Flint Michigan – It Isn’t Only About Water

First… A disclaimer.. I struggled with a title for this post. I wanted to say “Flint is lucky” then I wanted to say “Flint won the lottery” then “South Chicago, Detroit and Baltimore Need Lead in their water”.. I also struggled with the tone. My wife tells me I’d stay out of trouble more if I kept quieter. I’m sort of breaking that rule here. What I have to say could sound a bit offensive to some. To others it will sound like I’m embracing the full depth of “It takes a village” or going off the deep end and Feeling The Bern.. I’m not trying to be offensive or insensitive. I’m not trying to minimize the real health and physical difficulties the folks in Flint are facing. And I’m not all of the sudden saying that money alone fixes everything. So if you read angry right wing racist rant – then, well I guess – who are you and why are you one of the 3 or 4 people who read my posts. If you read this as progressive democrat or socialist then I ask you to wipe your goggles a little.

My Premise

I was driving to the airport this morning, and I ended up tuning into a rebroadcast of the Rachel Maddow MSNBC town hall in Flint, MI (seriously, I’ve not gone full moon bat. I actually didn’t like some of the political tone injected into event. but this post isn’t about that). It was interesting. I understand lead poisoning can have many effects, some life threatening or longevity effecting. But one of the major focus points was on the gradual and harder to fully quantify impact. They were talking about the cognitive issues, the learning disabilities, the impact on graduation rates, the fact that the kids of Flint who have detectable lead levels are at greater risk now of being left behind. They are at a greater risk of cognition challenges. They are at a great risk of impulsiveness, violence. Basically the experts on her stage were talking about them having an uphill battle to take their education and apply it.

That breaks my heart. For many reasons I have a heart for those who have learning disabilities and challenges succeeding. I know the makeup of Flint in a socio-economic manner of speaking. You can see the statistics. Here’s the deal – the kids in Flint already had a tough road ahead of them. Statistics don’t say much good about their potential graduation rates, their avoidance of violence, their college acceptances, their ability to string an education into rosy futures.

The panel was talking about how it’s incumbent on the educators to watch ever so carefully. For the parents to get their kids to the pediatricians and get involved in their schooling and look for the signs so they can get learning challenges identified and get plans in place to plow past them.  The pediatrician talked about how there was a real lack of great food options in many of the effected neighborhoods and areas and how nutritional support isn’t there and how key that is to developing minds. They talked about how no school in their district has a school nurse and what that means. They talked about some true education funding challenges they are having (* huge asterisk here.. I’m not a fan of money = problem solved, more money = problem more solved… And there are wastes in education, some union led by paying for teachers who should be gone, some bureaucracy induced…).

And everyone is listening. And everyone is watching. And heads are rolling. And people are being held accountable. And with all the eyes on them? They are going to get what they need.

I have a friend whose wife is an administrator at a school in the south that is a Title 1 school – most of their students are on free or reduced lunch. They have struggles. They have learning disabilities. They have to work hard to get parents to the table to partner in their kids’ education. And they get funding. But the funding our schools get often comes with so many strings. You want to give every kid an iPad? There’s money for that. In fact.. There is money that comes first, and then you must use it to get the iPads. There are mandatory items to spend on that don’t help and just add frustration. Not to mention the emotional and fiscal cost of the testing for NCLB. But you want an art teacher? Or a music program? Crickets.

We’ve taken education out of the control of the folks who know what is best and we’ve led DC decide what is best. It may very well be well-meaning people who start an idea. But by the time it gets into the mixer, beat to heck and then sent through the sausage grinder – it doesn’t look the same at all. It looks like most of what comes out of DC – and then it gets thrust onto the states, one size fits all/

But I digress..  My premise is – Flint was screwed before the lead.  They were screwed by me. By you. I can’t begin to understand that. Most of my friends can’t either. I grew up in a middle class world. Mostly white. Mostly two parent families. Mostly intact communities. Athletic boosters, decent budgets to the enrichment opportunities and I lived in towns where what happened in Flint wouldn’t have been allowed to go on for more than 1 month because the multi-generational poverty wasn’t there, most of the community had education, had voices and when we spoke we were listened to. We could advocate for ourselves and do so in a way that would get attention (See my father’s day series when I first started this blog..  That was just one middle class white kid who could string thoughts together to paper and a copy machine and a lot of stamps that started a media firestorm)

Flint was screwed already. Those kids? So many of them would get the outcomes that folks are worried about. Some of it is the school funding. Some of it is the economic status of the parents. Some of it is broken families. Some of it is a multi-generational curse because our programs don’t help lift up and out and teach tools to do something different – it is easier for the system to just keep someone down and “surviving” it seems.

It’s not just flint though. Detroit. Baltimore. Philadelphia. Parts of NYC. Neighborhoods in Boston. Swaths of LA. The south side of Chicago. These other cities don’t have a water crisis (which for the record.. I’m pissed about the injustice of the water crisis in Flint. I think the governor should resign. It isn’t all his fault and it isn’t a party problem – it’s a “gub’mint” problem). These other neighborhoods with the same make up. The same socio-economic challenges, the same feeling of abandonment from those who have moved on.. These cities are all just as screwed as Flint was.

We won’t talk about those neighborhoods. Because there just aren’t headlines about a huge inept government challenge. There aren’t politics angles and actual people to blame and castigate so clearly in those areas. You see.. In Flint? We have a scapegoat. And that scapegoat isn’t all of us. We will never allow the scapegoat to be all of us. It has to be someone with a face, a name, a job title and an R or a D after their name.

Well.. Flint was screwed already because of us all. I’m not saying that the socialism of Bernie Sanders is the answer. I’m not saying that the policies out of our federal DOE are the answer. But I am saying that we all live here together. We all share this space. We are all created in the image of God. Maybe responsibility sounds like too strong of a word to my more strict Libertarian friends – but we do have a responsibility to one another. It’s in the Bible. All over the Bible. Now I don’t think that has to be the by force contract the government has with us. But I think we’ve all looked the other way.

We’ve abdicated our responsibility to a government. And then we look away when it doesn’t get it. And we just get frothed up and blame the party we don’t support and then move onto the next news cycle. Our guilt eased because government stood up and said “I got it… just give me a few of your bucks, but don’t worry I’ll take more from people who make more than you” and we sort of shrugged and said “cool” but inside we sort of know it’s not helping. Now don’t get me wrong. Government is good – it’s ordained by God for a purpose. And it can be a force to help and a force for Good. And a social contract isn’t evil on its face.

But we’ve been failing whole communities. Whole classes of people. Even, perhaps most sadly, colors of people for generations. And we think this is working.

I don’t know what to do here. But we can’t let Flint’s conversation be ONLY about the lead and horrible policy of emergency city managers. Because if we keep the conversation there we may fix Flint – for a decade or two – but we won’t move the needle on anything else.

I keep coming back to this verse with injustice. But let it speak to you here.  Let it speak to you as you think about the least of our citizens. What a crying shame that we are letting so many get left behind.

Isaiah 1:17 (ESV):

Learn to do good;
seek justice,
    correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
    plead the widow’s cause.


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