What the People of Flint Really Need

This article was originally published by ForHarriet.com in February 2016.

In late 2014 I was living in Atlanta, Georgia when a friend sent me a story surrounding residents complaining about contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. At the time of this story, the key element was that residents were getting sick from their water and had been advised to boil or use bottled water to bathe, brush teeth, wash dishes, prepare food or general consumption. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in September 2014, stated that the water of residents and businesses in certain areas of the city tested positive “when given a total coliform test, suggesting there may be a pathway for pathogens and fecal contamination,” as reported by Ron Fonger of MLive Media Group. The response they were met with was an advisory to boil the water before drinking. Here’s a detailed timeline of the water crisis.

On January 23, 2015, in a story published by the Detroit Free Press’ Robin Erb – the author asked a single question, “who wants to drink Flint’s water?” In the story, they captured the ongoing concerns of residents who had been complaining about rashes and elevated concerns about the long-term damage being cause by water distributed to Flint residents. One resident recalled “throwing up like bleach water.”

Residents were met with the continued assurances of the City and State of Michigan that the water was safe.

In September 2015 we learned that not only were the concerns of the residents justified but that, in a city where economic instability has already had a lasting impact on the outcomes of many residents, the future of the city’s children had been forever altered. When information was released by Hurley Medical Center, in Flint, that the proportion of infants and children with above-average levels of lead in their blood had nearly doubled since the city switched from the Detroit water system to using the Flint River, a state of emergency should’ve been declared then.

Flint residents were met with a silence so deafening that one cannot ignore the glaring truths unveiled by this man-made disaster: a city met with economic strife was stripped of its rights by the most detrimental form of privilege, indifference.

For those of us who do anti-racism work, it’s easy for us to say that we have a race problem in every area of society – we are trained to look for it. However, if we had a race problem in 2015, the Flint crisis just made it an emergency.
As best said by the Detroit Free Press Editorial Board, “It’s not just derelict – it invokes inglorious comparison to other callous and insensitive official responses to tragedy. Think of the shameful federal response to Hurricane Katrina, where the same lack of urgency delayed life-saving aid. The poverty rate in Flint is 40%; 52% of Flint residents are African-American. And so we are prompted to ask: How would the state have responded to a crisis of such proportions in a community with more wealth and power?”

That statement appropriately frames why this places Michigan in a particular state of crisis as it relates to race. A state where the source of the Flint disaster can be pin pointed to the passage of legislation that evokes a selective notion of self-governance, the Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act. A piece of legislation that empowers the Governor’s Office to “take over” any municipality or school district it deems as irresponsible. A piece of legislation that no one truly paid attention to – a law that authorizes selective disenfranchisement facilitated by the State of Michigan.

This legislative remedy to fiscal “irresponsibility” is racism baked in a beautiful cake that has an aftertaste reaching across color lines. Public Act 4 of 2011 (the actual legislation being referenced minus the assumption inducing name) should have been applied to countless municipalities whose financial woes hit the ceiling during economic downturns because recouping lost revenue while trying to maintain an infrastructure that was created to accommodate residents who sprawled and developed the now dwindling cities is actually quite complex. However, the cities where this maneuver was used had one key variable in common: communities with large minority populations.

Public Act 4 of 2011 empowers an individual (Emergency Financial Manager), who is not accountable to the public, to make decisions that elected officials are generally empowered to make by virtue of their election to represent the interests of the people they serve. The autocratic nature of Emergency Financial Managers is what opens the door to disasters like the one in Flint: one individual making decisions for a community he or she does not have a vested interest in. Gross negligence is why the concerns of residents voiced to a state that stood silent when asked to lead in cleaning up a mess they created were never heard.

Apathy is the reason it took a year and a half for the rest of us to pay attention. The type of apathy that our internalized bias evokes is what allows a Flint water crisis to exist in the first place. The summarily disregarded concerns of a largely minority community forces us to face the fact that racism was a culprit in this public health crisis. Racism is what causes the concerns of a city to go unnoticed in the public eye (with the exception of Rachel Maddow) when screaming about the concerns they have for their health. Racism is the reason thousands of children sat in school while being served poisoned water. Racism is what prevents the state from pouring resources into a community that is experiencing a form of trauma in which the state was the sole architect of.

