Activism and Hope in Flint: Five Questions for Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha tells the truth.

Published in June, What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City is Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s account of her own life story, the story of Flint, Michigan, and ultimately the story of America and how we value (or don’t value) public health as a community good. The book is a first-hand account of environmental racism, legacies of willful disregard for the toxic effects of lead, and failures of government to live up to the simplest of promises: to protect the lives and welfare of its citizens. I spoke with Dr. Hanna-Attisha in October 2018 at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Book cover, What the Eyes Don't See by Mona Hanna-Attisha1. The first thing I want to ask you about is something that I really struggle with when I talk about Flint. I feel like stories about Flint often fall into two kinds of narratives of “Oh those poor people,” which is a way of othering them, or “Oh they’re so tough and resilient. They’re gonna be fine.” But there is a more complex story that I feel is really missing. What story do you think is missing, or what are the clichés that get told that frustrate you?

There’s a reason that the title of my book, What the Eyes Don’t See, obviously very much refers to the literal. We don’t see lead in water. We don’t see the effects of lead as a silent pediatric epidemic. But it’s also how we view certain people. It’s those people over there, far away. It’s people, places, and problems that we choose not to see. “Oh pity them. That’s Flint. That will never happen here. That’s Detroit.” It’s pitying the other. It’s the “other” and it’s not “us.” I struggled with this complexity in my book.

Once you’re in Flint, and you know Flint, and you work in Flint, there are all these multiple sides of Flint. And the history is complicated. And very much like Anna Clark articulated in her book, the villains are decades old: austerity, racism, disinvestment, capitalism. There are big villains in the story. They have been operating for a long time, and they have created this really complicated dynamic.

 The story of Flint is reflective of a national story.

Flint is very much a place of extremes. It’s literally a place where the middle class was born. At one point, it had the highest per capita income in the country—and not too long ago, in the 1970s. Yet today it is one of the poorest cities in the country. It’s a place where labor was born with the rights of people who said living wages have a part in the “American Dream” and prosperity. Flint was the home of one of the first African-American mayors. The story of Flint is so reflective of a national story because it bottles all of these things into one.

And when you add the water crisis, which is really on top of decades of crisis, all these layers of our complexity come together. It really resonates with the crises that we are facing right now in our nation, because the water crisis is a democracy story. Literally the rights of the people in Flint were taken away overnight. And we see that right now where the rights and the voices of people are being suppressed. From voter suppression, to gerrymandering, to mass incarceration, to the electoral college, the list goes on and on where the voices of people aren’t being heard. And that’s the story of Flint.

Metal arch in downtown Flint, Michigan. Flint, Vehicle City

Downtown Flint, Michigan. Photo by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), October 2016.

The story of Flint is also a story of what happens when we don’t respect science. Common sense science. Even my science, which was denied and dismissed. You didn’t even need my science! It never should have gotten to the point of my science because you had other science! But that was also being denied and dismissed. When your water is 19 times more corrosive; when General Motors engine parts are corroding; when there’s lead in the water. All of this basic science was 100 percent attacked.

And that’s where we are right now in this country. There’s so much basic science that is being attacked: climate-change science, the science of our EPA regulations that protect our air and water quality, the science of child development. Flint brought this to light and elevates these issues: environmental justice, how we take care of children, the list goes on and on.

2. I’ve heard it said by other people that Flint was “the canary in the coal mine” for good and for bad. What do you think of that?

I think that’s true. I often talk about the “Flint ripple effects,” which are the positive ripple effects. Milwaukee is getting their lead lines replaced because of Flint. I spend half of my days now working with other cities: Newark, New Jersey’s lead-in-water water issues; Portland, Oregon; Detroit Public Schools; East Chicago. So much good has happened because of Flint, which really raised people’s national consciousness on many issues, but especially about water quality issues.

I had the privilege of speaking with the forefathers of the environmental justice movement and reflecting on the impact of Flint. And they reminded me that the environmental justice concept has been around for decades, thirty-plus years! But Flint is the most egregious present-day example, and it’s enabling us to highlight other issues.

  What kind of society do we want to be?

3. There’s something so fundamental to human existence that you talk about in the book: water. Particularly mothers giving their children water. I do a lot of interviews as part of my work, and during an interview with Melissa Mays she said “I thought I was a good mom because I was telling my kids not to drink soda water.” I burst out crying, which is not usually how I operate in an interview. But it just really stabbed me. It’s mothers, in some ways, who are the ones who really rolled up their sleeves. 

It’s mothers in every story. Look at Erin Brockovich, Lois Gibbs, LeeAnne Walters, and Melissa Mays. Moms fighting for their kids and fighting for every other kid. These moms are experts. Leanne Walters was teaching the EPA how to sample water! There’s this tremendous guilt of parents who say “I mixed my baby’s powdered formula with tap water for her first year.” Or “I made my kids lemonade and we had a lemonade stand with this water and all their friends came over.” The guilt is palpable, and I see it every single time, every day, coupled with the anger and the fear and the betrayal and the trauma. So that’s why we have really framed this crisis as a “toxic stress,” because just those emotions of guilt and fear and anger and sadness lead to poor outcomes. Just the emotions are toxicities and can impact children’s development and their parents.

That’s why we have in place things like 24-hour crisis lines and trauma-informed care, recognizing that this is a trauma. We also have resilience building and Mental Health First Aid. All these places are in Flint now because of the recognition of this kind of mental health trauma, which guilt is very much a part of.

