Author Sees Flint at Intersection of Democracy, Environmental Injustice

June 27, 2018

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Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who was instrumental in exposing a lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water, spoke with our book editor about her just-released volume on the tragedy. Photo: © Hurley Medical Center

Between the Lines: Author Sees Flint at Intersection of Democracy, Environmental Injustice

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is the researcher at Flint, Michigan’s Hurley Medical Center who brought that city’s water crisis under international focus, conclusively proving a high incidence of lead poisoning had occurred among Flint children. A physician, scientist and activist, she has twice testified before Congress, been awarded the Freedom of Expression Courage Award by PEN America and been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. She is also one of the high-profile speakers for this fall’s Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference in Flint.

Hanna-Attisha conducted this “Between the Lines” author Q & A with SEJournal book editor Tom Henry, in connection with the June release of her new book, “What The Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City” (see our separate review).  

SEJournal: You have an insight into the Flint water crisis that few, if any, journalists have. At what point did you decide it was important to write a book?

Mona Hanna-Attisha: Soon after the initial wave of the crisis ebbed, perhaps in December 2015, I realized that the kids of Flint would have ongoing needs well beyond the attention span of the national press. I thought writing a book would be a good vehicle to talk about those needs.

I also realized the Flint story was at the intersection of so much that troubled the entire country — issues of democracy, environmental injustice, racism, poverty — and that the story could be a vehicle for the positive change needed in so many places like Flint. After the election, I felt that the inspiration and hope in the Flint story was desperately needed.

SEJournal: Was there ever a point during your research and writing that you second-guessed whether you had much more to add to the enormous volumes of articles that have been written about the Flint water crisis? What was going through your head as you wrote this book?

Hanna-Attisha: No. There was so much more I wanted to write and discuss. There is at least another entire book on the cutting room floor. The biggest challenge in this project was to keep the narrative tight — the heart of the book happens in one month — while telling the essential background and history. I’m lucky my visionary editor, Chris Jackson of One World/Random House, embraced the idea that this book was going to be a unique, part action-packed drama, part memoir, part public health history.

The writing wasn’t mostly therapeutic. This is a sad and distressing story. I had to relive it to write it. And I wanted readers to experience everything I did. But there are several sections that were therapeutic — those involve the great resistance and interventions we are putting in place to help the kids of Flint.

 

'I know and appreciate

that a government could

poison its own people.'

 

SEJournal: Many great books about major events have at least a little bit of a memoir to them. Yours certainly helped personalize your story for a wider audience, instead of being bogged down by heavy-handed science understood just by a niche group of readers. Did you consciously try to strike the right balance between storytelling and scientific data? What advice do you have for would-be authors on how to do that?

Hanna-Attisha: Striking the balance between the different aspects of the story was one of the bigger challenges in the book. I realized early on that separating my personal story — my family immigrant story and my social justice background — from the Flint water crisis drama would be impossible, and would do a disservice to the reader. I also realized that distilling the medical, public health and environmental topics for non-scientific readers, while engaging readers who knew the science, would also be critical to the book’s popular success. These are all high wire acts and required lots of thought and lots of editing and rewriting.

SEJournal: You write in the book how your father was a hard-working General Motors employee and how that helped shape your perception of Flint. Though you grew up in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, you had a fascinating overview of Flint's character, history and struggles. Was your father's allegiance to GM largely responsible for your loyalty to Flint, and did you feel that as a youth who grew up in a more affluent area near Detroit?

Hanna-Attisha: Royal Oak was definitely more affluent than Detroit when I grew up.  But the Royal Oak when I grew up was working class, not more. It wasn’t the yuppie suburb it is today. Like most of metro Detroit it was a Big Three area with tremendous loyalty to the auto industry. Even today, you see few foreign-assembled cars in metro Detroit.

As I write in the book, my dad has been a progressive his entire life. And I don’t mean he is a Democrat. His leftism is old school and ideological. His sense of solidarity with workers, and his history fighting injustice, even though he was an engineer, not a union line worker, is probably more of a link to my connection to Flint’s struggles.  

Hanna-Attisha, the director of the Michigan State University and Hurley Children's Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, with a young patient. Photo: © Michigan State University

SEJournal: You don't hide from the fact you had a keen interest in environmental activism as a youth. You're an Iraqi-American, which is obviously different than being African-American, as so many Flint residents are. Yet there is a commonality, to some degree, when it comes to issues of justice and how people are viewed because of race, religion, ethnic background and so forth. How did all of these factors come together and help you see more clearly what was going on in Flint when powers-that-be denied there was a problem?

