In honoring Black History Month, there’s a temptation to highlight Black icons over everyday heroes making history today. So, in this week’s inspiring message, we’re highlighting a contemporary story of Black-led change, how it succeeded, and be inspired to follow this example of how persistent civic engagement can make a difference:
Toxic lead in the tap water of Black households
Studies have shown that communities of color are more likely to be affected by environmental hazards, including contaminated drinking water. The systemic issue of poverty and environmental injustice affect many communities across the United States. Flint, Michigan has a high percentage of Black residents, and water crisis activism there brought water justice to the forefront of public awareness.
Identify a problem
In the late 1990s, Black and low-income residents of Flint, Michigan were the first to sound the alarm that city drinking water was causing rashes on their skin and making their hair fall out. Despite multiple complaints to governmental authorities, no action was initially taken to address the problem.
Create a coalition
In 2015, a group of local residents came together to form the Flint Water Crisis Coalition. They organized town hall meetings, collected water samples for independent testing, and marched in the streets to raise awareness about the issue.
Their persistent advocacy and civic engagement eventually led to a full-scale investigation by the state government. It took a year to confirm that the water was contaminated with lead and other toxins. The city’s inaction exposed children and vulnerable people to long-term and irreversible diseases.
Find allies and partners
The Flint Water Crisis Coalition worked with other advocacy groups and local officials to secure funding for infrastructure upgrades and water treatment services. They worked to ensure that the affected residents received the resources they needed to recover. These actions helped to improve the situation in Flint and address the immediate needs of affected residents.
This example demonstrates the power of civic engagement in bringing about change. Through their collective efforts, the residents of Flint were able to hold government officials accountable, raise public awareness, and bring about much-needed resources and support to their community.
Every person doing what they can
At the age of eight, Mari Copeny joined the many voices urging elected officials to act in the best interest of all residents. Nicknamed “Little Miss Flint”, Mari went on talk shows, gave public speeches, and urged people to donate bottled water as an immediate solution to the crisis.
Eight years later, Mari continues to call elected officials to task because the problem is not yet resolved. She said, “We need leaders that have a heart and care about everyone and not just the interests of big business and the top 10 percent.”
In related good news just this week, the Biden Administration announced nationwide standards regarding lead in drinking water which will prioritize solutions in vulnerable communities and accelerate the replacement of lead pipes.
Litigate when necessary
In 2016, the residents of Flint brought a class action lawsuit against two corporations and numerous governmental agencies. This ultimately resulted in a large settlement, 80% of which went to people who were under age 18 at the time of the emergency. Other cases were brought (you can read a full description of them here), that ensured public officials and corporations responsible for heath and property damage were held accountable. In using the U.S. court system, residents of Flint were able to expose the truth.
Be inspired by Black history
We honor the residents of Flint who are writing Black history today. Through their collective efforts, they are ensuring that their neighbors have access to pure water and justice. May we be inspired by the example of the Flint community and seek out collaboration and engagement to bring about justice.
When we face issues that seem too big to solve, we can follow their example:
- identify the problem
- create coalitions
- find allies and partners
- agitate purposefully together
- do what we can as individuals
- litigate when necessary
By following the example of Flint residents, all Americans can play a positive role in strengthening our democracy and ensuring that it serves all its citizens.
Because the story of clean, heathy water in Flint continues, consider supporting a local organization providing solutions there.