“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Frederick Douglass (Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s favorite quote)
By Harold C. Ford
Several dozen area residents gathered at the Flint Public Library Jan. 9 to hear Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha reflect on Flint’s proud and challenging history, including the evolution of and response to the city’s water crisis. She also provided details from her own personal history.
The event, titled “Water Crisis and Systemic Racism,” was the latest in the Tendaji Talks lecture series named in honor of the late Tendaji Ganges, a Flint educator and social justice activist. The series is sponsored by the anti-racism group Neighborhoods Without Borders. Hanna-Attisha repeated the talk Jan. 16 at the New McCree Theater.
Since documenting toxic lead levels among the young patients of her Hurley Hospital pediatric practice in 2015 – data which some state officials tried to discredit – Hanna-Attisha has become a tireless spokesperson, advocate and ambassador for Flint’s emergence from the water crisis – a national figure, now, with a book coming out this year.
The lens through which Hanna-Attisha shines light on Flint’s story is strongly tinted by her experience as the daughter of Iraqi immigrants who fled the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein when she was four years old.
“He was big and bad and brutal,” she said of Hussein. “My parents were progressives…and they knew that they couldn’t stay in that country so they fled.”
“I am an immigrant,” Hanna-Attisha told the FPL audience. “We came basically as refugees in search of a peaceful and prosperous place for my brother and I to grow up… We came to this country in search of the American dream… I saw this country…with the fresh eyes of a little girl who was filled with so much hope, so much excitement…”
Hanna-Attisha noted that times have changed and the America that welcomed her family in the 1980s is attempting to close the door.
“That America that I woke up to this morning, it’s changed a lot since I was that bright-eyed little girl,” she reflected. “I would not be in this country with his (President Trump’s) first immigration ban… It’s not as easy anymore especially (for) a brown person from an Arabic country.”
Hanna-Attisha, of course, was referring to the Trump administration’s first attempt at banning immigrants with an executive order issued one year ago that sought to deny entry to citizens from seven majority Muslim nations, including Iraq.
That attempted ban was struck down by the courts. But the administration’s campaign to reject or restrict “brown person(s)” is continuing.
Nation Magazine just reported that, “Increasingly, ICE (U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement) seems intent on proving there is no safety for undocumented immigrants anywhere—not in the shadows and not in the spotlight.”
Close to home, Michigan resident Jorge Garcia, 39, was escorted by U.S. immigration agents to a plane bound for Mexico on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 15. Garcia left behind a wife and two children; all were weeping at departure.
According to supporters, Garcia paid his taxes and had no criminal record, not even a traffic citation. He was brought to the U.S. nearly three decades ago at the age of ten by an undocumented family member.
A better life
“I realized even at that age how I was so lucky to every day wake up to that America,” Hanna-Attisha said. Her educated parents earned good salaries, dad as a metallurgist for General Motors, and mom as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher for immigrants.
“They sent me and my brother to Michigan’s great public schools and universities and I know that we were lucky,” she recalled. “For my family, that American dream worked. It worked as it should have worked.”
Flint helps build American dream
Hanna-Attisha declared 1936-37 Flint as the date and site of “the original American dream.” She was referencing, of course, the 44-day Sit-Down Strike by members of the fledgling United Auto Workers that ended in capitulation by General Motors and recognition of the UAW.
“This was radical, this had never been done before, this was revolutionary,” Hanna-Attisha said of the UAW strikers. “They risked their lives, they risked their jobs, they risked their families.”
“What happened in Flint informed wages and contracts across the country for decades, and it informed me and my life…because I know that my GM dad and my teacher mom, who was a union member, directly benefitted from those workers’ contracts…and from that bargain we lifted working people into the middle class and into the American dream.”
“Flint was a special place,” she said. “It was a promised land and…people fleeing Jim Crow came to Flint…for those great living-wage jobs.”
Not a promised land for all
“The equality was not shared by all of Flint’s residents,” Hanna-Attisha cautioned. “The auto plant jobs were segregated. So were the schools, so were the neighborhoods. Evil housing practices, blockbusting, and redlining that happened during this period” helped to foster segregation in Flint and Genesee County. She recommended the book Demolition Means Progress by Andrew Highsmith who writes:
“During the decades preceding World War II, a potent combination of private discrimination, federal housing and development initiatives, corporate practices, and municipal public policies converged to make Flint one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States…By the close of the 1930s, the widespread use of restrictive covenants by local residents had helped make Flint the third most segregated city in the nation, surpassed only by Miami, Florida, and Norfolk, Virginia.”
