gary Jones: Just to echo that,
I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is about Flint people here — the spirit of the SitDown Strikers, you’re talking about people who just don’t quit. If it was a conversation that took place about which community we can pick on, who is it that we can go up against? Somebody didn’t get the memo that Flint is not that community, that you want to pick a fight with.
I’m here as a representative of myself, not for my boss [Rep. Kildee], but I can speak for the work that we do – Flint is the reason why Flint is where it is in terms of the resources, in terms of any movement that affected the programs that we use – it comes in my work, someone said the way my boss talks sounds exactly like the voices of the people in the city of Flint – He is Flint-born and raised here! And the people of Flint sent him to DC to do that job. What the community is saying is what is being effective — it has an impact. The thing that sort of gets to my spirit is how frustrated and fatigued – it’s that longterm thing. I don’t think we even fully even know the effects of lead showing up – 20 to 30 years out– it’s really fully difficult to wrap our heads around what this will look like…we’re at year three and people are exhausted, they’re angry, and there’s so much to be angry about, there’s the water, the mayor and council talking about issues of poverty, issue after issue, it’s like being in a fight with Mohammad Ali and you don’t have the glove, your hands tied behind your back and the only thing you can do is bob and weave, that’s it. Or being in a fight with Claressa and all you have is your voice.
Flint has made its voice resonate around the entire nation, so I give any credit and just due as far as where Flint is now as far as what it is receiving, but we have to learn how to sustain it and keep pushing – I’m a 35-year-old young professional in a room of my elders, in all due respect, (laughter) but it’s generational. My son…potentially, our children, our grandchildren, we gotta figure out how to sustain what it is we’re doing now, how to keep that forge attitude going, keep that fire lit. I don’t have the answer to that…
Jan: So what you’re saying is if Flint had not exercised its voice loudly and persistently, we’d still be in it, we’d still be frustrated. We had to beg for it, and yell for it, and a lot of the people around this circle were involved in it, they wouldn’t have fixed it. We all know that.
Gary Jones: They were still trying to silence our voices, and we just kept going. That’s what I mean, how do you sustain that throughout?
Paul: If it hadn’t been for the protests, with the State of Michigan when the numbers started to come in, if we hadn’t raised that stink, would this be an issue – or would we still be drinking leaded water and nobody would have said anything?
Bob Thomas: And who is protesting? This has not come from a vertical integrated locality of us, state, federal local government. No government.
In fact they [government officials] distrusted us — We were stupid people to them. We didn’t know. And there is this culture of silence in the State of Michigan…you don’t get to be 50th out of 50 states when it comes to the lack of transparency.
Not only do we have this little community here, getting battered by our own so-called representatives, the bottom line for me is that the people who caused this are STILL IN POWER. (voices: Yes…)
Monica Galloway: I can say, right, if it wasn’t for the activists, because… on the council in October of 2014, March of ’15, the council voted 8-1 to go back to the Detroit water source by any means necessary,. and being told by the EM who controlled the resources that $12 million was too much money, and I remember saying to him, $12 million is not a lot of money if it was just my life on the line, are you telling me that you’re placing a $12 million value on 100,000 people, and what’s within them and the potential that they have, so here you’re looking at your elected officials, who are supposed to have some sort of power, being told, not going to happen, and then you all made enough of a fuss, and all of a sudden, not only is the $12 million, but a lot of other money started coming in. The voice of the people outshadowed any leadership that we had.
Don Harbin: The people of Flint have been making changes over the years. I spoke earlier about growing up in a new neighborhood and new houses and new sidewalks, but there was a dark side to Flint because there weren’t any people of color in the neighborborhood I lived in, when I went to elementary school, there were no people of color, no Hispanics, no blacks, the closest you could come was a Jewish family a couple doors down the street, everybody else was whitefaced and looked like me. And when I got to junior high school, holy cow, I said to myself, where did these people come from?
But Flint, because of the people, was the first major city in the United States to pass the First Fair Housing Act – where people could live anywhere they want to – that wasn’t the government, that was the people telling the government you need to do this,. My wife’s father and her uncle were SitDowners in the SitDown Strike and it was the same thing – GM was treating their people unfairly and the people of Flint, the workers said, you’ve got to stop this. So the people of Flint can make a change.
