Like me, you may have some passing knowledge of the Flint Water Crisis. You know that the government failed to provide the people of Flint, Michigan with clean drinking water. You know that many residents were poisoned or became ill. You see the phrase “Flint still doesn’t have clean water” regularly appear on Twitter.
“What The Eyes Don’t See” by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is the story of that crisis, and how one person sought the truth and then sought justice. It’s a story of science, of data, of advocacy, and of caring about the most vulnerable members of society.
Justice is getting the implementation right
The story of the crisis begins in 2014, when the City of Flint changed its water source and water authority in the name of cost-cutting. At the time, the Flint city government was controlled by an un-elected emergency manager appointed by the Michigan governor. The emergency manager had orders from on high to dramatically reduce government spending.
There was nothing inherently wrong about the new water source. It wasn’t dirtier, and it wasn’t full of lead. But the new water authority failed to treat it correctly. And because of that failure, lead and other contaminants from aging pipes were leaching into the drinking water, particularly in older homes in poorer neighborhoods.
On a superficial level, the Flint water crisis happened because of an implementation error. The cost of proper water treatment (called corrosion control) would have been a mere $80 per day. The bigger question the book dives into is why this unjust implementation was allowed to go on for so long, at a cost so severe to the lives of the people of Flint.
No one is coming. It’s up to us.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a pediatrician, researcher, and professor at a teaching clinic in Flint. Her story in “What The Eyes Don’t See” will resonate deeply with those of us in Code for America’s network. There are many lessons that directly apply to our work.
Lead ingestion is devastating to the human body and mind. And its impacts are worse for young children, the very patients Dr. Mona (as she prefers to be called) and her team saw at her clinic. There are no safe levels of lead.
Dr. Mona relied on relationships (both personal and professional) to uncover the truth of what was really happening in Flint. There were already experts sounding alarm bells, but there were also officials working to silence them. The actions taken by government officials to deflect and ignore the crisis were infuriating and heartbreaking. How do we speak truth to power when the imbalance is so great and the stakes so high?
Dr. Mona and her team developed a comprehensive data analysis to definitively prove that the children of Flint were being poisoned by lead in the water. The efforts to get that data and present it in a way that would stand up to politics is the primary reason why change ultimately happened.
Dr. Mona goes through personal turmoil during this fact-gathering and advocacy period. Her family life suffers. Her own health suffers. Her colleagues were also sacrificing their professional and personal lives.
But ultimately, the coalition prevailed. The evidence was presented to the public and it was irrefutable. The truth got out. The municipal water was reverted back to the original source, and hundreds of millions of dollars were allocated to Flint and its people.
Towards the end of the book, Dr. Mona reflects on what she accomplished:
Like lots of young people, I was drawn to advocacy, but the chance to really do something meaningful had come by accident. I was the right person in the right job, with the right set of skills, with the right team, who saw a chance to make a difference.
“What The Eyes Don’t See” is ultimately a story about what we–the privileged and well-educated–owe to the most vulnerable. It’s a reminder that our expertise, our insight, and our time are not just for ourselves or our employer. We have a duty to serve everybody.