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Flint Water Crisis: A Turning Point For Environmental Justice

Mott Foundation
Red Cross volunteers plan to deliver drinking water to Flint residents.

Historically, the environmental movement hasn’t always been welcoming to people of color – and issues that are important to them. But to change the problem, you first have to recognize it – and for advocacy groups, it took two events in 2014 to make them reconsider their approach.

In April of that year, the city of Flint, Mich., switched its source of drinking water from the Detroit River to the Flint River. Soon residents were complaining about the water, saying it was discolored and smelled.

The media seized on the crisis.

“Families in Flint file a federal lawsuit over the city’s water crisis - they claim the water made them sick,” blared one TV station.

As the crisis unfolded, thousands of residents were exposed to chemicals and children tested positive for lead poisoning, a condition that can cause developmental delays and seizures.

But it took months for mainstream environmental groups to confront the issues in Flint. They were involved in projects like cleaning up beaches and keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. They didn’t pay much attention to drinking water.

The Flint-headquartered Mott Foundation was a prime example, says Jumana Vasi, who funded Great Lakes environmental work there.

"The foundation when I was there primarily funded mainstream environmental organizations, and they worked on sort of traditional environmental issues: water, land, air," Vasi says. "Focusing on the environmental laws, like the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act.”

Vasi, who left her job at Mott in June, sees Flint as a turning point for these mainstream groups.

“Drinking water infrastructure was very invisible for a very long time until the Flint drinking water crisis happened, but that is Great Lakes water flowing through the City of Flint, flowing through Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland,” she says.

Credit U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr
Switching Flint's source of drinking water from the Detroit River to the Flint River caused lead poisoning in thousands of children.

And as Flint pushed groups to look outward and evaluate the issues they supported, another moment in 2014 forced them to look inward.

Just a couple of months after the Flint water switch, a group called Green 2.0 released a report detailing the staff diversity of environmental organizations.

The news was bad.

The University of Michigan’s Dr. Dorceta Taylor surveyed nearly 300 organizations and found that people of color made up about 16 percent of staffers. That’s less than half of the nationwide percentage of people of color.

And the organizations' stats were even worse for executives and board members.

“It was a real wake-up call to many folks in the environmental community that there’s a real gap here,” said Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Alliance for the Great Lakes, which works on a wide range of issues, has since started an equity analysis, hiring a consultant to ensure it's serving everyone in the Great Lakes region.

For other environmental organizations, Simone Lightfoot of the National Wildlife Federation says funders can provide that push.

“What I’ve seen most effective, most immediately is when funders demand a change,” Lightfoot says. “When a funder says, “You are not getting your check this time until I see diversity among your staff,' you’d be amazed at how many people get hired overnight -- overnight!”

Credit Heather Wilson/Sierra Club
Latino and other minority children were disproportionately affected by pollution in Flint's water system.

Back in Flint, there’s been a lot of legal fallout: 15 people face criminal charges for their roles in the water crisis.

Jeffrey Grayer and his company WT Stevens are helping to replace18,000 lead and galvanized steel pipes across the city.

On this day, his crew is stationed in front of a house on a Flint street. A big piece of machinery sits in the front yard as workers dig under the street to replace pipes for two homes.

But the pipes aren’t the only thing on Grayer’s mind when it comes to Flint’s future.

“My hope in terms of the future is a drastic change, a turnaround,” Grayer says. “The pipes and the water crisis is one thing. The poverty-stricken area and the lack of education is an entirely other discussion and conversation.”

Whether the environmental movement is comfortable with those conversations, and is ready to change its focus, is yet to be seen.

This is the second of a three-part series on the environmental justice movement. Part One told the history of the movement. Part Three looks into solutions to the movement’s diversity problems.

This story was made possible in part by a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources

Reporter/producer Elizabeth Miller joined ideastream after a stint at NPR headquarters in Washington D.C., where she served as an intern on the National Desk, pitching stories about everything from a gentrified Brooklyn deli to an app for lost dogs. Before that, she covered weekend news at WAKR in Akron and interned at WCBE, a Columbus NPR affiliate. Elizabeth grew up in Columbus before moving north to attend Baldwin Wallace, where she graduated with a degree in broadcasting and mass communications.