Flint, Michigan, still doesn’t have clean water. In fact, it’s been 1,154 days since water ran clear rather than brown; it's contaminated and smells faintly of rotten eggs. That’s more than three years since most residents have been able to take showers, drink from the faucet, or safely water their plants without the help of a filter or bottled water.
On April 14, 2014, Flint officials made the decision to switch the city’s water source to the Flint River in order to save money. The pollution from the river ended up corroding the pipes and, in turn, poisoning the water with lead and other hazardous chemicals. It wasn’t until September of 2015, though, that the state acknowledged there was a problem, despite continuous complaints from residents. In fact, it took investigations from the ACLU, Virginia Tech, and reports from pediatrician Dr. Moana Hanna-Attisha, who found record levels of lead in her patients' blood, for anyone to really start paying attention. It got so bad that former President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency in January of last year (note: nearly two years after residents had already been exposed to lead).
It’s been an uphill battle for the majority black city since. The mayor at the time, Dayne Walling—one of the officials who insisted that the water was safe, even going so far as to drink it on television—has since been replaced by Karen Weaver. The city’s switched their water back to being sourced from Detroit and the eroding pipes are set to be fixed, but the process is estimated to take at least three years.
While there was a time when it seemed like everyone was hyper-aware of what was going in Flint (back in 2016 when Obama visited and #JusticeForFlint, the benefit event that included guests like Jesse Williams, Janelle Monae, and Ava DuVernay, was broadcast during the Academy Awards ), the media has, for the most part, moved on from this story. There are other things to cover, other horrific things to report on. But Flint still doesn't have clean water.
So while Flint hasn't completely left the news cycle—just a couple of weeks ago five Michigan officials were charged with involuntary manslaughter for their role in the water crisis—it can still be hard to gauge what needs to be done and who can help. To get a better sense of exactly this, we spoke with five activists, who have long been doing their part to spread awareness.
Read ahead for what they have to say.
Little Miss Flint
Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny, in most spaces known as Little Miss Flint, is probably the most well-known activist on this list. She also happens to be the youngest. She’s nine years old now, but when she was just eight, she wrote a letter to then-president, Obama, that stirred him to come visit her city. (You might also know her from this meme.) Copeny has amassed a huge following on social media; she was the youngest ambassador at the Women’s March back in January, and she’s just as passionate about raising awareness for the issues Flint still faces today, day 1,154, as she was on day one.
But though Copeny’s efforts have helped, her mother, LuLu Brezzell, says there’s still much work to be done. “As far as progress is going, the government officials can always be doing more,” she tells us. She and her family have shower filters and are “able to get in and speed shower,” but they still experience rashes that look like chemical burns. “They’re pushing for people to use the filters because they’re trying to phase out the bottled water because it costs money and they don’t wanna have to keep wasting money on people,” Brezzell says.
There’s a lot she’d like to see done. Specifically, she’d like to see the piping replaced sooner rather than later. She’d also like Flint to be declared a federal disaster zone. “This is something that we were hoping President Obama would have done,” she says. “I understand why they didn’t do it—because it’s not a national disaster—but, at the same time, if they declare this a disaster zone it will open up more funding—it will open up more resources to help get these pipes out of the ground quicker.”
The main thing that people living outside of Flint can do to help, Brezzell says, is to allow the people of Flint to be heard. “We don’t need outsiders coming in and trying to tell us what to think, how to feel, what kind of actions we should take,” she says. “If you’re going to come in as an ally, stand behind us, support us, but don’t try to stand in front of us and kind of take the spotlight and take the lead when you don’t have the whole picture of what it’s like being here.”
Also, she adds, it’s important to remember that there are kids, like Copeny herself, who are “part of the collateral damage.” She continues: “I think people miss that part, the day-to-day of what it’s like for kids… Right now, we have a whole generation of kids that will not trust the tap water for anything,” she says. “You have a whole city that’s pretty much dealing with a lot of little kids being traumatized over what’s happened here.”
