Finding The Way Forward in Flint

Five months into the Flint water crisis, everyone is sick of hearing those three words strung together—myself included.

I’m sick of seeing the “We do not now, nor have we ever had Flint water” signs posted at restaurants and bars in Flint Township and other areas on the city’s outskirts. I’m tired of seeing the lieutenant governor’s videos on how to properly filter water every time I log in to Facebook. I’m sick of people asking me how things are in Flint—as if there’s a succinct and accurate answer to give besides “f—ed.”

So, did I really want to go to Flint and volunteer on a Saturday afternoon?

How do I put it?

No.

Unfortunately, I had already texted Mike and Laurie at Crossing Water to tell them I would be there. My pride wouldn’t allow me to stay home. Not my decency.

I hadn’t been back to the basement of St. Michael’s in about two months. The last time I was there, it was bustling, chaotic. After a couple events were canceled due to low participation, I expected today to be a depressing affair with sparse attendance.

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I couldn’t have been more wrong. While it wasn’t chaotic or bustling, the room was full. About 20 veterans had come together. With few exceptions, everyone in the room had been on a RRST (Rapid Response Service Team) shift in the city before.

Ann Arbor, Metro Detroit, Chicago, northern Michigan, Arkansas, Grand Blanc, Flint. The group was a rich cross-section of the movement.

This time, everyone seemed to have an idea of what was going on. What had previously felt like a small ship tossed in an angry ocean now felt like it was cutting through the waves with confidence. When I shadowed Mike and Laurie back in January, their world was getting rocked on a daily basis. Reality was a fragile thing, prone to be smashed into a thousand pieces by the end of any given day.

While reality is still far from a fixed thing, it seems to have become a manageable variable. Each day is still prone to its fair share of surprises—good and bad.

Take, for example, a small-town Ohio pastor who showed up with two 10-year-old parishioners. The fourth grade students had organized a water drive and fundraiser in their hometown. Halfway through our briefing, they showed up with water and a check for $1,000.

As had been the case before, we started with a conversation about what to expect for the day. While Mike and Laurie led the discussion, it felt less like a class this time around and more like an exchange of ideas in a room full of experts.

One volunteer, Vanessa, shared a tip for keeping water hot enough to wash dishes. This has been a challenge for Flint residents, since they aren’t able to run hot water safely through filters and must boil water to do their dishes.

“Go pick up a used coffee maker for $5. I know some people who just leave that on all day so they always have hot water ready to go.”

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Before long, we were out in the field. I rode along with Pat and Jerry, two social workers who had arrived late due to construction on I-75 heading north from Detroit. I got the assignment specifically because neither had a map of the city—or a smartphone to take its place.

“I can’t believe they don’t sell maps anymore,” Pat said immediately—and repeatedly.

I liked her, so I warned her against getting a smartphone.

At our first house, we met a girl who couldn’t have been more than 14. There weren’t any adults home—just her with three younger kids.

We lugged five cases of water to the door—one for each person in the household.

I wasn’t prepared for the myriad topics we were supposed to hit during our visit. This went beyond simply asking “Do you have a filter?” and finding out if they needed replacements. We had material on Head Start programs for kids under five; hand-outs about nutritional food that can help counteract the effects of lead poisoning; bags to collect recycling.

It was overwhelming, frankly.

Our first exchange lasted around 15 minutes. While Pat spoke with this young woman, Jerry and I went back and forth from the car to retrieve requested items like baby wipes and formula. We spoke with this young woman about the need to continuously test the water, changing the cartridge on her water filter, getting blood lead levels tested, and a city-wide “flush” on Flint’s pipes scheduled for the first two weeks of May that no one seems to have heard of, despite being less than a week away.

That would be a lot for an adult to deal with. Here was this girl, half my age, taking the information in stride and holding her own in the conversation.

Our next stop was across the street, where we found a woman with her grandkids and a filter that had been installed, but that she didn’t know how to use.

“Nobody showed me how to use it,” she told us. “They just dropped it off and left.”

Pat installed a new filter and demonstrated how to turn it on and off.

“Now, you know you can’t run hot water through this, right?” Pat asked.

As Pat demonstrated how to replace the cartridge, the woman had her grandson come over to watch so that he would know how to do it.

And, ultimately, that’s what Crossing Water’s mission is: education. In a forgotten city, the residents need to know how to fend for themselves—how to survive—now more than ever before.

“What people don’t understand,” one volunteer and self-proclaimed Flintstone said, “is that Flint’s problems started 20, 30 years ago. They didn’t just start with the water crisis.”

The water crisis is merely the latest manifestation of a larger, festering problem. We got a stark reminder of this days earlier when a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits regarding Flint’s poisoned water was murdered in her home. We got another reminder later on Saturday evening when five people were injured in a shooting. What would have made headlines in another city is just another day in Flint.

Back at St. Michael’s at the end of the day, a volunteer from Chicago told the story of a diabetic woman she met who was confined to a wheelchair.

“I just want out,” the woman told volunteers. The volunteer, in tears, told us how she already started looking for resources to help this woman leave.

In a city where the way forward often looks like finding a way out, it rests on the shoulders of the people to organize and lead resistance. The end is still out of sight.

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Correction: It had been incorrectly stated that the teams sent out on Saturday were canvassing teams. In fact, the RRSTs (Rapid Response Service Teams) are social service response teams created to respond to needs that have previously been identified.

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