Hanna-Attisha: I think many pediatricians, regardless of their background, sitting in my spot and hearing there is lead in the water of Flint, would have also acted. But I do believe that my background — my immigrant background and my social justice background and my public health and environmental health background — played a role.

I am the child of dissidents fleeing Iraq during the reign of Saddam Hussein when ethnic genocides were committed. Some were committed by poison gas. I write in the book that this made me more attuned to injustice generally and more sceptical of government lies. I know and appreciate that a government could poison its own people and how minorities can be treated.

I also write in “What the Eyes Don’t See” that as an Arab American, a brown person in a majority black city, I hold a strange middle ground in many worlds. I think that has affected my role exposing the crisis and also my role helping mitigate it, positively and negatively.  

SEJournal: What is happening now with your friend, Elin Betanzo, the former EPA official who tipped you off about the lack of corrosion control and what it meant, who was instrumental in encouraging you to do the research that blew the Flint investigation wide open?

Hanna-Attisha: Elin’s role in the Flint crisis has ensconced her as a leading water quality expert in the country. She has founded her own drinking water company, Safe Water Engineering, to help other communities navigate this world.

SEJournal: Environmental victories are so rare, even when there are obvious cases of injustice and offensive treatment of innocent people. While the Flint water crisis exposed problems within the administration of Michigan governor, Rick Snyder, with the emergency manager form of government and with cutting corners on accepted science and other issues, does Flint actually feel like it has won? If not, what will it take for that to happen and to restore its faith in government?

Hanna-Attisha: No, the people of Flint do not feel like they have won. Flint has been in crisis from the early 1980s. Putting Flint back to where it was before the crisis, even if we are able to achieve that, would not be a victory. The people of Flint are hurt and angry about the betrayals, both about the water and about the systematic injustice.

At the same time, I learned as a young environmental activist many years ago that it is important to recognize the battles you have won, even if you haven’t yet won the war. I recognize that the state could have continued to battle the science of lead poisoning. I recognize that the water in Flint could have never been switched back to Great Lakes water. I recognize the immense amount of resources and programming we have received from the feds and the state to make kids lives better. I recognize that all our lead pipes in Flint are going to be replaced.

Even in these strange and difficult times, progressives need to acknowledge and celebrate success, even if it is not complete and more work needs to be done.

 

'Deep civic engagement is necessary with

the government bureaucracy, and particularly

the public health and environmental agencies.  

Otherwise, things like Flint could happen.'

 

SEJournal: What big-picture lessons about human behavior did you learn from this experience, about the humanitarian right to water and the almost Third World treatment of 100,000 Americans? How much more deeply did it affect you and your sense of compassion in your everyday job as a pediatrician?

Hanna-Attisha: As a believer in the power of government to achieve equality, increase prosperity and create a humane society, I learned that deep civic engagement is necessary with the government bureaucracy, and particularly the public health and environmental agencies.  Otherwise, things like Flint could happen, where a disenfranchised community becomes neglected and ignored, even when alarm bells should be blazing.

Government alone isn’t the answer. Good government, transparent and open, infused with direct democracy and supported by citizen activists, informed by science and experts, is harder to achieve than establishing a government program. It is especially difficult when government is starved, when public service and public servants are bashed and belittled.  

I’m a medical educator as much as a practicing pediatrician. In both jobs I think my sense of compassion has deepened. But also my sense of understanding how historic injustice creates the people and places we see. That is a form of compassion.

SEJournal: Finally, where do you see Flint heading? The city's hope and resilience, as you note, are two of its biggest assets. But where do you see Flint 10 or 20 years from now? And what can Americans do to prevent it and other cities from becoming American tragedies?       

Hanna-Attisha: In much of the country, even in the industrial Midwest, we have seen a resurgence of cities. I hope that happens in Flint. I’m an optimist and think it will. The ingredients are there. We have world-class universities and health care facilities and great people.  

But to be successful, the resurgence has to include great paying jobs, like the union jobs that the Flint sit-down strike [against General Motors] helped create some 80 years ago.  Restaurant jobs, health care jobs, education jobs must be middle-class jobs to sustain an economy. I wish as a pediatrician that I could prescribe good jobs for my kids’ parents. That would improve their health more than most anything else.


* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 26. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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