How Youth in Flint & Detroit Showed Me True Resilience
April 2014 marked the beginning of the Flint Water Crisis. The City of Flint had its main drinking water supply switched from Detroit’s Department of Water and Sewage to the Flint River as a cost saving move. What came next sealed the legacy in which we know today. An entire city was forced to drink brown foul smelling water, despite pleas to elected officials. In the years since the crisis started, the tv cameras that once flocked to the city in droves have all disappeared. There are no more front cover magazine interviews, and the crisis is occasionally brought up in the media when discussing the ongoing criminal prosecutions of city and state officials and lead service leads updates. The cameras may be gone from Flint, but the real truth is that for many still living there, the crisis still isn’t over.
The persistent distrust of both local and state government is as strong today as it was when the crisis first started and I found this out first hand. In the near year and a half since joining Freshwater Future, I’ve had some really incredible opportunities to get involved and show leadership in ways I hadn’t before. In the summer of the 2018, my organization Freshwater Future in partnership with the Genesee County Hispanic Latino Collaborative, Flint Neighborhoods United, Flint Development Center, and the University of Michigan Biological Station created a summer youth water testing program in the City of Flint. I was tasked with running this program from start to finish. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In my mind, I felt it was quite the tall task to ask a bunch of teenagers during the summer, to come have science lessons instead of hanging out with friends. But I’m happy to say I was pleasantly surprised. With the help of two wonderful fellows from the University of Michigan’s Doris Duke Conservation Program, 14 local teens were successfully recruited into the program. We felt very strongly that in serving the City of Flint with this water testing program, all communities deserved to be tested to represent the full scope of cultures in Flint. Building a strong educational approach to teaching youth STEM education was always a goal of the water testing program from its inception.
First, we provided the youth with a classroom style education on the health efforts of lead in the human body. Later they were trained on how to properly collect water samples for scientific analysis. For two months, the teens braved the high summer temperatures walking blocks, going from house to house to collect people’s tap water. All together, roughly 150 samples were collected,analyzed, and given to homeowners for transparency. The youth worked hard that summer, not only collecting the samples, but also creating press releases, social media campaign messaging around the water testing efforts, and meeting with local city officials to update them on the status of the project. By providing water testing to residents through trusted members of their own community, this group of talented young people were able to create transparency in a city still struggling to move forward from one of the worst acts of state committed violence in recent memory.
For me, the summer coming to a close opened the door to a similar opportunity in Detroit. In August of last year, Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) announced it was shutting off the water across the district after finding elevated lead levels in several schools, as a precautionary measure. In partnership with We the People of Detroit, I helped to organize their youth group ‘We the Youth of Detroit’ in mobilizing a response to the district wide water shutoffs. As a life-long Detroiter and product of DPSCD, this situation hit close to home. Working with We the Youth of Detroit, all of whom are current high school students, we developed a canvassing strategy around numerous neighborhoods across the city. The goal was to test people’s tap water who lived near the schools, to see if there was potentially a larger system problem in interest of public health.
Altogether, water samples were collected from 5 neighborhoods near schools with high lead levels across the city. Like the youth in Flint, the young people in Detroit were engaged, attentive, and eager to learn. Both groups of teens, really made the entire experience more fun than it was work. I really enjoyed being around such genuinely awesome kids from both communities. These young scholars really taught me the true meaning of resiliency. In dealing with one of the most pressing issues in recent years with communities fighting for clean drinking water, the youth in Flint and Detroit dug in deep to become problem solvers instead of whiners. In truth, a lot of young people care about the same issues adults do. They care about the water they drink, the quality of education they deserve, and the safety of their own neighborhoods. I encourage anyone reading this to not only let youth sit at the table, but to also allow them to voice themselves to be heard. Young people are like seeds… if you plant them, water them, and give them positive energy, they will grow into the leaders needed to take on tomorrow’s biggest challenges. Be that ray of sunlight that gives them hope.