Racism is what makes the aforementioned paragraph hard to swallow. I have a career rooted in deconstructing the ways in which racism plays out in our communities, within our institutions and amongst people. I write about what is happening in Flint as the outcome of a larger problem; people. We have a people problem when the immediate response to this crisis is the assumption that it was a disaster brought on by “their own” poor management. We have a people problem when we’ve passively allowed for the execution of legislation that has very publicly been disparately applied to communities in the state. We have a people problem when it takes a year and a half for us to hear our neighbors. We have a people problem because our hearing problem has everything to do with race. Our assumptions continue to shape the way we even discuss the crisis in Flint and our role in facilitating it. The answer here is simple, we are all accountable for this crisis but will we pretend to see fifty shades of nothing or get real about the problem?

We have a race emergency and kids had to be poisoned for us to see it.

The conversation surrounding Flint is first and foremost about the disenfranchisement of a city of people. Disenfranchisement is 100 percent about power. A deconstruction of racism is what should inform this conversation in looking at power and its use.

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Conversations with young people about race must go beyond respectability

Conversations with young people about race must go beyond respectability

This article was originally published on The Rapidian January 19, 2016.

I’m tired of writing about race.

The idea that I have to continuously educate the world on a socialized and institutionalized structure that impacts my existence pains me; the fact that I have to find a nice way to make people care about it pisses me off.

However, I am painfully aware of the fact that not only is talking about race crucial and contextualizing it vital – it’s also an existential necessity. Let me repeat that: talking about race and giving context around how it has evolved and how it currently exists is crucial. These are facts. Yet, we do not do this. And even more problematic is the fact that we consciously do not engage in talking about the historical foundations of race and its evolution with the people who are equipped to make the most difference- young people.

In Grand Rapids we have this false sense of transcendence when it comes to young people and issues of race. Young people in this city are inundated with messaging that suggests they occupy a post-racial space, yet their lives continue to be shaped by the stains of our past and our misconceptions of the present. The fact that showing a movie like DOPE and crafting a narrative around how the themes of imagery and perception could be perceived as heavily controversial because of a misconceived notion of appropriateness is what makes having conversations with young people about race next to impossible in greater Grand Rapids. Parents want to shield their children from understanding the realities they are already faced with – community leaders want to frame the discussion in a way that is palatable to their desires but irrelevant to the realities of youth.

We know young people are not learning about racism in schools – they barely functionally discuss slavery and the civil rights movement. We know parents are often not equipped nor available to engage in crucial dialogues with their children about race on the most basic level. We know that children of color have a complex relationship with understanding how race impacts their life while being socialized in a space that tells them they live in a post racial world because they have a black president.

Our young people are being socialized in a complex space where race shapes their existence but is actively removed from their learning environments. For young people, race is made irrelevant while carrying with it a dangerous outcome: passive participation in the continuous perpetuation of racism. The work that I do around race on a daily basis is irrelevant if we are not actively developing programming that makes young people of all ages active participants in the conversation.

On days like the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, what are we doing to educate young people about race and racism? In short, the answer is nothing. Some parents will intentionally turn on that PBS documentary, if they have television or are not occupied at work, but the rest will treat it like every other day their children are home from school. But I refuse to put all of the blame for our decision to not educate students about race on parents; as a community we have failed as well. In the countless events we are hosting to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, how many target youth? How many are discussing race and racism in the ways young people are faced with it today?

One struggle that I experience in designing programming that meets young people where they are at in racial discourse is that there is this apprehension to deal with it in a real way. We have this culture of respectability politics that refuses to allow us to engage with young people in real discourse about what is shaping their racial perceptions. For young people, their perceptions are being shaped in nuanced ways. In many ways, they are being socialized to understand race in a way that reinforces negative stereotypes and specific directives for destruction.

Young people, in all of the endless forms of media they consume, are shown imagery that they are not developed enough to catch as being damaging in shaping their perceptions of people while also impacting the formulation of their unconscious bias.

How sex is portrayed, how consent is expressed (or lack thereof), how language use is praised or criticized are all relevant considerations in talking about racism yet it is never discussed. It is partially never discussed because adults are stuck arguing about explicit racism and bias while young people are left to deal with the realities that their understanding of racism is being built by an invisible force that they will become a power in shaping upon adulthood.

Our young people are listening to music that covers a range of subjects and encompasses a use of language that is beyond the understanding of adults collectively – they need to talk about it. Our young people are consuming images that show them women of certain associations as specific objects without variation, highly sexualized and selectively brutalized – they need to talk about it. Our young people actively utilize hurtful stereotypes as a way of establishing a sense of supremacy – they need to talk about it.

As much as you or I may not care for the terminology associated with their experience, we need to create a space where they can discuss this freely and without judgment. Congratulations, you don’t like the music they listen to – but guess what, you created the circumstances for the oppression that penned the tale you cannot identify with.