I’ve been here all my life, I live walking distance away – So, I can see the changes. I can see things happening, the brewery downtown, the Back to the Bricks, the Crim races coming through…The family that lives behind us has a new baby, and they have three kids, they’re not moving, they’re sticking it out – they’re trying to make it stand – they have to give the baby bottled water, but you’ve got to have that hope.
I can see the changes that we the people have made and we can’t stop. I retired in January, 2016, and then just a few days later the whole thing is I find out if you want to drink water you got to go to the fire station to get water, what the hell kind of future is that? And I’m still driving my car to get bottles of water in the back of my car.
I don’t want to talk about getting older, But sooner or later, I know that’s going to change – I’ve been around long enough to see how these things change and I know it will change.
Laura Sullivan: I think you all have to be real careful about patting yourself on the back. I was with the activists and the Chief of Staff from the Governor’s office to talk about the lead and Brad Wurfel and people who worked for him were saying, oh, relax, there’s nothing wrong with the water, and there were people in this town, of means, the developer people that Dan [Scheid] talked about that also were saying relax, there’s nothing wrong with this water, and you have to own up to that, the people who weren’t in poverty in this town were fighting the people who were trying to say there’s something wrong with this water.
I was honored to be asked by those activists to join them in that meeting with the Chief of Staff because they told me they didn’t think the Chief of Staff would listen to them, but they asked me to come along because I had a Ph.D. and they hoped that if he wouldn’t listen to them maybe they would listen to me. And they seemed like they did and they invited us to come back two weeks later, and I told the activists, this is how it works–you fight for what’s right, and they’ll listen to us and it’ll all be better. But when we came back they had doctored results and experts in the room and they told us we were full of it and there was nothing wrong with the water, and I was not ready for that, and I didn’t speak up. And I should have. I felt guilty about that moment since then and I came back to town and I worked with those activists to try to prove that there was something wrong with the water, and we were lucky enough to get the help of the ACLU, and of Marc Edwards to help in sampling the water…
But people in this part of town [College Cultural neighborhood] weren’t interested in us sampling the water here, because they did not want there to be any identification of something wrong with this water – and you have to own up to that, because had we recognized what the poor people in Flint were saying about their water, about the rashes, we might not have the problem we have right now.
Yes, it’s great we’re making progress. we’re moving through it, but its worse because the people who had the means tried to quiet the activists when it was first coming forward and we have to be honest about that. I have been in the room with the previous mayor and the DPW director when there’s discussions about the TTHM and the results are going to come out those leaders rolled their eyes in front of me and said, now people are going to start complaining about rashes again. I’ve been in the room with the CDC – where they said we don’t want to test this water for legionella because then we’ll have to figure out what to do about it.
I have been in the room with DEQ and all of these people who have rushed into Flint to tell Flint how to fix the problem by setting up weekly and then monthly meetings to decide what Flint needs and how Flint will heal…
…not a single one of them even considering giving the people of Flint other than giving them minimum wage jobs going door to door asking them if they know how to use filters.
It’s a risk for the people with means to reach out to the people who’ve grown up for generations — the people who’ve grown up as victims – and who see their life as victims of management, or victims of politics, or now a victim of bad water, and all they know how to do is to be a victim, and to ask for help, and to sit and wait and that’s because our society has created that culture – and
And it’s hard work for us to say, I’m going to give up more. It’s hard work to say, I’m going to pay extra for my water, even if it means some people are going to get water and they’re not paying for it. It’s hard work. I’m really sorry to be combative on this.
We’re not being honest if we pat ourselves on the back. We are not being honest if we could have done more earlier, if we could have listened to the people in crisis earlier, and did something, and it’s not okay for us to just say, okay, well, things are getting better, let’s act positive.
We called Kildee, we called Ananich, and we called all the leaders and asked for help and the narrative was, nothing wrong. and so I think there’s still a lot of apologizing for us – certainly we as people of Flint need to require apology oif the leaders – from the DEQ and SNyder What they have done in the name of development and income and wealth, is horrible.
But any of us who for one moment said – and I’m one of them — said I don’t think there is a problem with the water, we have an apology to make to those who gave water to their children. I just wish that we would be really careful about celebrating and spend more time apologizing.
