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In 2014 the tap water in Flint, MI, USA, began to run brown and smell of old fish and feet and corn chips and bleach. That’s also when the Michigan state authorities switched Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the closer Flint River to save money. But the Flint River was notoriously filthy, and people in power knew it. The General Motors Company even wrote to then-Governor Snyder to remind him that back in the 1980s, when they had a plant in Flint, they’d stopped using Flint River water because “it was rusting their parts.” That’s why Mari Copeny took action to defend Flint residents’ right to clean drinking water.
Governor Snyder eventually acknowledged that the Flint water supply was indeed contaminated and had exposed Flint’s 100,000 residents to lead. Lead is known to have harmful effects on human health, especially kids. Lead exposure can affect the heart, kidneys and nerves. It can cause impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, and hearing problems for which there is no cure. In 2014 and 2015, many Flint children suffered skin rashes and hair loss. A virulent form of pneumonia, called Legionnaires’ Disease, affected at least 90 people and killed 12. The switch in water source correlated with a serious drop in fertility in the women of Flint as well as a 58% increase in fetal deaths.
The city’s population rose up. They complained loudly. But for 18 months, the authorities refused to act. The people stopped drinking, cooking, even bathing, with the city’s piped water supply. They used bottled water instead, everyday, an expensive solution that produced an exorbitant amount of plastic waste. Nothing about the situation was good.
So Mari wrote to then-President Obama. He came to Flint to meet her. He listened as the 10-year-old, and her neighbors, educated him about the crisis. In December 2016, President Obama approved $100 million to be directed to Flint for infrastructure repairs, another $50 million for healthcare costs, and $20 million to pay back loans related to the crisis.
But Mari didn’t stop there. In 2017, she spoke as a Youth Ambassador for the national Women’s March in Washington, DC. She has raised over $350,000 for the nonprofit organization Pack Your Back that has gone directly to her community. In 2018, she distributed over 500,000 bottles of water, 500 bikes, and 15,000 backpacks filled with school supplies to the citizens of Flint.
Thanks to Mari and her movement, #justice4flint, Flint residents can drink safely again and public consciousness has been raised about how systemic racism played a part in poisoning the people of Flint. Mari is living proof that you’re never too young to speak up and speak out!