By Jan Worth-Nelson
Less than a mile from where two U.S. Congressmen were touring the Flint Farmers’ Market with considerable fanfare and a scrum of reporters and photographers in tow, a panel at a much quieter event at the Flint Public Library asserted that Flint has been severely failed in the water crisis at all levels of government, that victims have repeatedly been blamed, and that the trouble is far from over.
They described a community still in the throes of effects of the poisoned water, deeply distrustful of government, and a cadre of officials at all levels still mired in malfeasance.
“This is not the America I know,” Pastor Robert “Sherm” McCathern said in opening remarks, describing how even aged residents of his neighborhood initially were forced to take wagons to get water from distribution centers far from their homes, and how many refused to open their doors to the water resource crews because information had not been adequately distributed and they feared they were being raided.
The Third World: “our reality”
McCathern, pastor of Joy Tabernacle in Civic Park, reflected on a trip to Uganda, where visitors were routinely urged not to drink the water, not to drink local ice, only to realize on returning home that “the Third World has become our reality.”
“We’re not just a bunch of poor people who think they’re ‘entitled,’ who want a handout,” McCathern said. “There is a social contract here–that people should have clean water, among other things.”
“Failing Flint: Lessons from the Water Crisis” was sponsored by the University of Michigan/LSA Bicentennial Theme Semester–the bicentennial referred to being the 200th anniversary of the university.
Panelists, in addition to McCathern, were Mona Munroe-Younis, program manager, public health practice in the UM –Ann Arbor School of Public Health; Gregory Timmons, Flint Water Recovery Resource Coordinator of the Michigan United Methodist Church; and moderator Jacob Lederman, assistant professor in Sociology at UM – Flint. Karyn Lacy from UM — Ann Arbor was the panel emcee.
No “thank you,” no “let us help”
Perhaps most angry of all was Timmons, who said the way the state government pulled out of home deliveries in August with five days’ notice to the community was “profane.”
“The state said, okay, it’s up to you to figure it out how to deal with it. Oh, and by the way, you have five days. And then the city said, ‘we don’t have the resources to deal with this, so you’ll have to.'”
The “you” was a collection of faith-based organizations that were suddenly forced to negotiate a host of challenges, such as how to get trucks, how to rent warehouses when the state closed down its warehouse — on no notice and very little money.
“I got pretty verbose,” at that meeting, Timmons said. “It was insane.”
“There was no, ‘thank you, let us help you out,’ nothing,” he said. “If you are saying you want to re-establish trust, you don’t do it that way — making citizens sacrifice even further. That’s where we are today. And those responsible have put it on the victims. They’re saying, you must take care of yourself because it’s the American Way. I’m not making this up.”
Missed opportunity for UM “intellectual capital”
He issued a passionate appeal for approaches to develop a self-sustaining economy for the residents of Flint, and voiced disappointment in the “intellectual capital” of the University of Michigan, especially the nationally-recognized school of business, for not helping tackle Flint’s circumstances. He said he thinks the opportunity to help create a self-sustaining economy had been missed.
“I don’t want your money,” he said,. “I want to make my own.” But he noted the city’s assets and infrastructure have been stripped and many services privatized, leaving many in Flint unable to bounce back. “It doesn’t mean that we are beggars or that we are weak,” he said.
Munroe-Younis said the UM bicentennial observance offers an opportunity to reflect on what should be the university’s role as a public institution, and suggested the news so far is not good.
Universities are “scared”
“Working on the inside, and as a resident, I have to say that public universities get scared,” she said. “The money comes from the state.” There has been a change in higher ed over the last 15 or more years, she noted, and decreases in state support for higher education has put more pressure on higher education.
“Broadly speaking, I felt as a resident there were some amazing faculty and staff committed. But what I did not see was any institutional will, as an institution to say, we are going to play a powerful pro-active role,” she said. Noting that when Virginia Tech scientist Marc Edwards was approached by LeAnn Walters, one of the earliest water warriors whose family experienced severe water poisoning, he started by contacting UM-Flint. But when Edwards approached UM for assistance, he was told, “We don’t have the funding, so you can do it.”
Munroe-Younis emotionally described the travails of her baby son, born on December 15, 2015, the same day that Flint Mayor Karen Weaver declared an emergency in the water crisis. Within months of his birth, he developed a severe, full-body rash with skin peeling off his legs. She said she and her husband had to bind the baby’s body to keep him from peeling off his skin. At first, she followed reassurances from officials that the water was safe for bathing, but finally, she switched to bathing the child in filtered water, and working with her pediatrician, the skin problems — determined to be an auto-immune reaction to the water, slowly cleared up. Munroe-Younis said still her child may experience ezcema throughout life.
Here’s the thing, Munroe-Younis stated, she was educated, she makes a living wage — “the best case scenario, and even then, I could not protect my son.”
She also noted increases in tooth decay in Flint because bottled water doesn’t contain fluoride. McCathern added that he and many of his parishioners have reported declines in short term memory and hearing problems.
“This is all intertwined,” Munroe-Younis said, “We need systemic change.”
Following the panel discussion, participants, students bussed up from Ann Arbor, and the audience were invited to help with a water distribution project in the city.
EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.