Tunde Olaniran likes to think of himself as an advocate, rather than an activist. “I definitely recognize the difference between on-the-ground activism and advocacy,” he says. “I don’t want to push that distinction on other people, but, for me, it’s often been a matter of 'let me try to talk with people, and make sure I have an understanding of what’s happening.'”
There was a time when he considered himself an activist, and that was when he was working at Planned Parenthood in Flint. While there, he turned the location into a water distribution center and started an education program for patients to talk about what they should do if they suspect they have lead poisoning. “I think a big part of outreach, when it comes to health care, is not just saying, ‘Oh we’re gonna provide this service.’ We’re trying to think about not replicating oppression in the way you provide services.” For him, this included providing filters, but also providing replacement cartridges which, he says, a lot of other programs weren’t doing.
Even though the state technically required it, he also made sure people without ID had access. “Flint has an undocumented population, and they were afraid to get water, and they were afraid to get filters because they knew they had to show ID,” he explains. “I don’t wanna say, the Flint department… were trying to intentionally...” he trails off. “It’s a matter of sensitivity.”
Since transitioning from his work at Planned Parenthood to focus more on his singing career (he just got off tour with Sleigh Bells), Olaniran continues the fight by including imagery of water in his songs and pushing a #BlackLivesMatter narrative. It’s not as on-the-ground as before, but that doesn’t mean his passion toward the issues Flint is facing has lessened. He’s hopeful that real change can, and is, happening, but thinks what actually needs to change is Flint’s elected officials. This is a complicated problem and a much bigger issue, but he recommends everyone pay more attention to who's in charge of local government. “I would urge people to look at the track record for those in office, and if they don’t have a record of protecting the environment, being transparent with taxpayers and citizens, and making it a priority that resources like water need to remain public—they should not be privatized—then those people should not be in office. That’s gonna be what causes more and more issues down the road.”
As for what people living outside of Flint can do? He tells the story of a friend who moved to Chicago and struggled with still wanting to help out: “He got together with a few people and raised, I think, about $800, and I said, ‘You know what, why don’t you just find a family in the city and pay for them to get a home filtration system? It’s a surefire way to filter the water long-term and to be sure the water stays pretty.” If you need help getting in touch with a household, Olaniran encourages people to get in touch with him. He also points to the organization Water You Fighting For that can also help.
Karina Petri founded Project Flint in February of 2016 after someone shared an article online about the water crisis. She was in Milwaukee at the time, but, she says, she felt a need to get to Flint and fast. “I really thought that I was only gonna go there to deliver some water, just one time, and I didn’t know that nearly a year and a half later, I’d still be fighting for that city. I had no idea.”
In the beginning, Petri started out hosting community events to “bring a sense of love and unity and community and to remind the people that, although they’re suffering, there are people that care about them and remind them how important it is for all of us to uphold one another.” Today, she partners with a lot of other organizations, like Veterans of Now, to spread the same supportive ethos. They also bring in public and motivational speakers and health facility employees around the city to talk to the residents. “So we kind of draw people in through these events, and, while they’re there, we give them a lot of fun and then a lot of resources including filters, water, food, and all kinds of stuff.”
In the year and a half since Petri’s started traveling to Flint (she goes every other week), she says she hasn’t witnessed very much progress. She’s cautiously hopeful though. “I think by continuing to put pressure on the right people, and digging and investigating, there’s a lot of people that might channel that into starting a lawsuit or calling legislature,” she says. “I can sense that, even though the crisis is still continuing. The fact that the people feel so much love coming in, it is a positive change in that sense. But there are a lot of things on the ground, in terms of government, that are being worked on, and that are a continuous effort.”
Speaking of love coming in, Petri says more is needed, especially when it comes to continuing to spread the message that Flint still needs help. “People can write letters and make these phone calls and make it known that they are paying attention to what is happening in that city and that there needs to be change and there needs to be restitution and justice.” She points to social media as a powerful platform, also. “A lot of times, these things tend to fizzle out because people simply aren’t paying attention to it, so if people were to pay more attention and actually use your social media and start sharing this stuff and understanding that our keyboard and our phones have a lot of power, that is our interconnection.”
