By Tatyanna Carman
Anna Clark, author of Rider’s 2019 shared read book “The Poisoned City,” spoke about the Flint, Michigan, water crisis in the Bart Luedeke Center Theater on Oct. 29.
A native of Michigan, Clark was inspired to write a collection of individual journalistic articles on the crisis before she created her book.
“It was pretty early on when I was writing about Flint, even when I was doing a long article, that it was a much bigger story than you can fit in that,” Clark said. “It involved history. It involved science. It involved just so much context that I wasn’t able to communicate that even when a huge national spotlight came to Flint, even then, it wasn’t being communicated very well or completely. So I knew that it deserved a longer treatment.”
She added that the book took two years to write.
Before the event, a select group of freshmen students who wrote essays about the shared read book, spoke with Clark. The student with the top chosen essay introduced Clark. It is an opportunity that has been offered to freshmen for the past two years, according to Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs DonnaJean Fredeen.
For this year’s shared read essay contest, the best essay that was chosen was one written by freshman public relations major Keyonna Murray. She described Clark as “an example of just how much power a pen can hold.” She also said “The Poisoned City” won both the Hillman Prize for book journalism and the Rachel Carson Environment book award.
Clark spoke about the water specifically and shed light on the geography of Michigan. She shared that within Michigan, “you can never be [more than] six miles away from a natural body of water,” which has shaped the state’s economy among other aspects.
“It did not happen even because some corner-cutting company was blinded by profits and just not doing things properly. It did not happen for a short time, it happened for a long time. This is a man-made disaster where that was caused and prolonged by the very agencies that are supposed to protect the environment and protect public health,” Clark expressed.
She also shared the pain of the tragedy of Flint because it is often described as a “river town.” On the other hand, she encouraged the audience to think about the town’s positive aspects such as its “cute cafes,” that serve as neighborhood hubs and its “burst-in-field house,” which is a revived neighborhood field house where the community members of all ages can play.
Clark recapped parts of the book such as the origin of the water issue in Flint on the day of the water switch in April of 2014. She explained that Flint previously had been getting its water supply from Detroit, Michigan, for 50 years, but it became too expensive due to the large amount of poverty, which led to numerous water shut-offs. According to Clark, Flint’s water bills were among the most expensive in the nation due to housing vacancy.
“The city was also under emergency management, which meant that a state appointed administrator had total political authority, the authority that a mayor or a city council would ordinarily hold plus extra powers beyond that no elected official has – an unusually authoritarian system that the state says is needed to come into crisis situations to really broke cities and school districts to get things in order,” she said.
Clark explained that the city planned to switch to a new water system, which was not built at the time, so the city temporarily rebooted its old city system and treated the river water. She also debunked the myth that Fint’s river pollution was the single cause of the water crisis; the absence of corrosion control and the high corroded river water was the cause. Corrosion control is a process that prevents metal from breaking down into water.
Audience members were audibly disgusted after seeing the condition of Flint’s water pipes. Clark further revealed that the discolored water not only contained iron, but also lead, which caused an epidemic of illness.
She discussed the historical issues that led to the water crisis such as infrastructure inequality and the high segregation of the city in the north in the 1960s. Clark also discussed General Motors involvement in segregation while providing booming industry in the area that influenced an influx of people, especially people of color.
“If you were a real estate agent and you showed a house to a person of color, a family of color that was in a white neighborhood, you could lose your license,” said Clark. “You were destined to have inferior infrastructure, inferior housing and inferior opportunities.”
Clark then discussed the struggle to pass the Fair Housing Ordinance to dismantle housing discrimination, including how the Klu Klux Klan, among others, tried to overturn the law after it was passed “by a hair.” Regardless of this sense of community, Clark shared that Flint’s population has decreased since 1970 and continues to do so, specifically its white residents.
Clark said that the solution to the problem is to remove the lead pipes that are currently in the Flint water system.
“When we purposefully disinvest places, we shouldn’t act shocked that it is more harmful for people to be there — that we’ve created sacrifice zones for people,” she said. “And I don’t think we should be OK with that and I don’t think we should keep relearning this lesson. I don’t think we should keep making a city, any city let alone a Great Lakes city have to rely on plastic bottled water for not just drinking, but for brushing teeth, for feeding formula to infants or taking baths.”
After she spoke, the audience asked about her thoughts on the Trenton, New Jersey, water contamination issue, the new governor of Michigan, the dropped charges of the state workers involved in the Flint water crisis and the journalistic ethics surrounding the crisis.
Murray said, “I think she knew about the Flint water crisis from every angle of the situation, which I found was very powerful and I feel like it’s something I would like to imitate as well and to make sure that when I do say, ‘This is something I want to do. This is something I want to research and look into.’ Really sticking into that and really starting to hone in on some of these causes so that I can maybe make a difference one day myself.”
Clark also gave some advice to young activists that want to make a change within the issue of water contamination and environmental racism.
“One thing that I do find encouraging is that I do hear more people in all kinds of communities talking about water in cities and environmental racism in ways that I have not heard before,” she said. “I think learning from each other. You don’t have to start from scratch and bringing history into it knowing that it didn’t happen in a vacuum is all very important. And just we need transparency around how our cities are made.”