When we first decided to write about Flint’s water supply, we, of course, had to do some research. We started fact finding — and there were plenty of devastating facts reported in The New York Times and other reliable sources: First, Michigan’s state leadership wanted to save a few million dollars, so they started pouring toxic water from the Flint River into people’s everyday water supply. The result: thousands of children under 6 years old exposed to lead poisoning, almost two years of state inaction, water so toxic GM has stopped using it because it corroded engines built at their factory and so caustic it caused water supply pipes to leach lead into the drinking water.
So we know the facts; however, it was Mother Jones reporting that helped us feel the real damage done in ways facts alone never can. In the best tradition of journalism, this nonprofit news outlet told the human stories, highlighting the heroes, damning the villains and taking us into the homes and into the lives into which that despicable water flowed.
Here is how the Mother Jones investigative story published Jan. 21, 2016, begins: “On a chilly evening last March in Flint, Michigan, LeeAnne Walters was getting ready for bed when she heard her daughter shriek from the bathroom of the family's two-story clapboard house. She ran upstairs to find 18-year-old Kaylie standing in the shower, staring at a clump of long brown hair that had fallen from her head.”
Her other three children were getting rashes and other maladies. She complained to City Hall. They were not very responsive, until they finally tested her water and soon after called, “warning her to keep her kids away from the water.”
Mother Jones reports: “The city's initial response was to hook up a garden hose to her neighbor's house to provide water for her family — officials claimed that the problem probably had to do with the Walters' own plumbing.” At the same time, Gov. Rick Snyder was assuring everyone, "Flint's water system is producing water that meets all state and federal standards."
Walters was not assured, and she took up the fight to expose the lies, because she knew a very sad truth: All four of her children tested positive for having elevated lead levels in their blood. She was convinced the city’s water testing was flawed, and took her own samples and sent them to professor Marc Edwards, an expert in lead corrosion at Virginia Tech. The lead content in the water was “more than twice the level the EPA classifies as hazardous waste.”
Edwards had his own independent tests done in Flint, and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at a Flint hospital, started taking blood samples from children. Slowly, people in power started to pay attention, but only after two years of stonewalling and nonaction.
For us at Youth Today, it brings home a point we write about often. The problems the disenfranchised suffer are often made worse by the systems intended to help and support society. In Flint, the water delivery system failed. In other cases, it might be the health system, the justice system or the education system.
In Flint, LeeAnne Walters, with very tangible proof, had to struggle to get anyone to listen to her concerns, and it took months for bureaucratic systems to react. Alas, many of the systemic problems that affect our children’s lives have no simple accountability measures to determine if they are doing good or harm. However, Flint stands out as a reference point of what havoc systems — when ill-conceived or twisted to save dollars — can wreak on the very people they are meant to serve.
Flint is also a reminder that when the LeeAnne Walterses caught in those systems voice concern, we all must listen closely and take action as warranted.
Tell us what you think
Youth Today welcomes your thoughts about youth work and youth issues, and what you see on our pages. Just write to firstname.lastname@example.org, or Managing Editor, Youth Today, Center for Sustainable Journalism, Kennesaw State University, 1200 Chastain Road, MD 00310, Kennesaw, GA 30144. Please include your name and contact information, as well as where you work, and your city and state. Letters and emails should be no more than 350 words and may be edited for space. If we make major revisions beyond spelling and grammar, we’ll send the item back to you for approval.