On The Train to God-Knows-Where

I sat up with a groan.

Unable to register the soreness in my body, I let the world slowly come into focus around me.

It was 9:30 on Sunday morning. Twenty-four hours earlier, my partner and I had made the trek up to St. Michael’s Catholic Church, where we met with Mike Hood and his crew to hear more about their volunteer operations in the city of Flint.

A phone call alerted Mike’s team to a semi filled with 600 cases of water on its way into Flint. And cut our interview short.

With few volunteers left to answer the call, we jumped in our car and headed for Woodside Church where the truck was due to arrive. Along the way, we sent out last-minute calls for help to our friends headed into the city. For the final weekend in January, the weather was as nice as you could hope. Sunshine and 50. Hell, this would be nice weather for a Saturday afternoon in early April.

A small mercy for a city that’s had none for 30 years.

Musing how we could promote unloading semis full of water in Flint as a way to get in shape for spring breakers, I pulled myself out of bed.

Determined to finish my interview, I got ready to head back to Flint.

A friend who agreed to work with me on Stand Up, Flint! met me in the basement of St. Michael’s.

“This might take a while,” I warned her.

I wasn’t wrong.

After driving an hour from Lansing, though, I wasn’t prepared to leave unless I got at least 10 minutes with Mike.

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Lessons Learned

As we sat down to talk, Mike joked, “I hope this is the toughest interview you’ve ever had.”

“I’m gonna give you that title,” I assured him.

“I hope you put that in your article.”

Naturally, I agreed.

If there was any advantage in spreading the interview over two days, it was the chance to dig deeper into Crossing Water’s unique response model. The basic idea is that a first wave of canvassers hits the ground, going door to door to identify any issues that residents may be facing. The second group, the Rapid Response Service Teams [RRST], then goes out to respond to those urgent needs.

When Mike had explained it to us the day before, it sounded great. As we got pulled out into the field, though, we saw it break down in Flint’s North End off 475. While Crossing Water exists to do more than deliver bottled water, we saw some people doing just that.

As I asked Michael about lessons learned from the day before, the Crossing Water RRST squad was on their way out the door.

“Hold on,” he told me before turning to address the crowd.

“Does this sound right to you?” he asked. “Knock, knock. ‘Hi, we are are from the RRST team. Here ma’am, here is your water.’ Is that a referral?” A distinct no came back.

“Hell no!” Mike bellowed. “You engage with everyone at the door, you start a conversation. It starts we a smile, right? We don’t just hand someone [water] and walk away. We are not doing that.”

Despite the occasional hiccups, this willingness to learn from criticism and to grow from feedback is what makes Crossing Water stand out from other organizations on the ground in Flint.

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“We are really customizing, and customer fitting our referral visits, our RSST team visits,” Mike told us once our conversation resumed. “Frankly, no one is doing that right now. No one is getting a social worker visit at a moment’s notice. If you call to get a social worker in your home, you might wait six weeks. They’re all backlogged. We don’t have that problem, we have assets on the ground. They’re here, unencumbered by bureaucracy. They’re here for us to do what needs to be done.”

I wanted to know what it was about social workers that made them so critical in this sort of situation.

“Social workers are the damn supermen, superwomen of this crisis,” Mike said. “Social workers are jack of all trades in human services. Social workers are experts in navigating those [county and state] bureaucracies and getting those services re-established and reinstated.

“On top of that, we have social workers hauling water—and social workers aren’t above that—but to use them to haul water is a crime because they have so much more to bring to this.

The Big Dogs

Mike and his team are up against a huge monster in this fight.

But they aren’t alone. Allan, a friend and former classmate of Mike’s, put out an e-mail to the Michigan chapter of the National Association of Social Workers [NASW].

“We got a response from 200 social workers. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it really is a lot because those are social workers who are working full jobs on top of that.”

The NASW has done more than provide volunteers.

“The NASW has been critical to us in getting the word out and working with other agencies and government to tell them, ‘Hey, these are the problems, we have people in the field, we get this shit done and we need your support’.”

In a matter of weeks, Crossing Water has laid the groundwork for a massive relief campaign and, in the process, gained some powerful allies.

“We are getting some pretty big dogs in this fight,” Mike said. “Dogs that we didn’t even ask to be in it. But we are grateful they are here.”

This includes everyone from local community organizations to state agencies—even Duke University.

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Long-term Viability

I pressed Michael on the issue of long-term viability. Even with the big dogs in the ring and nearly daily visits from celebrities ranging from Snoop Dogg to Hillary Clinton, you still wonder how long the pressure will last—and whether it will be enough to get the job done and fix Flint’s pipes.

Mike readily concedes that he’s worried.

“The press has already moved on, and people are gonna get tired of this Flint water issue, some folks already are. Hell, I’m tired of this. But we want people to stay engaged because this is gonna be a long fight. Long past when the water bottles are gone.”

Mike is equally frank in assessing his own involvement and his own concern over Crossing Water’s viability.

“We went all-in pretty quick,” Mike told us. “As I was telling my partner, Laurie, ‘You know what honey? We jumped on a train, and we didn’t even see where the train was going, we don’t have tickets, we don’t know what stop we are getting off, we don’t know what is going to be there when we get there.’ We just have no idea.

“To jump all in to a situation is not good judgment, but my heart didn’t allow me not to. So I did. We all did.”

One of Mike’s primary concerns, though, is his volunteers.

“We’ve already been talking a lot about self-care, debriefing situations,” he shared. “If we use everybody in the first couple of weeks, then we really haven’t done anything.

“As much as we’d like to, we can’t throw everything at it at once; it is not reasonable, it is not smart. We are not about working too hard, we are about working really, really smart. That is how we will do it. You can’t fix every problem. You pick a problem and fix it. Like this paczki.”

Mike chuckled. If there’s an appropriate response to staring into the void of a catastrophic manmade disaster, it’s got to be something like laughter and a paczki.

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