Aria Bendix is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab. Her work has appeared on Bustle and The Harvard Crimson.
A conversation with Laura Sullivan, a professor and community advocate picking up the pieces as Flint continues to crumble.
Plans are finally being floated to solve Flint’s water crisis, but the process of rebuilding its broken community is off to a slow start. Throughout Flint, children are suffering from the effects of lead poisoning, some of which will be long-term. Access to safe, drinkable water is still unreliable. Many residents continue to break out in rashes, which they have attributed to bathing in toxic tap water. And the city remains mired in a state of emergency.
As news circulates about the legal ramifications of the crisis for state officials, scientists and community advocates are working hard to dig Flint out of despair. One such individual is Laura Sullivan, a mechanical engineering professor at Flint-based Kettering University, and arguably the main link between Flint residents, their local government, and the scientific community. Appointed to multiple committees and task forces dedicated to addressing Flint’s ongoing water issues, Sullivan is helping to bridge the divide left behind by a gross violation of human rights.
Sullivan spoke with CityLab about the precarious state of Flint today, and how residents are working toward a better future for their city.
You’re a Flint resident, so you’ve had a personal connection to the water crisis from the start. When did you realize that you had to assume a more active role in advocating for the Flint community?
In the summer of 2014, some students and I were having a conversation about the residents having their water shut off because of failure to pay, so we became involved in looking at water affordability and access to safe water. We started talking to one of the pastors about ways that we could help provide some kind of water for sanitation purposes. When the first notices came out to Flint residents regarding the presence of disinfection byproduct [which violated the Safe Drinking Water Act] in January of 2015, my concerns evolved beyond affordability into issues of quality.
You’ve been informing the community about the prevalence of Legionnaires’ disease in the Flint area. Is there a confirmed link between Legionnaires’ and Flint’s water?
There’s still no defined link. Obviously this is an extremely complicated issue. One complication is that the period of time between being exposed to Legionnaires’ and showing symptoms is over two weeks, so where an individual may have been exposed is sometimes difficult to determine. Over the past two years, in 2014 and 2015, there was a reluctance between state agencies and county agencies to share information about cases, about the conditions, even about where there had been breaks in the water line that may have introduced bacteria. In many cases, while we know that there’s been Legionnaires’ in Flint over the last two years, there’s a lot we don’t know about causation.
Tell me about your work with General Michael McDaniel [head of the Flint Action and Sustainability Team] to replace residential lead pipes in Flint. What were Flint residents concerned about during this process?
I think probably the major concern among residents was, “How long is this going to take, and why do we have to wait?” The initial 30 lead-service-line replacements were funded by [Michigan Governor Rick Snyder], but that was the limit of funds. For the next phase, [Flint Mayor Karen Weaver] has $2 million for about four service lines. General McDaniel and I committed to involving residents in identifying whether or not there might be a lead service line [in their homes]. Once they’ve done that, we invite residents to give us that information through a hotline or online so we can start to collect that information in addition to some incomplete data from the city, and then gather a group of residents to set priorities for which houses should be attended to first, second, and so forth.
We know that everybody will agree that housing with small children should have a priority, that houses where people have compromised immune systems should have a priority, that houses where previous water testing revealed high levels of lead should have a priority. But the difference here is that residents will come together and set those priorities as a group. If we could replace everybody’s lead service line at the same time, that would be wonderful, but it’s not possible. So we want to try and involve the citizens in establishing that priority.
My sense is that this is the first real example of the citizens truly defining and participating in the solution to this water crisis. It’s really necessary for the residents of Flint to participate to see that their voice is important and that their participation is critical so that they have a sense of hope.
We know that there’s mistrust between Flint residents and their government. But do you find that there’s any sort of mistrust between residents and the scientific community?
If there’s any entity that the residents of Flint trust over any other, it’s their mayor. At the state level, there’s very clear mistrust, and it’s valid based on what we’re learning. Within the scientific community, we have local faculty in the Flint area who are very much participating. Any meeting that I’m present at where they’re involved, the residents have faith and demonstrate confidence in the words of the local faculty and medical community. And, of course, all along we’ve had the team from Virginia Tech who’ve been standing with the community and assisting with citizen science. The voice of Marc Edwards [the Virginia Tech professor whose research helped to expose the lead in Flint’s water] is one that is very well-respected by the residents.
You’re working to curb misinformation circulating among the Flint community. What are common questions that you receive from residents?
The type of question that hasn’t really been well-addressed ... is explaining why. Instead of just explaining what [residents] need to do or what needs to happen next, we’re helping them to understand with graphics, booklets, pamphlets, and discussions exactly what happened to the pipes, exactly why it happened, and what it means for how we move forward. [We’re] speaking with residents with an expectation that you don’t need to dumb things down, that they want to be included and not belittled in the process. The EPA on the ground is doing a better and better job every week at engaging the community at that level, and understanding the resilience and determination of residents. It’s not about rushing past the bad things that happened, but explaining why they happened and what their implications are.