(See Robert Thomas’s 2016 review of the book here.)
It got worse, according to Hanna-Attisha. “For a lot of folks that dream quickly turned into a nightmare,” she said. “What followed in Flint…was decades of crisis—disinvestment, unemployment, racism, poverty, decline of unions, population loss, crumbling schools, criminal injustice… A person living in Flint right now has a 15-year less life expectancy than a person in a neighboring zip code.”
“I see it as there’s two Americas…the America that I was lucky to grow up in and achieve that American dream and the America that I see in my clinic every day,” she said.
“I have seen things that I wish I had never seen…things that would never be part of a nightmare let alone a dream. It’s a nightmare of poverty, of injustice, of racism, and, most striking, of lost opportunity.”
Hanna-Attisha has found The Other America described by author Michael Harrington in his 1962 book. Harrington argued that up to 25 percent of Americans were living in poverty. His book likely inspired President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”
The 1967 National Commission of Civil Disorders appointed by President Johnson to investigate the causes of race riots also found a partitioned nation. The commission’s final report warned, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
Hanna-Attisha also recommended the book, Between the World and Me, authored by Ta-Nehisi Coates, calling it “an amazing work.” Coates’ powerful writing style is evident in his July 4, 2015 piece for Atlantic magazine titled “Letter to My Son”: “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Lily and the water crisis
During her FPL talk, Hanna-Attisha transitioned to the Flint water crisis through her experience with Lily, a little girl who visited the clinic for her checkup at age four.
“Just like most of our Flint kids, she is bright,smart, stubborn, brave, and beautiful,” she recalled. Lily’s exam was fine. Lily giggled when Hanna-Attisha said she saw Elmo as she looked in her ear. Lily playfully grabbed the physician’s stethoscope to listen to her knees.
The mood in the doctor’s office turned serious, however, as described by Hanna-Attisha: “And then the mom turns to me with a look, a look that is all too familiar in Flint, and asks me, ‘Is she gonna’ be OK?’” The mood at the Tendaji Talk also turned more serious as Hanna-Attisha reflected on Lily’s victimization:
“Lily was born into this city that was almost bankrupt, born into a city that lost democracy. And we know that the emergency manager’s job was austerity, to save money, no matter what the cost. Lily’s water was switched…They severed a half-century relationship with pre-treated Great Lakes water, went from a high-quality water source to a lower-quality water source which nobody ever does in the water world. And on top of that they didn’t treat it properly. It was missing a fundamental ingredient called corrosion control. You talk to water folks and it’s like a no-brainer. How could they not put the corrosion control in? They didn’t even put the pump in that was supposed to put this corrosion control in.”
Starting with her father who toiled for GM as a metallurgist, the science of water quality is not an unfamiliar topic for Hanna-Attisha. Her undergrad degree was in environmental health at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources.
“I started out my career, my education as an environmentalist, a tree-hugging environmentalist,” she recollected. “I kind of wanted to save the world…I realized the connection between environment and health.”
“Twenty years ago when I was in college I learned what environmental injustices were,” she recalled. One of her U of M professors was Bunyan Bryant, a Flint native and “one of the fathers of the field of environmental injustice.”
Bryant’s impressive national and state accolades includes the William D. Milliken Distinguished Service Award, Michigan’s highest environmental honor. According to U of M’s website, Bryant’s investigative research includes “climate justice…the differential impact of environmental contaminants on people of color and low-income communities…(and) the proximity of hazardous waste facilities to schools and their impact upon academic achievement.”
“We all know what lead does,” Hanna-Attisha declared. “It’s one of the most well-studied metals out there. We’ve known what it’s done since the Romans used it to build their pipes.”
She cited “centuries-old reports on how it impacts children and causes (health) difficulties. Because of science…we now know that lead levels that used to be acceptable are no longer acceptable…It impacts every organ system and every age group.”
“The lead industry…there’s evilness in that industry,” she said. “There was something called the Lead Industry Association that targeted communities of color that blamed the victim and tried to minimize the harm done.”
“Even before this water crisis, we knew that lead exposure, in an of itself, is a form of environmental injustice,” Hanna-Attisha said. “Professor Bryant used to call it ‘environmental racism’ because it disproportionately impacts children of color.”
Hanna-Attisha referenced the long-smoldering, largely-forgotten, and still unsettled environmental justice case on Flint’s northeast side.
“In 1994, activists opposing the construction of a wood-fired power plant…arguing the project would spew toxic pollutants into their poor, largely African-American neighborhood,” according to the EE News, an organization focusing on energy and environment news.
