Bearing Witness: ACT Leaders Travel to Flint, Michgan

In early February, 2016, Pastor Les Simmons, ACT leader and Board Member, and Gabby Trejo, ACT organizer, flew to Flint, Michigan to work with other PICO leaders to support the people of Flint as they cope with the city-wide public health crisis created by their poisoned water.  

PICO and its local affiliate, Michigan Faith in Action, are working to ignite people for change and the betterment of the whole community.  Through door-to-door canvases they are assessing water and health needs, as well as inviting Flint residents to be involved in creating strategies to address the water crisis and hold public officials accountable.

Flint is a city of approximately 84,000 people 66 miles northwest of Detroit.  It was the birthplace of General Motors and was once an auto manufacturing center.  But in the last decades, Flint has suffered from deindustrialization and disinvestment.  The population today is less than half of what it was in 1960.  It is a majority African-American city, which is now very segregated, and it has suffered great economic decline.  Crime and violence rates are high and there are countless abandoned properties.  The last of the major grocery stores left Flint last year, leaving only small markets, liquor stores and dollar stores.  It is a city that has suffered a total withdrawal of services and investment.  Flint residents have simply been left to fend for themselves.

In the midst of this, Flint is now suffering the effects of the past two years of a poisoned municipal water supply that impacts every resident in the city.  (For background on the water crises, see below.) Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that Flint residents have been being poisoned by high lead levels in their water for the past two years.  Lead poisoning has devastating physical and mental effects, especially on young children.  The total impact of this crisis could ripple across Flint’s youngest generation for decades to come.

Pastor Les and Gabby canvassed in Flint neighborhoods, reaching out to residents to make sure that they had water filters and bottled water, checking on whether residents were suffering health effects from the water and inviting them to organize with other residents to strategize about solutions to the crisis.  They found that no one had spoken with many of them about how to be part of strategizing about a solution, in spite of the fact that residents clearly know exactly what they want, and how the problem needs to be fixed.

A young man in a middle class neighborhood where about half the houses were boarded up told Pastor Les that the Simmons Square low-income housing was an area in great need of outreach.  Pastor Les spoke of the impact of the scene as they drove to Simmons Square where they saw the National Guard distributing water on one block, the fire station distributing water on the next block, and a water tanker dispensing water on the following block.  In Simmons Square, they canvassed door to door.  An older woman answered one door. She did not have a filter for her water faucet and she described sickness and skin rashes caused by the water and described how, hidden under her head wrap, her hair was falling out.

"This is a humanitarian crisis and no one is being held accountable.”
-Pastor Les Simmons

In Simmons Square, Pastor Les found a forgotten neighborhood, isolated by the level of crime and violence by which it is surrounded.  He said that his team committed to distribute every single bottle of water in their truckload.

In another neighborhood, Pastor Les knocked at the door of house that stood out as a gem in the neighborhood.  The woman who answered said she had stopped drinking Flint water two years earlier when she noticed that all of her clothes were becoming discolored by the water when she laundered them.  She told him about how she had paid off the house she has so lovingly tended, and that now she is stuck there because the house has become worthless -- no one will buy houses in Flint.

Gabby canvassed especially in neighborhoods with Spanish-speaking families. There she met a family who only heard the warnings about the dangers of drinking the water from their daughter who lives in California.

They received conflicting information from the city and did not understand that the water was not good to drink until the husband and father happened to see a Spanish-language newspaper last month from the surrounding area which described the problem.  They have two elementary school-aged children, one of whom suffered from a skin rash for six months.  Their dog, who had always been healthy, suddenly died.  When Gabby spoke with them, they did not yet completely understand the water problem.

Gabby met another family with five children, all of whom had skin conditions.  In fact, in every family that Gabby met, at least one member had a skin condition.

When asked what Flint leaders would want from ACT leaders, Pastor Les and Gabby said that ACT leaders can continue to raise awareness of the tragedy that is occurring in Flint and clearly convey how urgent this is.  The crisis in Flint is a long term fight which will continue after it has faded from the media.  Stay tuned in the coming weeks for a call to action in which you can use your voice to support the people of Flint as they fight for justice.

Pastor Les observed, “This is a humanitarian crisis and no one is being held accountable.”

A Brief Summary of the Water Crisis in Flint

Over the past two years in Flint, Michigan, a pervasive public health crisis has unfolded with contaminated water at its source, which implicates public officials at every level, all the way to Governor Rick Snyder.  Prior to 2014, Flint’s water supply was provided through the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department system which draws its water from Lake Huron.  In 2013 as a cost-cutting measure, state and local officials decided to contract with the new, and as yet unbuilt, Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) for Flint’s water supply.  The Detroit system offered to lower rates, but Flint and state officials declined.  Since the KWA infrastructure was not scheduled to be completed until 2016, Flint had to find another source for its water in the interim.  In April of 2014, Flint began using water from the Flint River as its water supply.  Officials chose not to treat it with an anti-corrosion agent, a choice that would prove to be disastrous.  

Flint residents immediately noted a change in their water, complaining that it was discolored, bad tasting, and foul smelling.  Over the next months there were multiple instances of contamination, some requiring boil-water advisories, and other warnings of excessive contaminant levels.  General Motors stopped using Flint water in its factory after noticing rust spots on newly machined parts. As the months passed, residents complained of increasing skin rashes.  There was an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in the county that includes Flint, sickening 87 residents and killing 9. In September, 2015 a medical study by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha documented high lead levels in blood tests of Flint children.  Lead poisoning can cause severe mental and physical impairment, especially in young children, and in severe cases its effects cannot be reversed.  The failure to treat the water with anti-corrosives meant that lead leached into the water from the water system pipes.  In October, 2015, the County Health Department declared a public health emergency and told residents not to drink the water. By January 2016, Flint residents were being urged to use bottled water and lead filters until further notice.  

You can read a Detroit Free Press timeline of the crisis here