When I speak with Chia Morgan, she’s in the middle of a campaign to run for city council. The primary is coming up in August, so it’s kept her even busier than her job in social work usually does.
At the moment, she’s the program coordinator for Well of Hope, a nonprofit organization that helps “break down barriers to education for children and unify families.” Outside of that, she’s been on numerous boards, working not only to spread the word about the water crisis but to also bring light to other issues that plague Flint. “We have other areas that we’re struggling with here, so whatever I can find my hands to do in the social service realm, something that’s going to help those at risk, I just do it.”
So, really, city council seems like a logical next step, especially since Morgan points to government officials for a lot of the issues her city is facing. Specifically, Governor Rick Snyder. “He’s still walking around scot-free, and we’re still paying the price. Health-wise, my dad just called me about 20 minutes ago and said he picked up 20 cases of water and he’ll be dropping it off to me. We’re still drinking bottled water, and he’s catching a private jet over to the most beautiful water in Michigan. It’s not fair.”
She recalls a trip she took recently to Texas, and one she took to Washington, D.C. back in January for the Women’s March where, in both cases, she didn’t drink the water until the end of the trip. “It’s not that I don’t want a tall glass of water, but you get to thinking, What if there’s lead in this water and they don’t know?” she says. “There will definitely be some people, 10 or 15 years from now, that will be diagnosed with PTSD from this situation.”
Morgan’s hoping she can implicate more change as an elected official. “I just want this opportunity to serve my city. I’ve done it before in a volunteer capacity. I have a strong, strong love for this city, and I think that, as an activist, I’ve peaked in the advocacy that I can give to the residents in that role. Now, it’s time for me to have a voice for a role. Flint can move forward if they have the people who are dedicated to the cause. I believe that.”
In the meantime, she encourages those on the outside to keep the fight alive. “Keep pushing the government. Write letters to Congress, write letters to our government, come and see about us. We may even need you to come march with us so we can keep the bottled water coming. So, just anything.”
You might not know Natasha Thomas-Jackson and her organization, Raise It Up! Youth, by name, but you probably came across the poem young members worked on with Paris Jackson and Teen Vogue about the water crisis last month. “They’re using their poetry, they’re using the experiences of themselves and the experiences of their family members, and putting it into this poetry, and using it to help people understand what’s going on here,” Thomas-Jackson says.
She’s proud of what the young people of Flint have been doing—awareness on a national level is necessary. But when I ask her if she thinks things have improved in Flint, she replies, “Improved is when people don’t have to drink out of bottled waters or filters.” She continues: “Flint is still an issue, and I think the scary part about it is it’s starting to becoming normalized. People in Flint are still drinking bottled water, still drinking filtered water, and I’m afraid that people will start to think that’s normal, that that is okay, and that will continue.” She says, what it comes down to, is trust and the fact that Flint residents don’t have much of it. “Even if things get repaired or things get better, how much can you trust officials who said it was okay when it wasn’t? I don’t know how you repair that.”
Well, she kind of knows. She points to infrastructure as a major concern, and not just in Flint. “Flint is kind of the canary in the coal mine in the sense that I feel like this water issue has been big here, but I think infrastructure and water issues are issues in a lot of other places, as well,” she says. “A lot of places have these kind of old, aging infrastructures that, eventually, create problems for water.” Those individuals who signed off on Flint’s current corrosive pipes? They need to answer for their actions, Thomas-Jackson says. “This water crisis is the result of certain policies and divisions made by those that we put in positions of power. I think the major thing that needs to happen is accountability and really pushing those who made this happen to understand that they have to fix it,” she says.
Putting pressure on Flint officials is something that can be done both in Flint and outside she says. “I feel like anything short of that, anything short of people saying, this is unacceptable, and we will continue to push until these pipes are changed.”