Daniel and Suheoll, Chicago

On March 6, the night Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sparred in Flint, and the same day as the Justice4Flint rally, I met up with Daniel and Suheoll from OMEL-US at Woodside Church.

On their fourth trip to Flint, they talked about the need for long-term solutions and lasting coalitions.

So, were you able to bring water with you today?  

DANIEL: Not today, because we had an issue with a truck—with the truck that we were supposed to take, plus, we have to cover the fees and everything, you know, so we had some issues, but we’re coming back with the water because we have over 500 cases of water. So we’re going to move the delivery date to another date. We don’t know yet when, but we’re taking the water here for sure.

One thing you mentioned to me earlier, which I wanted to follow up on, was this idea that water wasn’t necessary anymore, there was less of a need. Is that kind of what you said?  

DANIEL: Not exactly—well, yes, because, I mean, on the media a lot of people have been telling other people that they don’t need water, they need more like, you know, political type of things because the issue became so political and whatever, so a lot of people are under the impression that that’s something happening.

It’s a need of both, you know, being an activist and out here rallying and talking to the governor, calling the governor and doing whatever, but at the same time the people here in Flint, they still need the water. Regardless of whatever they’re doing politically, the water is still not good. So it has to be a combination of both, water and political support.

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How does this kind of work compare to what you normally do as an organization?  

DANIEL: The main thing we fight is injustice, you know, human rights. So this is in the core of human rights, because water is a bare necessity for humans, so it really comes on our field because of that issue in particular.

We are very centered on the Latino community in general. Many of the Latinos here in Flint, they’re not being as represented as much as we want them to, because they are like five, six percent of the population, so they don’t have as much exposure as anybody else. So we try to bring light to the Latino community but at the same time we’re trying to help the community as a whole because this is not just—this problem doesn’t see color, race or anything, you know, this is a problem for everyone here in Flint, Michigan. So we do bring support to all community, I mean, the Latino community and the people of Flint as a community, as a whole.

One thing, I don’t know if you have you any personal experience with this, one thing that we have heard is that there was a lot of misinformation, in particular in the immigrant community here, where you had people who might not have been documented being told that if they go to the Red Cross they’re going to be asked for papers, so a lot of people were not going to get the help they needed because they were scared of having to show documentation.  

Have you had any experience seeing that sort of thing going on?

DANIEL: Well, as far as we know that issue has been resolved, but, yes, we found about the Flint, Michigan thing was when the I.D. situation came up. People were asking for I.D. to get water, some of the undocumented people were afraid to go then. We haven’t heard any stories right now of that happening anymore, but there’s still a lot of misinformation and that’s what we’re trying to get across, you know, tell our people that this isn’t happening anymore, try to bring them help so that they can feel secure with somebody who, you know, speaks their own language and try to explain this situation more clearly. So we haven’t experienced that as of today but that was one of the main issues we found out about in the situation here in Flint.

So is this your second time here to Flint?  

DANIEL: Our fourth. The first time we came, we brought over 2,000 cases of water. That was the first time. Then we came back to volunteer at St. Michael’s Church, so we went out canvassing, we talked to people in the community, and we came back one more time.

We came back to do the same thing because actually we went to Our Lady of Guadeloupe to see how everything was going on, and this is our fourth time. This time we were bringing water but because of the situation we got we weren’t able to, but we’re coming back another time to deliver the water and to create some long-term plan, because it is not possible to be coming here every week with water.

So now it’s time for us to sit down with the people, with the community here in Flint, so that we can work out something that we can work on the long-term. Because this is not something that’s going to end tomorrow, today, it’s going to be five, 10 years from now.

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Justice4Flint rally and march on March 6.

So you’re moving more into an advocacy stage rather than just a sort of disaster relief stage?  

DANIEL: Yeah, you know, because at this point, the situation is already going towards the political side. I mean, we are going to be bringing some help, but not as much as we did before just because, you know, as we do more trips the expenses go higher and higher and higher, but we will bring more help in a way that has to be more solid, it has to be more well-planned, it has to be more concrete so we don’t have to be bringing water every week.

We would love to be here every weekend, but because of the time and expenses it’s something that might not be possible.

So how are you funding all of your trips? I know you’ve got a Kickstarter of some sort, or a GoFundMe page of some sort going on. Is this all just self-funded from your organization?

