News — How One Community Of Churchgoers And Former Convicts Is Fighting For Flint
by John Haltiwanger

There is perhaps no city in the United States that knows what it means to fight and struggle for survival quite like Flint, Michigan.

Between economic turmoil, high violent crime rates and an ongoing water crisis, Flint is a community that just can't seem to catch a break.

There was a time when Flint was one of the most affluent places in America. It was the hub of the auto industry in this country.

In 1980, Flint, Michigan was the richest city in America for young professionals. Today, over 40 percent of the city lives in poverty.

At one point, over 80,000 people in Flint had jobs through General Motors. But after frequent plant closures and layoffs over the past several decades, GM now employs fewer than 10,000 people in the city.

On top of its economic struggles, Flint has ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the United States for the past several years. It held the title of the most violent city in America from 2010 to 2012.

Once considered one of the most promising communities in the country, Flint is now a dilapidated shell of what it used to be.

John Haltiwanger
John Haltiwanger

Driving through Flint is eery, it feels somewhat post-apocalyptic. There are abandoned homes, schools and businesses on nearly every street.

It's hard to believe it's an American city, as it looks like a war-zone in many spots. It's seemingly been condemned to a slow and miserable death.

The government, at the state and federal level, appears content to allow Flint to fade into oblivion.

The myriad issues and problems Flint has faced over the years have been compounded by the fact that its people are currently living without reliable and comprehensive access to life's most basic necessity: water.

Understandably, the people of Flint feel abandoned, ostracized and enraged. Their jobs have been taken, their schools have been closed, their houses have been left to rot and their children have been poisoned because of greed and ineptitude.

MF Thomas

The roots of the Flint water crisis.

In 2014, Michigan's government made the decision to switch Flint's water supply from Detroit to the Flint River in an effort to cut costs. But the water was not properly treated, and became contaminated with lead from old pipelines.

It wasn't long before Flint residents noticed something was wrong with the water, as it was extremely discolored and began making people sick.

But, in spite of evidence to the contrary, the government continued to insist the water was fine. It took ongoing public outcry and the involvement of experts, including scientists from Virginia Tech, for the government to finally admit the water wasn't safe.

The water supply has since been switched back to Detroit, but this will only get fixed once the pipes in Flint are replaced, and it's estimated this could cost at least $60 million.

A recent report showed the cost of replacing the pipes could actually cost twice as much as some of the earlier estimates.

Meanwhile, over 8,000 children under the age of 6 in Flint have been exposed to lead. The scale of this tragedy cannot be overstated.

Lead poisoning is extremely serious, especially for children. It's linked to lifelong health issues, including cognitive and behavioral problems.

Many feel it's no coincidence Flint has a population that is majority black, and argue there's no way a crisis like this would be allowed to persist in a wealthy majority white community.

Amid all this, there have been widespread calls for Governor Rick Snyder to resign, but he remains in office.

Former prisoners have emerged as leaders during the Flint water crisis.

In April, I traveled to Flint to get a firsthand look at the water crisis.

Within hours of arriving, the gravity of the situation became far more apparent.

I was visiting Flint with a friend and colleague, and on our first night we had dinner with Aaron Dunigan, a 30-year-old resident of Flint, along with his wife and 2-year-old daughter.

Aaron's family has been directly impacted by the ongoing water crisis in Flint. His daughter was born around the time the government switched the water supply to the Flint River, effectively poisoning an entire American community.

The water in Flint made Aaron's daughter very sick and he told us she's never spent a Christmas outside of a hospital.

There are far too many parents in Flint with stories like Aaron's.

After dinner, my colleague and I stopped by a local pharmacy to buy some bottled water since we didn't feel comfortable drinking the tap water at our hotel.

We bought in bulk and as we checked out, the man behind the counter who assisted us remarked, “We haven't sold this much water in months.”

This is because many people here are offered free bottled water as the government stalls and delays to fix the root of the problem.

A woman standing next to us in line heard the exchange and said, “You must not be from Flint.” We told her we were from New York, to which the man behind the counter said, “You know the water is poison, don't ya?”

His words hit us like a brick to the face. This was their ongoing reality. Our trip there would last less than a week.

For the next five days, we followed Aaron around Flint and caught a small glimpse into what it means to live in an American community without water.

Aaron is at the forefront of efforts to revitalize and unite his community during this crisis. He's a minister at Joy Tabernacle Church, which, in conjunction with an organization called Flint Grassroots Initiative, offers free water and lead testing to residents of some of the most hard-hit neighborhoods in Flint.

John Haltiwanger
John Haltiwanger
John Haltiwanger

Like many of us, Aaron made some poor decisions as a teenager. But in a city like Flint, where opportunities are few and far between, youthful indiscretions can be far more costly. Ultimately, Aaron ended up spending some time in prison.

In a country where being an ex-offender carries a lasting stigma, Aaron is shattering stereotypes by taking responsibility for his past and making the most out of the second chance he's been given. In his words,

As someone who terrorized this community, I wanted to be part of rebuilding it.

He's not alone in this regard.

The church where he preaches is home to an array of people, many of whom also have criminal pasts. Like Aaron, these individuals have emerged as vital leaders during one of the most trying periods Flint has ever faced.

Indeed, while the government fails to fully address the disaster it created in Flint, former prisoners have spearheaded relief efforts.

What's happening in Flint is a testament to the human spirit and a profound reminder we all have the capacity for redemption.

Flint remains under a state of emergency. A report released in late May claimed the water is now safe for hand-washing and showering, but in a recent phone conversation, Aaron told us he's not willing to take the risk and still won't use his water for anything. His lack of trust is completely understandable.

Most of the people in Flint feel the way Aaron does; a recent poll showed 70 percent of its residents don't trust the government's claims that filtered water is safe to drink.

We can all help Flint.

While in Flint, we asked a number of people what Americans could do to help address the crisis. Noah Patton, like Aaron, is a minister at Joy Tabernacle Church, has a criminal record and is a father to children affected by lead poisoning. His response continues to stick out.

Noah plainly stated,

Stop stereotyping.

His words were simple, yet emblematic of the need for people across this country to stop making judgments on a superficial level.

Flint might be a poor city with a reputation for violence, but it's also full of welcoming, intelligent and hardworking people.

John Haltiwanger

The true measure of any country is the way it treats its most at-risk communities and individuals.

America has ignored Flint, among other cities facing hard times, for far too long. But like Aaron and Noah, it's never too late for us to turn things around.

Watch Elite Daily's documentary on Flint and the efforts of Aaron and his community to save their city above.

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