So yes, we need to talk to our kids of all ages about race and racism and in that discussion we need to talk about all the ways in which they experience it whether we like the imagery or not.

Philanthropy Must be a Voice and Take Action

579707_846954855592_898411162_n-2The last ten years of my career have been spent working in the philanthropic sector. My experience as a youth grantmaker in Saginaw, Michigan was the truest and most authentic form of empowerment I had ever experienced – I loved it. As I began working in the profession, I found that what was endearing at first was silenced on reception. My experiences as a young woman of color were only valuable when I was connected to a microphone and on display. In the spaces where my voice needed to matter (ex: the board room, a staff meeting, a strategic planning session); it did not. In the rooms where policy decisions were being made and my critical thinking skills were met with the adoration attributed to a newborn pup that attempts to bark, I found a deafening silence.

With age, the spaces I was occupying became increasingly complex. I discovered not only did my opinions not matter but also my voice did not exist; just the visual – the visual representation of this young black woman being given space, but no air. So when I read a piece like the one written by Maxwell King, the chief executive officer of the Pittsburg Foundation, I am reminded of why highlighting the experiences of people of color within our organizations is so vitally important. In Mr. King’s piece he talked about the need of the philanthropic community to combat rhetoric that risks destroying our democracy. He cited the rhetoric of Donald Trump as being “a threat to civility, to civil discourse, and to the public trust.” To which end I think any individual who cares about the integrity of a democratic society would find hard to disagree with. However, the idea of philanthropic institutions – or really any institution for that matter – needing to make sweeping statements as a way of combating the wildly divisive and hateful rhetoric being displayed on the national stage, I believe is misguided.

The comparison between the rhetoric pushed by Hitler and the fascism that massacred a people and the hate speech that is being placed on a national stage for public consumption, is an accurate one. I challenge the idea, however, that the true intervention missed – as alluded to in the reference to Pastor Niemoller – was not speaking up in time. The missed opportunity is where rhetoric is reinforced by action.

The issue is not only the need for big statements to be made; there is a need for big ideas to be met with small and large actions. In the philanthropic community we have to look at ourselves and ask are we truly practicing what we are preaching? We cannot speak to the importance of inclusive environments where all people – regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity – can succeed without getting our house in order. If you are really committed to inclusion, are you making sure you are listening to those most affected by the environments you create? Do you genuinely value the opinions of your employees? Are clients’ opinions valued in the same way you assess that of a donor? Have you created spaces where employees feel empowered to voice concerns about the organization? Have you intentionally engaged in work to enhance the competency of the organization around key dynamics that impact the inclusiveness of the organization to those externally and internally (i.e. cultural competency training, intercultural development inventory, etc.)?

Perhaps the most important piece to this is: do you speak up when it matters most? When you encounter a micro-aggression in the office, do you address it? When an employee displays a pattern of discriminatory actions, will you fire them? When an employee expresses discomfort around the work environment, will you work to improve the conditions? When an employee says something disparaging to a client because of an individual bias, will you name it and address it?

As a person of color in the workplace, I personally see these elements as key interventions that never occurred in situations where they were necessary. In situations where clear bias was displayed I was waiting for my leadership to step up and do something. Situations in which racism was displayed and my existence was disregarded, I was waiting for leadership to affirm my position and value. While words are meaningful, actions (and inactions) are what curb or reinforce harmful behaviors. In philanthropy, our greatest liability is often that we avoid taking a stand to maintain neutral positioning in spaces where our neutrality is actually damaging. For every opportunity we miss to make a statement and back it up with action, we exclude more people from this space. Diversity and inclusion is sexy language for us in this field and we have worn out the rhetorical elements of Act I; Act II is where we reinforce rhetoric with action. Act II is where we show our counterparts how to create, as best put by Maxwell King, “a society that respects and protects the rights of Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims, women, those with disabilities – and everyone else.”

What maintained my faith in this space, were the interventions that did happen. In a specific situation where bias was being pointed in my direction at a pivotal moment in my career, I had advocates who spoke up and acted on my behalf. I am painfully aware of my positioning, every time I think about where I would be if those individuals had not spoken up when they did. I am haunted by the notion that, had people who saw promise and valued my opinion not hired me at key moments, I would not occupy the spaces I do today. Interventions by people, in moments when my voice was suppressed, mattered. And for too many current and future stakeholders in the philanthropic community, there are not enough voices taking action. There are not enough people giving minorities space to breathe. Even today, I find myself in rooms where I must relentlessly affirm my positioning in this space.

I’m waiting for the moment I don’t need to say “I, too, am philanthropy.” Until then – I need more than rhetoric to make our space more inclusive.