DANIEL: We are putting in our own money. We reached out to the community for the expenses of this trip and we got a good turn out, but mostly our trips have been funded by the community. People in Chicago have come around with, you know—last time with the trucks, with the water. So pretty much everything was paid by the community. And that’s pretty amazing, you know, we haven’t spent as much money as you might think.

But as the situation started losing power a lot of people start to—not say not caring, but they don’t feel as much urgency to help as before. So now we have moved to fund our own trips and then we go on like that for the future, we will self-fund our trips to Flint.

Can you talk about—I think we touched on this a bit earlier, but can you talk about what this looks like from the outside, what the Flint water crisis looks like from outside the community? I’m not a Flint resident but I work here, so I went to work today and I turned on the faucet and yellow water came out of our facet. So I can’t compare my experiences to a Flint resident, that wouldn’t be fair at all. But it’s something that we’re living with, so it’s hard for me—and I’m sure for a lot of people—to imagine what it’s like looking at this from the outside.  

What is the general impression that you have both personally and more broadly in the Chicago area?  

SUHEOLL: You said here that you’re from outside of Flint, but you’re here and you see a little bit of it and I think it’s two different things to just see it through the media and see maybe a couple of stories or see what maybe people are saying or what maybe politicians are saying and then actually being here. Even then it doesn’t compare.

The first time that we came we stayed overnight and we were pretty uncomfortable just to say the least. We had to question whether our health was going to be at risk just by washing our hands, just by touching our face after washing our hands. So it’s incredible to put that into perspective. And then apply that to someone who lives here, someone who has children, someone who is pregnant; I really couldn’t imagine, just as you said, the way that they’re living or the way that they have to adjust. I’m sure it’s really tough.

You can see that and even when you bring donations you can see the sense of hope that people have, not just with the people here but with the people that are deciding to help from the outside.

So it’s very humbling to see the reactions from the people from Flint when we come and help. So you can definitely tell that they are in deep need.

DANIEL: Well, from the outside I can tell you this much, people cannot imagine how bad the situation is until you are actually here. You can see it on the TV, news or whatever, but you don’t know how it is until you’re here.

So our main goal is to try to take the perspective of the people here in Flint to the outside, because outside it doesn’t seem to be as bad as it is.

You know, like you cannot imagine living here in this situation for years, it’s something that people just don’t get, you know, unless you’re actually here in Flint.

And so you’re staying for the debate tonight. You mentioned a little bit more long-term solutions, organizing people around long-term solutions, lobbying the governor, among others, for long-term solutions. Is there anything in particular that you want Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders to say tonight that would really resonate with you as people who have seen what’s going on in the community and who understand a little bit of the situation?  

DANIEL: Well, we are not here to endorse any candidate, that’s the first thing we need to address.

The second thing, they can say whatever they want, but words, you know, don’t mean anything to us.  We have to see action from them. I mean, they are campaigning, yes. But they can actually go a little bit further and take action. Even though they are on the campaign, they can take action. They can do something that might help take a stand with the people in Flint, because that’s who we really care about. We don’t care about the politicians. I don’t care if they go to jail, I don’t care if they lose their job. You know, I care about their people, my people—all people—and when I say my people I mean everyone in the community who has been affected by this situation, you know, so—they are on the campaign, they’re going to talk about Flint, but they have to take action instead of just talking about the situation.

Like I say, it’s not about endorsing a candidate, it’s about making them accountable for their promises, that’s why we are here, to let them know that we are tired of their rhetoric and not doing anything about it. We want to make sure that they know that we will hold them accountable to whatever they are promising, not only to the Latino community but to the American people as a whole.

What else will you be working on in the near and long-term future? What else do you already have going on with OMEL-US?  

DANIEL: Well, we have a voter registration campaign in Chicago. We partnered with one of the largest Spanish-speaking radio stations in Chicago. Our goal is to raise 50,000 people through November. We are working on that. We actually started last week.

We have another project which is the Fearless Project, which is pretty much taking the stories of undocumented immigrants—to tell their stories through photographs. You know, trying to say, ‘This is my story’, because we want to try to create awareness about the situation they are in.

And as we go on we’re finding more ways to help the community, to create more plans.

