A day before MSNBC came to Flint for a show it would label “American Disaster,” I went for a less-ambitious effort: a radio program to talk with people affected by the water crisis.
Several experts joined us, as did Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver, in an auditorium inside the Flint Institute of Arts. A few dozen citizens dropped by. Toward the end, we took a microphone out to them.
A man with his young daughter was asked how he felt. Although his voice quivered, his words did not:
“Completely betrayed by our leaders. … We don’t know who to believe.”
Then his 10 year-old daughter, Meredith, was given the microphone. She was a pretty, thin girl with hair parted in the middle and a face clear and bright with promise.
“Are you scared?” I asked her.
“Yeah,” she said. “I take school really seriously. I want to become smart. And I’m afraid this is gonna make me not become … like, not let me be my fullest self.”
We can scream all we want in this man-made fiasco. We can blame the governor, or the emergency manager he put in charge. We can accuse water experts, bureaucrats, the City Council. We can spin this into our own political agendas, say it is proof of failed policies and heads must roll.
And none of that will mean a thing to that 10-year-old girl.
And she is all we should be thinking about.
Yet another obstacle for youths
There are few issues in the world that make people drop their differences. One is the welfare of children. I can tell you when young Meredith Knight said she was worried about not being smart, the entire room sagged with a desire to comfort her.
We should be playing up that part of us. It is the only way to lift this crisis from something toxic — on more levels than one — to something positive. There are already critics diminishing this story, pointing to previous lead levels, saying this is unwarranted hysteria. It brings to mind the e-mail released by Gov. Rick Snyder’s office that cited a Flint resident who claimed she was told by a state nurse, when asking about elevated lead levels in her son’s blood, “It is just a few IQ points … not the end of the world.”
How would you feel if that was your child?
We shouldn’t bicker over how big this problem is because any problem that worries children about their future is big enough. The fact is, the kids most affected by elevated lead levels in Flint’s water were already facing a huge uphill battle. Poverty. Joblessness. Lack of access to quality medical care.
“Every toxic stress imaginable,” said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who has become the face of the medical fight in Flint. “We have a 40% poverty rate, high areas of unemployment, high rates of violence. …
“We have a 20-year less life expectancy in Flint than we do in Flushing. We had all these other obstacles. …
“And then we gave our children lead.”
Counter the damage of lead
The insidious thing about lead poisoning is that it doesn’t take much. And prolonged exposure, particularly in infants, can be devastating. While we were in Flint that day, we met numerous parents who expressed guilt, their eyes lowered, their heads shaking, as if trying to take back every glass of water, every bath — even though it was not their fault.
There are two things Flint must do now. One is insist, loudly, that all filtration plans are beyond reproach — which is not the case with Friday’s news that even with filtration, some Flint homes still have too much lead to be safely reduced.
The other is that Flint kids — particularly those under 6 years old — “the most developmentally vulnerable, about 9,000 or 10,000,” Hanna-Attisha said — should be showered with everything from nutrition programs, healthy food access, excellent preschool, reading and mental health initiatives.
In short, we should go from treating them like paupers to young princes and princesses. You know. The way kids from wealthy families are treated every day.
And whatever it costs, for now and for years to come, the government should pay for, because the government, whichever part you want to blame, did this.
You can’t undo the damage done. But you can counter it, to some degree, by how you nourish and care for those young minds. And in doing so, we could turn this horrible liability into a future asset.
Because right now, if we can only agree on one thing, it should be that no kid in our state should ever have to wonder if he or she will grow up to be smart.
The adults have already proven how dangerous that can be.