A tale of lead, oppression, and the failings of the charity model

Two years ago—on 24 April, 2014—the city of Flint, Michigan, made a calculated decision, switching from nearby Detroit’s water system to the Flint River as the primary water source for its residents. The choice was motivated purely by cost. Almost immediately, residents began complaining that the water was discoloured, malodorous, and unpleasant to drink. Flint’s water, officials assured people, was perfectly safe to drink.

It was not a coincidence that Flint’s population is mostly Black, and mostly poor, with considerable overlap between the two.

A few months later, a boil water warning went into effect as a result of bacteria in the water. Shortly after that, officials admitted that aging pipes might be a problem. In February of 2015, the city found lead in the water. And as 2015 rolled on, it kept finding it, and kept finding it, and kept finding it. And people got sick. Especially children, who are highly susceptible to lead poisoning because it interferes with neurological development. By summer, agencies were ordering the city to address the corrosive nature of the city’s water, which was destroying old pipes, allowing them to leach lead into the water supply. In September, physicians found lead in the blood of young residents.

It took a few more months for the media to catch on and for it to start exploding in the popular imagination. The president declared a crisis, allowing National Guard and other supports to enter the city, start providing water, and invest in cleanup. It became a topic of discussion on the campaign trail and at some of the debates. The nation slowly woke up to the fact that the citizens of Flint had been seriously endangered by city government as well as Governor Snyder. Few people in the mainstream, though, were willing to say the words ‘environmental racism,’ correctly labeling the situation as one in which a majority-Black community was left exposed to hazardous substances. It’s a subject I’ve discussed at significant length before, but suffice it to say that people of colour are more likely to be forced to live in areas with hazardous materials, and to have those materials dumped on them, and that in addition to race, class can also play a role.

Here’s the thing, though. The Flint situation was extremely serious, but it’s not the only place in the US where this is happening, and while it was a huge victory to get it into the public eye and get people talking about it, it’s unclear whether this will result in talking about systemic problems with lead poisoning across the country, let alone other hazardous substances. This is a shared crisis across tons of low-income communities and/or communities of colour who are struggling to access resources to deal with it — and we’re not playing oppression olympics here or saying that because Flint got attention it somehow doesn’t deserve it or ‘stole’ something from other communities. Just the contrary, it could have been, and should have been, a jumping off point to talk about the nationwide problem. In Michigan alone, numerous cities actually have higher lead levels than Flint.

This was our chance to say look, environmental contamination of this nature, very selectively and obviously focused on specific communities, is a huge problem and we need to deal with it. And when it came to leftist media and communities, where these conversations had already been happening, they accelerated, but mainstream media — including most ‘progressive’ outlets didn’t take advantage of the fantastic opportunity to talk about and deconstruct environmental racism. Which is why it persists.

The Flint situation also highlighted the huge failings of the charity model. The US government has relied more and more on private organisations to provide basic services, and this is not a good idea. Charities eventually leave, for example, and they’re not equipped to efficiently provide vital services, nor should they be. Municipalities should be providing access to clean, safe water, and when it is unsafe, they and the government are responsible for addressing it, because safe water is a fundamental human right. As are many other things charities tackle—like hunger, child welfare, disability rights, and more—but this is a basic utility.

In response to the situation in Flint, huge numbers of charities as well as companies offered donations of water and other supplies to the city—notably, Planned Parenthood was one of the first on the ground in the crisis to get supplies of water and, more importantly, filters, out quickly. Their contributions are commendable and provided immediate, urgent easing. But they also set an extremely dangerous precedent: In an emergency, the government can rely on charities to do its work. While charity co-response can be important—as for example when organisations step up to help with national disasters—it should be a part of response in situations where a disaster is so wide in scope that it’s overwhelming, and where their expertise is needed. DMORTs, for example, bring their knowledge in medicine, forensic anthropology, funeral care, and more to mass casualty situations.

In this case, though, the situation should have been resolvable with government resources. It should have been addressed far earlier, to begin with, and it should have involved work on the part of the municipality. If it wasn’t able to handle the scope of work, it should have turned to the state and then the federal government for assistance, following a chain of emergency response. Seeing charities arrive sent a signal to cities across the US: Don’t take responsibility, just wait for someone else to come in and clear up your mess.

Image: Lead poisoning, Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Flickr