Student says Flint families feel forgotten, frustrated
Every time Flint junior Jene’a Johnson visits home, she returns to Central Michigan University feeling guilty about leaving her family in her hometown.
While many students visit home to relax, school is where Johnson can de-stress from the hardships of Flint's ongoing struggle to provide clean water to its residents.
The Flint Water Crisis began in April 2014, after the city's emergency manager approved a switch from a water source in Detroit to the Flint River. NPR reported the switch was intended to save money, but the Flint River water was not properly treated, so the corrosive water affected the city's pipes which released lead into the water.
The Environmental protection agency announced in March 2017, nearly three years after the start of the crisis, it is awarding a $100 million grant to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to help fix the water quality issues in Flint --- an act sociology Professor Cedric Taylor said is a good start.
"I'm certain that many residents feel a sense of hope,” Taylor said. “We should recognize though, that it will take more than $100 million to comprehensively address a crisis that has medium and long turn ramifications. Adequate support for poisoned children, the elderly and everyone in between, will demand much more resources."
While some efforts have been put in place, Johnson said the people are still unable to drink the water and the “damage is already done.”
Johnson described every visit back as “cultural shock.”
“When you’re riding around there's almost like a palpable, tangible feeling of despair,” Johnson said. “Every church has the pallets outside of them now --- the used pallets from all of the water bottle deliveries. It's a constant reminder, you can’t look around and not see an empty bottle of water or some kind of litter.
When the city announced it was switching its water source, residents were immediately upset because they knew the water quality was poor. She described standing by the Flint River in the summer, and said the smell matched its "grotesque" appearance.
During spring break, Johnson’s family, went through four cases of 32 water bottles.
“When you’re sitting at the dinner table with your dinner that was cooked from bottled water, drinking your bottled water, and you see a commercial come on about the water crisis, you’re just like ‘yeah, appetite gone,’” she said. “We don’t use tap water to cook, (but) we do use it to wash dishes now.”
Johnson said for a long time, her family needed bottled water to bathe and take showers. Now, they allow themselves to take quick showers in the water.
Although Johnson’s family has been able to avoid major health complications, she said the water has affected her skin.
"Everyone in my family has skin conditions, like eczema, psoriasis, things like that and (the water) makes (it) terribly worse.” she said. “Even for people who don’t have skin conditions, it creates lesions on their skin and patches of super dry or cracked and pus. It literally took layers of my skin off.”
For a while, the media played a major role with its continuous coverage on the Flint Water Crisis. But Johnson is troubled with how Flint was a “hot topic” for a while --- then people seemed to forget it is still happening.
“I guess it’s being portrayed correctly, but is it being portrayed adequately? Is it being portrayed enough?” she questioned. “I think that’s where there are disparities, people don’t see it enough. There are so many issues pertaining water in America today and I don’t think people realize water is life.”
Although Johnson has no confidence in her city's elected officials at this point, she maintains hope for her city.
“I definitely have optimism for (Flint),” Johnson said. “We have so much talent, hope (and) unity. We can overcome anything, as we have in the past, but it's going to take inside effort. It's going to take the effort of people who are actually being affected by this, who are living in this every day, who are witnessing their children being affected by this mess.”
Knowing her family suffers from poor conditions, Johnson plans to use her education to return and assist the city.
“I want to go back and lift Flint up,” Johnson said. “But I can't do that without credentials, without an education, experience, without a degree. In order to do that I have to go to school and network.”
Students should get involved as much possible to provide social change and help Flint residents, Johnson said.
“Water isn’t that cheap, but it’s not that expensive,” she said. “Load up. Get some wipes, hand-sanitizer, trash bags, water, filters, anything honestly helps. Take it (and) go help distribute.”
Students need to be educators, Johnson said. They need to use their voice to advocate for the people in Flint.
“Be willing to be the person that is not liked, don’t be afraid to be (the) person always stepping up for somebody else, or speaking out for issues,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to be an ally, don’t let people discourage you from creating change.”
Johnson will be one of the hundreds of CMU volunteers who are going on a service trip to Flint at the end of April.
Lake City junior Crystal Pendergrass, chair of the Flint Active Crisis Team and Service at CMU, is coordinating the trip. She said volunteers will spend April 29 at different areas in Flint, helping to restore parks and homes and work at food banks and the Salvation Army.
Pendergrass organized the crisis team last academic year, and said this all-day trip will be the biggest service mission yet.
The service trip is about “humbling yourself,” she said. It’s about making life-long impacts and listening to people who are told they don’t matter.
Students interested in volunteering for the Flint service trip can register on Orgsync or the FACTS Facebook page. The deadline to register is April 27.
“All they want is just someone to listen to their story, and to feel hurt because they haven’t been.” Pendergrass said. “We are going make a difference and we are going to put our stamp on that place.
Every time she visits Flint to help, Pendergrass said she makes clear to the residents she works with that they will never stop working to build a stronger Flint.
“It is so encouraging to see our students serve,” she said. “It’s even more encouraging to see the hope return to the community members eyes and for them to believe in something.”