Flint’s Water Is Still Contaminated, But There Are Ways You Can Help

Illustrated by Jihyang Lim.

Let Little Miss Flint tell you what to do

Flint, Michigan, still doesn’t have clean water. In fact, it’s been 1,154 days since water ran clear rather than brown; it's contaminated and smells faintly of rotten eggs. That’s more than three years since most residents have been able to take showers, drink from the faucet, or safely water their plants without the help of a filter or bottled water.

On April 14, 2014, Flint officials made the decision to switch the city’s water source to the Flint River in order to save money. The pollution from the river ended up corroding the pipes and, in turn, poisoning the water with lead and other hazardous chemicals. It wasn’t until September of 2015, though, that the state acknowledged there was a problem, despite continuous complaints from residents. In fact, it took investigations from the ACLU, Virginia Tech, and reports from pediatrician Dr. Moana Hanna-Attisha, who found record levels of lead in her patients' blood, for anyone to really start paying attention. It got so bad that former President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency in January of last year (note: nearly two years after residents had already been exposed to lead).

It’s been an uphill battle for the majority black city since. The mayor at the time, Dayne Walling—one of the officials who insisted that the water was safe, even going so far as to drink it on television—has since been replaced by Karen Weaver. The city’s switched their water back to being sourced from Detroit and the eroding pipes are set to be fixed, but the process is estimated to take at least three years.

While there was a time when it seemed like everyone was hyper-aware of what was going in Flint (back in 2016 when Obama visited and #JusticeForFlint, the benefit event that included guests like Jesse Williams, Janelle Monae, and Ava DuVernay, was broadcast during the Academy Awards ), the media has, for the most part, moved on from this story. There are other things to cover, other horrific things to report on. But Flint still doesn't have clean water.

So while Flint hasn't completely left the news cycle—just a couple of weeks ago five Michigan officials were charged with involuntary manslaughter for their role in the water crisis—it can still be hard to gauge what needs to be done and who can help. To get a better sense of exactly this, we spoke with five activists, who have long been doing their part to spread awareness.

Read ahead for what they have to say.

Little Miss Flint
Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny, in most spaces known as Little Miss Flint, is probably the most well-known activist on this list. She also happens to be the youngest. She’s nine years old now, but when she was just eight, she wrote a letter to then-president, Obama, that stirred him to come visit her city. (You might also know her from this meme.) Copeny has amassed a huge following on social media; she was the youngest ambassador at the Women’s March back in January, and she’s just as passionate about raising awareness for the issues Flint still faces today, day 1,154, as she was on day one.

But though Copeny’s efforts have helped, her mother, LuLu Brezzell, says there’s still much work to be done. “As far as progress is going, the government officials can always be doing more,” she tells us. She and her family have shower filters and are “able to get in and speed shower,” but they still experience rashes that look like chemical burns. “They’re pushing for people to use the filters because they’re trying to phase out the bottled water because it costs money and they don’t wanna have to keep wasting money on people,” Brezzell says.

There’s a lot she’d like to see done. Specifically, she’d like to see the piping replaced sooner rather than later. She’d also like Flint to be declared a federal disaster zone. “This is something that we were hoping President Obama would have done,” she says. “I understand why they didn’t do it—because it’s not a national disaster—but, at the same time, if they declare this a disaster zone it will open up more funding—it will open up more resources to help get these pipes out of the ground quicker.”

The main thing that people living outside of Flint can do to help, Brezzell says, is to allow the people of Flint to be heard. “We don’t need outsiders coming in and trying to tell us what to think, how to feel, what kind of actions we should take,” she says. “If you’re going to come in as an ally, stand behind us, support us, but don’t try to stand in front of us and kind of take the spotlight and take the lead when you don’t have the whole picture of what it’s like being here.”

Also, she adds, it’s important to remember that there are kids, like Copeny herself, who are “part of the collateral damage.” She continues: “I think people miss that part, the day-to-day of what it’s like for kids… Right now, we have a whole generation of kids that will not trust the tap water for anything,” she says. “You have a whole city that’s pretty much dealing with a lot of little kids being traumatized over what’s happened here.”