Michigan governor says Flint water crisis over, educator says fallout just beginning

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Governor Snyder and the Michigan Department of Water Quality announced that they would stop supplying the residents of Flint with bottled water on Friday. They cite tests that put levels of lead in Flint below federal action levels. Residents are alarmed and concerned, given their experience to date with the water crisis.

April 25 will mark the fourth anniversary of the events that started the water crisis in Flint, which left thousands of residents to use brown polluted tap water with toxic levels of lead for over a year. This man made catastrophe, the events surrounding and following it, left a deep scar on Flint residents.

Jessyca Mathews is an educator, award-winning writer and environmental justice and institutional racism activist who was born and raised in Flint. Jessyca has worked with her students to help them use creativity as an outlet to work through this crisis. NEA EdJustice had the chance to talk with her about how the people of Flint are doing, the implications of this water crisis for other cities and what educators need to know.

NEA: How are the residents of Flint doing and how they feel about the closure of the water distribution centers?

Jessyca Mathews

Governor Snyder and the whole team involved have done nothing to rebuild the trust that was destroyed during the water crisis. People simply don’t believe that the water is safe to drink and this closure and the way it was announced just furthers that feeling.

You have to remember that we noticed an immediate change in the clarity and quality of their water in 2014 as soon as the supply was changed over, but it took over a year for action to be taken. We took our case to the Governor’s appointed emergency manager for Flint, to Governor Snyder directly and a lot of people in between, and we were ignored and told everything was fine. During that time we were poisoned by toxic water.

NEA: What can educators do to help?

Listen, process and do your research. This is happening in Flint, but there are communities across the country where students are affected by toxic levels of lead. You need to educate yourself and look for the signs of lead poisoning.

We have created a great site for Flint that provides information on what to look for and links to help students experiencing the emotional and physical effects of lead poisoning. Check out Flint Cares.

We have no idea what the future holds for the children impacted by the toxic levels of lead in the water, but don’t limit expectations for these students. I go to work every day and I know that Flint kids are smart and creative and talented, but they may have special needs related to their long-term exposure to toxic levels of lead. We want to lift them up, listen to their frustrations or anxieties and implement restorative justice practices to provide them with the support they need. Educators can check out lesson plans on how we talk about this crisis and how we help our students have this conversation at any grade level.

NEA: How are your students doing and what lessons do we draw from this?

It is hard to put into words the feeling of powerlessness and frustration students feel at having their voices ignored for over a year under those circumstances. Without the intervention of the team at Virginia Tech who went public with their independent testing about the toxic levels of lead, I don’t know where we’d be.

We talk about Environmental Racism – and that is what Flint was about. It all comes down to race and money. Across the country poor and minority communities are more often impacted by toxic environments. Flint used to be a booming town, but when GM closed its plant and the life changed almost overnight. The real truth is that this water crisis happened in Flint, but it could happen anywhere.

Everyone has a gift they can use to push our society toward change. Take your talents and speak out for answers and a better life for those who may not be in a position to speak for themselves. We have to do better.

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