Also we’re working on our nonprofit 501(c)(3) status right now, too, so that’s taking a lot of time, but we are going to become a nonprofit so that we will be able to help with services to our community wherever they need help. We have proven that we will go anywhere in the United States to help anyone in need.

So, I mean, that’s pretty much what we’re doing right now. We are building the base in Chicago so we can go anywhere in the United States whenever they need somebody to help. That’s our main goal for OMEL-US.

As we wrap up our conversations, what were your expectations before you came to Flint for the first time and now that you’ve been here three, four times and you’ve seen the community, you’ve been out in the community, how did your expectations match up with what you found here?  

DANIEL: Well, first we were under the impression that it was going to be a one-time type of situation.

The first time we were shocked, you know, we didn’t know what to think. We were in shock. We didn’t expect what we came to see. We had a different idea of the real situation and as many times as we come back, we find something.

You know, we were talking about this being our last trip to Flint, Michigan, but it’s something, you know—it’s changing by the moment, so at this moment we don’t have any expectations. We don’t know what is next because things are changing very quickly. So we are adapting to those situations.

Something that we have clear in our mind as an organization is that we are going to continue helping as much as the people here in Flint needs help.

SUHEOLL: The first time that we came, I kind of thought it was a one-time trip. We thought, ‘We’re bringing all this water and we are contributing and we’re going to help and it’s great’. And then we come and we hear about all these other problems, all these other consequences, and it was alarming, and it was kind of mind blowing to know that there’s a whole other set of problems that come with this.

So it’s more than just water, it’s more than just that issue. And definitely hearing about it it makes you want to do something about it because, of course, temporary help is great, but of course there has to be long-term help as well, because they’re learning that this is going to be an issue that’s going to go on for years, maybe a decade, you can only do so much in one day and you know that you have to kind of keep working at it. So definitely now it’s more of a, ‘Okay, we’re not going to have any expectations of a timeline’, just because every day changes and new information comes in and we try to adjust to that and find other solutions or brainstorm solutions that we can apply.

Any closing thoughts before we conclude?  

DANIEL: Well, I mean, like I said before, we are committed to the people in Flint so we will continue bringing help as much as we can. We know that, yes, we have limitations, yes, it’s not easy, but we won’t let those problems stop us from helping the people here in Flint.

Because, I mean, at the end of the day their situation is deteriorating as the time goes. So we have to make a commitment to continue helping the people here in Flint. We will.

One last question before I let you go. Can you say something—you just mentioned limitations, and, you know, you can only do so much, you can only bring so much water, you can only help so many people. Obviously that’s true.  

What do you say to people who are sitting at home and thinking, you know, ‘Wow, this is just such a big problem, the government needs to take care of it and I’m not going to do anything because this is a government problem; this isn’t my problem’.  

DANIEL: Well, I can tell to those people who are complaining about this situation, that are saying, I can’t do anything, that with that mentality nothing will get done. You know, you’ve got to stand up and do something. Whatever it is, get off Facebook, get out of Twitter, get some work done. That’s how we started our organization, that’s how we have been doing things and we have been doing great things, but not because we are like, you know, the best people around, but because we are doing things. It’s time to do something, to take action, in any way you can.

You don’t have to organize a huge water drive, you don’t have to organize a huge march. You can just go to a local church, see what you can do, donate water, money, whatever else you can do. It actually can have an impact on the situation. You know, even calling the governor and saying, ‘Hey, you know what, you’ve got to fix this’. It’s just about doing it instead of thinking it and complaining about it. Just do it.

SUHEOLL: I think I was definitely one of those people who thought that my voice didn’t matter, that my actions didn’t matter. So sitting there angry looking at the television or expressing yourself on any social media, that’s kind of what doesn’t matter just because you’re not necessarily doing anything.

And once I decided to start taking action and we were being involved with other people taking action and it became, you know, more of everyone joining together, then you kind of notice that it does make a difference, even the smallest difference.

So coming here for the first time and seeing children’s faces light up just because you donate a few packs of water, that is change. Maybe it’s not solving the whole problem, but you see in their face that you’re making a difference and that’s the kind of thing that you need to do. And it just means you have to get up and you have to find a place to volunteer and a place to just do something, even just do it yourself, investigate it for yourself.

If you’re on the Internet posting about these things then you can be on the Internet investigating and finding solutions.

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Suheoll Diaz (left) and Daniel Hernandez (right) of OMEL-US.
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