“It’s kind of a race,” stated the Rev. Phil Schmitter, a Flint-area Catholic priest and social justice activist who sent a call for help to the Environmental Protection Agency. “Is the Second Coming going to happen, or am I going to hear from the EPA? Right now, I’m betting on the Second Coming.”
“We were stubbornly slow as a nation to restrict lead from a lot of things but especially our plumbing,” said Hanna-Attisha. “We didn’t restrict it from our (water) service lines until 1986 and from our fixtures until 2014—another amazing example of policies failing to listen to science.”
“So this created that perfect storm for the lead in our plumbing to leach out into the bodies of our children,” she said.
“And we all know that this would not have happened in a richer city. It would not have happened in a whiter city.”
“What’s difficult with most environmental health issues is that it is almost impossible to prove causation because there is a significant time lag,” she reminded her audience. “You might be exposed today but you might not see symptoms for five years from now and the symptoms you see can be caused by lots of different things.”
Hanna-Attisha recalled the 1973 PBB disaster in St. Louis, Mich. when a toxic flame retardant chemical was mixed with livestock feed in a plant owned by Velsicol Chemical. Millions of Michiganders ate contaminated beef, chicken, pork, milk, and eggs. A team at Emory University found that, “60 percent of Michiganders recently tested have PBB levels above the U.S. population 95th percentile.”
Hanna-Attisha’s social justice mission goes beyond a searing examination of the role of racism in environmental injustice. It includes finding solutions and hope, “flipping the story, making tomorrow so much brighter than yesterday ever was….The hope that I talk about is being forged every day by folks around the city…working together to really realize that hope and build those dreams for our kids.”
“We are doing things in Flint that no other city in the country is doing right now,” asserted Hanna-Attisha. She delivered her long list of hopeful initiatives in rapid-fire style:
- “We are the only city in Michigan to have universal preschool.”
- “We have two brand new child care centers…free, all year, the highest quality child care you can ever imagine…”
- “We have (Dolly Parton’s) Imagination Library…so every single kid in Flint gets a free book mailed to them every single month from the age zero to five.
- “We have Medicaid expansion. This is probably the biggest gift we got from the federal government…This means all folks up to the age of 21, pregnant moms, can have access to health care.”
- “We’ve had a huge explosion of home visiting resources to support pregnant moms, and parents, and their children.”
- “We have mobile grocery stores.”
- “We have things like Double Up Food Bucks. Eligible persons who spend $10 using a SNAP Bridge Card can spend an additional $10 on fresh fruits and vegetables.”
- “We actually have jobs in Flint now…early childhood workers, Lear (an estimated 430+ new jobs); we used to have one school nurse, we now have ten school nurses.”
- Crim Fitness Foundation programs in Flint schools now train students in mindfulness, meditation, and yoga, “an evidence-based intervention that decreases stress”, that alters discipline procedures while emphasizing restorative practices. The initiative is aided by Americorps workers.
- A registry akin to that created for Michigan’s PBB victims and 9/11 World Trade Center survivors was launched Jan. 22. “It is a massive project (funded by) a grant from the CDC (Center for Disease Control),” reported Hanna-Attisha. “The goal is to support folks, to identify those that were exposed to the crisis and get them connected to resources to improve outcomes.”
“I want you to recognize that this is all based on science,” Hanna-Attisha said of the responses to Flint’s water crisis. “These are things that will help our children to recover.”
In a question-and-answer session that followed the talk, Jan Worth-Nelson, editor of East Village Magazine, expressed concern about the temporary nature of the remedies.
“Where are we going to be in 15 years?” she asked. “Is this town capable over time of becoming self-sufficient and healthy?”
“I’m an eternal optimist,” Hanna-Attisha responded. “But a lot of this is related to capacity-building. We don’t need (bottled) water, we need tomorrow investments.”
Hanna-Attisha said there is envy in other communities about the attention and support for Flint in the wake of its water crisis. “There’s a lot of Flint jealousy,” she said. She cited the response of Assistant Surgeon General Dr. Nicole Lurie to Flint jealousy. “There was malfeasance in Flint,’ declared Lurie. “We played a role in what happened in Flint.”
We’re in the same boat
Hanna-Attisha concluded her Tendaji Talk with a favorite quote from Martin Luther King: “We may have all come here on different ships, but we are all in the same boat.”
“We are all in that same boat and we all must continue to work together as we continue this path toward healing,” Hanna-Attisha advised. “We are not going to be defined by this crisis, but rather by our response.”
EVM staff writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.