Got Some Lead, but We Ain’t Dead: Community and Innovation in Flint, Michigan

May 10, 2017

~ By Jennifer Ross

Recently I had the opportunity to attend the American Studies Association annual conference in Denver, Colorado. This year’s theme was “Home/Not Home: Centering American Studies Where We Are”….so there was no way I could not write about what was going on in my hometown of Flint, Michigan.

Skyline of Flint, Michigan. Personal photograph.

Skyline of Flint, Michigan. Personal photograph.

In my paper, “We Still Call it Home: Complicating the Flint Water Crisis,” I focused on providing a different narrative of the Flint Water Crisis, one that was much more full, complex, and multi-faceted than the accounts provided by the media. I twined together our history of crises (deindustrialization, state and municipal recessions, pollution, arson) with our responses to them. Because of these crises, Flint has fashioned itself into a hub of innovation:

  • Individuals have been urban gardening since I was a child. Now urban gardens cover entire city blocks.
  • The Flint Farmers Market offers free vendor booths to youth gardening programs and both allows fresh fruits and vegetables to be bought with food stamps and doubles the amount of produce that can be bought per dollar.
  • At the height of the arson spree, neighbors fought fires with garden hoses to supplement the skeletal fire crews the city could afford.
  • Community organizations and the University of Michigan—Flint rehab houses for individual, community, and educational uses. One such example includes the university’s Urban Alternatives House, which is Platinum LEED certified and explores environmentally sustainable construction and operation strategies.
  • Phytoremediation, a process utilizing trees to draw toxins out of contaminated soil, is underway in Chevy in the Hole, one of the most polluted ex-industrial sites in the city.

Specifically regarding the Flint Water Crisis, it was Flint residents, charities, and churches who first began organizing the massive water collectio and distribution efforts that allowed people to pick up cases of bottled water. Often a semi trailer full of water would pull up to one of these organizations, a call for volunteers would go out over the radio, and people would flock to help unload and stack the water. It was also Flint residents who distributed water door to door when the National Guard deemed several neighborhoods too dangerous to enter. Additionally, people throughout the city have responded with creative ways of dealing with the enormous numbers of empty water bottles, particularly through art and protest. One local artist traces children’s silhouettes, fills the outline with water bottles, and lights the plastic with LEDs to highlight the importance of water to the human body. The University of Michigan—Flint Early Childhood Development Center turned empty bottles into hanging chandeliers painted by the two- and three-year olds. The chandeliers have been hanging in the Flint Farmer’s Market and were auctioned off for almost $3,000. Finally, UM-Flint dance instructors choreographed a stunning display of what the water crisis has meant for adults with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

Water bottle chandeliers. Personal photograph.

Water bottle chandeliers. Personal photograph.

UM-Flint Spring Dance Finale. Courtesy Mlive.

UM-Flint Spring Dance Finale. Courtesy Mlive.

Attending this conference was a tremendous experience. For as much as Flint has been in the news, and for as egregious an affront to democracy and human rights the Water Crisis is, very few people are actually talking about it outside of the city, the state, and some activist circles. Thousands of scholars attended this conference, but mine was the only paper on the Flint Water Crisis.

It left me puzzled.

And it left me frustrated.

The Flint Water Crisis touches on issues which, at some point, communities across the United States and the country as a body must confront. Racist environmental justice policies continue to be implemented and carried out. The Rust Belt continues to decay and the soil and water contamination left by exiting corporations remains a hazard to the health and well-being of the residents both nearby and downstream. Neoliberal and austerity politics continue to ascend and become more normalized. And civil and human rights issues, including basic rights and necessities such as shelter, food, and access to clean drinking water continue to come under siege as local, state, and federal budgets are stripped of funding for infrastructural improvements and upkeep, environmental protection, and social safety nets. Perhaps most worrisome of all is the lack of productive and meaningful social criticism—quite simply, the absence of outrage—over the Flint Water Crisis.

What does this tell us about who deserves fundamental human rights, let alone civil rights? And how can we decry the human rights violations of regimes abroad when we are enacting violence against an entire population ourselves?

What does this tell us about our priorities as a country? And how can we, as a country, comport ourselves as the bringers of freedom, democracy, and wealth, when we invalidate local, elected governments through the implementation of “Emergency Managers,” and leave men, women, and children to suffer from the poisonous effects of lead?

And what does this tell us about the future? And how are we–how are you–going to respond?

About the Author 

Jennifer Ross received dual bachelor degrees in Honors English and History, as well as her Masters in English, at the University of Michigan-Flint. She is currently a second-year PhD student in the American Studies Program at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Jennifer’s research interests include the structure and function of state power, neoliberalism, disaster literature, and American empire. Her upcoming dissertation will investigate how the fiction of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina served to first build and then critique the nationalist narratives of the counter-terror state.

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