Aubrey: If I can piggy back off of that, I am with you in that thought. Because my concerns are our children who have been poisoned. Yes, we have tons of resources, and I’m getting to work with these resources through the Crim Center and other places. But when it comes to cognitive ability and what has been done to some of these children– because of what they have ingested, there’s no amount of educational help because the brain processes have been damaged.
So are we going to stop for the next 20 or 30 years, still an impoverished city, because of something that happened here?
I spoke to a young man, he feels like crime in his neighborhood has gone up even more, because of the water crisis, because the teens every year say it doesn’t matter they won’t come after me anyway.
Laura Sullivan: I don’t think it’s positive for a parent to say, my child is broken.The only reason I would say that is because I fear that my child won’t get what they need. I wouldn’t be bragging about my child is damaged, I would be saying that because I’m afraid there’s something my child needs and might not get it.
Jack Minore: I don’t want in any means, any way at all to diminish the horrible impact of the water crisis on the citizens of Flint but I do want to stress one thing, I’m a longtime board member of the Flint River Watershed Coalition, former interim exec director, We test the water on a regular basis, so I can say, it is not the Flint River – it is the failure to properly TREAT the water.
So if we tested it at the water plant, it would be fine – but we didn’t add the non-corrosives, and when we put it into the Flint system it created a huge problem.
But it’s not the river. From the time of the Clean Water Act under Nixon, from that time on we have tested the water – the water testing twice a year every year all over the watershed, has gone up, up, up in the testing. There is no lead in the Flint River water. We have tested it and had professional testing.
Water wasn’t the problem here, water is neutral in this whole thing – the river is a lot cleaner than when I was a kid here. But it’s the people.
And I think that keeps getting lost in all this babble, the Trumpian kind of talk, always telling lies and living in an alternate reality according to them, and actually, I think they’re right it IS an alternate reality that they live in they ARE living in an alternate reality that they live in, and I don’t think ours is. I just don’t want the water to take a hit for the governor and the state and for the feds. They all screwed up badly, and WHY – and there’s the question, WHY. It wasn’t just an accident, it’s because they are based on their crony capitalist system, based on gambling, based on – see, our problem here is we’re up against all these huge systems – state, local, county and all that, and until we start literally tar and feathering some of these people who do this, there won’t be any incentive for things to be cleaned up.
Jack: I want to speculate, the city was under emergency management—at the same time, Detroit was facing backruptcy. Flint was the biggest customer of the Detroit water system. Now, I don’t think it’s totally unbelievable that the gov who was dealing with Detroit’s bankruptcy at the time convinced Mayor Duggan to eliminate the Detroit water and sewer system, and create a regional water authority, and in so doing our EM said no we can’t use Detroit water, we’re going to go to the Flint River.
Guess what – almost immediately the regional water authority was created – the water was treated poorly. I can’t prove that the governor had something to do with it, but boy, the potential it’s extremely likely.
Bob Thomas: it’s all out there, he knew what was going on.
Jan: Yeah, and I think there’s an uncomfortable truth around this circle – almost all of us understand.
That’s the anger. We can deal with each other, but when we get into this other stuff – they just have the big guns. Let’s face it – your boss [speaking to Gary Jones] your boss Kildee may be an exception in the State of Michigan, but there’s The Mackinac Institute, and all of that plays a role. But trying to get the message out — until it’s understood we’re going to be living in the dark ages.
Jan: We started this conversation tonight with trust, and we’ve come around the circle and here we are back to the betrayals.
Jan: Since Ted is the catalyst, I’m going to let Mr. Nelson have the last few words.
Ted: Thank you and good night. (Laughter). I would really like to say that I was moved by all that you said. The problem with that is, I’m 75, I should be too old to be moved.
Bob: Yeah, too old to be fighting, Ted! We did our fighting in our days…
Dylan Thomas wrote a poem that’s perfect for this city. It’s called “Out of the Sighs” and the last two lines of that poem go like this:
“For all there is to give, I offer/crumbs, barn and halter.”
I would add one more line:
..And the opportunity to walk among people of good heart and resolute will — and you are they – thank you so much for who you are and what you are and what you give. I love you.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson, who led and transcribed this meeting, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.