An event of this magnitude is likely to cause divisions among the community. How do you go about unifying Flint residents? And how do you keep them from being exploited?
[When] I encounter somebody whose motive I don’t know and I see them engaging with the community, I pay a lot of attention to the fear and anger levels among the community members. If I feel like an interaction is only adding to fear and anger, then I have confronted those individuals and publicly or privately questioned their motives. If somebody wants to see the people of Flint working together and working positively, then I don’t believe that fear is going to move us in that direction.
I was at a town hall [on Tuesday night] that was called by the mayor at one of the churches in the North side of Flint. General McDaniel was present, Mark Durno from the EPA was present, the mayor was present, and I knew that there were members of the community that may have questions, or concerns, or doubts for all of those people. And yet, in that venue, there was a sense of, “Let’s listen, let’s try and collaborate, and let’s not add to the divisiveness.” I see seeds of that forming now.
Maybe it was the incredible anger and the incredible fear that prevented or delayed the people of Flint from being able to come together in any venue other than a protest. Now they’re coming together in venues of collaboration, of listening, of asking really valid, very pointed questions and getting appropriate and intelligent and accurate answers. So I’m starting to feel very good about that movement toward community.
What is your relationship with Mayor Weaver like?
When she was campaigning for mayor, she approached me to provide her with information about how this water distribution system works, what could have caused the corrosion, and what possible solutions there might be. She wanted to be able to speak to the community in an intelligent way. That kind of relationship continues. On a weekly basis, I meet with her for an hour to talk about my sense of what’s going on in the community and ideas that I have on how to involve the community.
Soon after the mayor named a state of emergency, the governor proposed to come into town with his team to assess the situation from their own angle and make recommendations on their own, and kind of take over rather than empower Flint. [Weaver] asked my advice on the kinds of things that were appropriate for the state to be involved in, and the kind of things that the people of Flint should have more of a role in. We have a very positive relationship. I feel good about the extent to which she asks my advice, and the extent to which I see her committed to the city.
The governor has called weekly Inter-Agency Coordination Committee meetings to develop long-term solutions to the crisis. What do you hope to gain at the end of each session?
It’s safe to say that it’s been painfully slow. There’s an hour-and-a-half meeting every Friday, where there’s very little in the way of progress and deliverables. This is why the work that I’ve done with General McDaniel feels so good, because it’s actual progress. Working with the EPA, Marc Edwards, and the general, we attended a data summit to talk about what next steps we should take, which included a recommendation to the community to open and flush their home plumbing lines and run their faucets for two weeks, five minutes a day. That didn’t come out of this Inter-Agency Coordination Committee. That was an action initiated by the EPA.
So what does spur action? Is it an EPA mandate, or the release of new scientific research? How do we go from these conversations to replacing the lead pipes?
Currently, the EPA is in large part overseeing the water distribution and quality in the city of Flint. They’re monitoring it, they’re testing it, but they’re not in place permanently. Fortunately, the EPA has not been impatient. They’ve been very good at providing us with the expertise we need to learn how to attend to some of these issues. As far as water quality goes, we’re moving forward in large part because of the EPA’s advice and recommendations.
As far as lead-service-line replacement, it’s been the mayor. It really is moving forward because of the mayor’s intention and the rest of us working together to try and make that happen. But it will have to stop once the money that we have runs out. In every way we can, we’re demonstrating that we’re being good stewards with this amount of money, but it’s not going to be enough for all the lead services lines in Flint. We need the assistance of the state and the federal government to complete that work.
What are the challenges of addressing the water crisis as an advocate rather than as a scientist or researcher?
I think the biggest challenge is patience. This isn’t a new problem, and it’s been in the ears of the people of Flint longer than any place. It seems so slow to be attended to, and it could be moving a lot faster if we had more support from the governor and the state legislature. When people are angry and frightened, it’s difficult to move toward collaboration. It’s a precarious environment. Tempers will flare. People are tired of waiting. People are tired of worrying about their children’s health. They’re tired of wondering how long this will last. That’s the number one challenge.
Moving forward, what are the major goals that Flint will need to accomplish in the coming years? How can the community stay involved?
I don’t think there’s been a time when the community has worked together this well, when the churches of northern Flint have worked so collaboratively with the churches of downtown Flint, when the universities have worked so diligently in trying to attend to the issue. I know there’s never been a time when the students I work with have been more keenly aware of what poverty means, and the responsibility that they have to their fellow citizens. What we have going forward is something that we’ve never had before, and if we can get the support that we need from Congress, the president, our governors, and our state legislature, just for resources to rebuild Flint … we’ve never been more poised to be able to do that. People may be getting tired across the country of hearing about Flint, and I understand that. But until the resources that we need come, we’re going to keep crying.
This interview has been edited and condensed.