This infographic from the EPA illustrates the sources of lead poisoning in communities. For Flint, the source was in the city’s lead service lines. Image from Wikimedia Commons, December 2016.

4. In your book, you talk about the idea that to serve in the government is a public service. People do so because they are called, in a way, and they work in the service of the people. That notion is so absent from politics where it is more often a job and run like a business. I think about how governor Rick Snyder’s whole approach was to run the state like a business. Do you think that there’s been any change in that way of thinking in Michigan?

We no longer have emergency managers in the state. At one point half of the African Americans in the state were under emergency management compared to 2% of whites. And the focus was austerity: “What can we do to save money no matter what the cost.” The ideology of austerity, I argue, is one of the biggest villains in the story. It didn’t start with Snyder, and after decades of cutting and viewing big government as bad, health departments are shadows of what they used to be. I think Flint has elevated the issue that you cannot run government like a business. You cannot put profits over people. So, a little bit of that ideology is changing.

Sometimes I also feel like we’re at war with children. It keeps me up at night right now, in terms of what we are doing nationally to kids.  We are separating them at the border from their parents.  We have the highest poverty rate of any industrialized country. There’s inaction on gun violence, and kids are being slaughtered in schools. There are constant threats to things kids need like Medicaid and ACA and CHIP and SNAP. We’ve even attacked breastfeeding! Two weeks ago, the director of the EPA’s office of Children’s Health Protection was put on leave. We are attacking children and their potential, and could that be the most selfish thing? What’s going to happen in a generation or two?

We have framed this crisis as a “toxic stress.”

Guilt, fear, anger, and sadness are toxicities.

This is the reason I wrote this book, for people to open their eyes. But it’s not enough for folks to open their eyes. What are you going to do about it? How are you going to stand up for children? How are you going to stand up for the environment? How are you going to stand up to make sure that governments are not run by the ideology of austerity? This is part of being civically engaged. It means voting. It means running for office. It means donating to a campaign. It means meeting with your legislators. It means holding a fundraiser. I hope that my story is a playbook on how to resist and how to work with folks who are different than you to create a collective impact. And then, how to build hope in your communities. It doesn’t have to be the way it is, and I think that’s a lesson that Flint shares.

A girl with sunglasses and curly brown hair sits on top of a blond woman's shoulders during a march.

Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny, also known as Little Miss Flint, leads the march from the Science Rally Stage to the Capitol, April 14th, 2018. Because both children and mothers were so affected by lead poisoning and guilt, they lead the way in fighting for water justice and advocating for science, as Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha attests. Photo by Hillel Steinberg.

5. There’s a principle I teach my acting students: no one thinks they’re an asshole. People have their own justifications for why they do what they do. This is what I wonder about: how do you sleep at night when you know you’re disregarding scientific evidence, when you are turning children into political pawns, when you are making decisions that affect the future?

I ask myself the same question. Just look at the EPA, and let’s look at their efforts to cut air quality standards, water quality standards, or deny the science of climate change. So, do these people think that they are going to be immune to the effects of this? I asked myself, “Do they really believe that they’re not going to be impacted by poor water quality or poor air standards?” I think that they think they are going to be OK. They’re at such a point of privilege that they can buy their way out of these issues. They could continue to buy organic this or that, or bottled water, or say that “This is not my problem.” Fundamentally, they’re driven by greed and by profits.

It keeps me up at night too. It begs the question of what kind of society we want to be. When our government does not protect our public welfare and keep all children safe, not just rich kids but all kids. I ask in my book, “Who are we as a nation? Who are we as a people? Who are we as a society?”

Five people, including President Obama wearing a blue shirt and tie, stand around a small table while another man pours water for them to drink.

President Barack Obama sips filtered water from Flint following a roundtable on the Flint water crisis at Northwestern High School in Flint, Michigan on May 4, 2016. Photo by Pete Souza.

I’m teaching a play by Anna Deavere Smith called Twilight Los Angeles. She interviewed Cornel West as part of that project, and he talked about the difference between “hope” and “optimism.” He said, optimism is like looking out the window and going “It’s gonna be fine!” And hope is when you look out the window and go “It doesn’t look good at all.”

Hope is not just a word. I want to know what are you doing about it! Our hope is tangible. Real things that are happening. I’m hopeful the kids of Flint are going to have a better future because we put in universal preschool, literacy centers, and school resource centers. I think that hope has to be something. But I’m also an eternal optimist!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Featured Image: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha speaks about her book, What the Eyes Don’t See, at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. Photo by Dave Brenner, September, 2018.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH, FAAP, is an associate professor of pediatrics and human development at Michigan State University. Dr. Hanna-Attisha is also the founder and director of the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, a model program to mitigate the impact of the Flint water crisis so that all Flint children grow up healthy and strong. Her book, What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City, is available from One World/Penguin Random House. WebsiteContact.

Jen Plants is a Faculty Associate in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison where she teaches playwriting, performance studies, critical race theory, dramaturgy, and documentary theatre-making. Her recent Madison-based projects include direction/dramaturgy for When the Music Stops: The Life of American Jazz Singer Anita O’Day (Four Seasons Theatre) and the upcoming Lysistrata for the 50th anniversary of Broom Street Theatre. Jen is currently at work on a performance project about the history of Flint. Her most recent contribution to Edge Effects was “The Water’s Not Fine: A Conversation with Anna Clark.” Contact.