By Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D.
President, The Heroic Imagination Project (HIP)
TED Profile: https://www.ted.com/speakers/philip_zimbardo
When I first visited Flint a few years ago I expected to see ugly, but instead what I noticed was lovely. I had expected to see the worst consequences of what it means to be one of the poorest cities in America, as a consequence of the automobile industry discarding lifelong workers and replacing them with robots. Having grown up in the ghetto of the South Bronx in New York City with high-rise tenements, the absence of any form of nature around us, abandoned cars on the streets, graffiti everywhere, and broken windows never repaired, along with garbage in abundance – that was my view frame for poor cities. However, in Flint, the streets are lined with beautiful trees, there are grassy lawns in front of private homes, no garbage lying on the curbs. Seemed idyllic! “Look more closely,” my host, Cora Keene, told me as we drove around town. Cora was my personal assistant, who had grown up in Flint, and was one of the success stories of their failing public education system.
House after house was boarded up, abandoned by their owners or foreclosed for failure to pay the mortgages. Local schools stood empty or were closed down due to budget cuts. Cora explained that kids were truant or often just never returned to school after being moved to a school farther from home, the bus ride was too long or the parents were unable to drive them -and they faced discrimination in the mostly white suburbs taking in “city” kids. Instead of grocery stores, what was most glaring were pawn shops and liquor stores in excess. In a city where many of the 57 percent Black majority live in poverty, we drove carefully through without stopping in the East Side where gang violence and racial tension plague this once blue collar working community. Those racial tensions apparently also characterized the local school board as well, and thereby prevented joint agreements on how best to proceed to improve education for all of Flint’s schoolchildren.
In an effort to help improve the negative situation in Flint, I tried a number of approaches: first, to install our revolutionary HIP educational program created and tested in many high schools; to work with U. Michigan-Flint campus’ new Dean to give Flint high priority and have her graduate psychology students work with us in delivering our educational lessons; to help create a Hero Conference in the local high school and repeat it every other year in a nearby venue; engage local business people, and politicians to work in harmony and help fund a more positive outlook with Flint as ‘Hero Town.’ And to begin to create a new generation of everyday heroes that everyone in Flint could be proud of.
We saw initial excitement and dedication from community members who came to the conferences and participated in our trainings. Unfortunately internal organizational problems that seem to be all too characteristic of Flint, led to a period of disengagement. As our HIP team was rethinking the best new strategy for a constructive approach to re-engaging Flint’s community leaders, to renew their promises, LEAD led the news, and “Ed.”* was put on the back burner.
As has been well documented, Flint has a water crisis. To save money from depleted economic resources, Flint’s water supply was diverted from Detroit to its local river sources. Unfortunately, the water from the river was not treated with a corrosion inhibitor, and leached lead from pipes into water flowing into people’s homes. Lead is a neurotoxin that kills brain cells, especially in babies and youngsters. The more lead-infused water pregnant women drink, the greater likelihood their offspring will have permanent cognitive-impaired functioning. It is devastating.
Obviously, as soon as the first signs of such horrific unexpected consequences of the water diversion became known, the state and federal officials should have taken immediate remedial action. Think again! Who cares about impoverished towns; who cares about what kind of water Black people are drinking? (They haven’t cared for decades Cora points out, “ I was always told not to drink the water in Flint”) Apparently not any of the agencies who should have been alarmed and reacted constructively and immediately. Instead, they ignored warnings, minimized complaints, and even challenged the evidence of authorities in water science. It has taken national exposure of this impending tragedy by powerful spokespeople, like Rachel Maddow, Erin Brockovich, and the Huffington Post, to force their hands and extract lame apologies. Much more must be done soon to limit the damage. Apparently, more than 40 people are already diagnosed with lead poisoning, others with Legionnaire’s Disease, and now many children with newly formed skin rashes.
Long term, permanent, effective usable solutions must be enacted as soon as possible. Replacing the lead pipes with modern pipes is one obvious solution—costing multi-millions of dollars and much time to complete.
There is a positive side to this disaster that also needs reporting: the emergence of Flint heroes– those insiders and outsiders who were active upstanders when most others were passive bystanders. I want to highlight four of them for special recognition.
Lee-Anne Walters has been a fierce force from the outset, insisting that something be done about the contaminated water that children had drunk. Lee-Anne Walters noticed that the growth of her son, Gavin, was being stunted. She also saw that her hair and that of her daughter’s was falling out in clumps. She refused a bribe from city officials who promised to replace her lead pipes if she signed an agreement that the city would not be held liable for any damages already done to her family and others. She refused. Instead, she contacted a water expert, Dr. Marc Edwards, and persuaded him to come to Flint to do a scientific evaluation of the water quality.
Dr. Marc Edwards is a civil engineer and expert on water treatment and corrosion in his position as professor at Virginia Tech. He and his 25 person team came to Flint, performed a series of water quality evaluations, and issued a clear, firm statement that Flint’s water suffered a serious contamination of lead pollution. Government officials dismissed his conclusions, and he was personally attacked as seeking notoriety. Nevertheless, Dr. Edwards has persisted in both condemning the quality of water and in helping to engage citizens to be mobilized.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, is a local Flint pediatrician who gathered data on blood lead levels in children, both before and after the transition of water from Detroit supply to Flint supply. City officials denied her systematic appraisals of this new toxic danger to the children of Flint. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s report indicated that lead levels in children’s blood in Flint had on average doubled since the water transition, and in some zip codes even tripled! Both local media and authorities said she was causing mass hysteria, and so she should cease and desist. Rather than doing so, she continued heroically to sound an even louder alarm.
Miguel Del Toral, is an EPA water expert, who identified potential problems with Flint’s drinking water in February 2015, confirmed his suspicions in April, and summarized the looming problem in a June internal memo. His report to his superiors was suppressed for seven months, and not released until November. Dr. Edwards has described Del Toral’s original memo as “100% accurate” in his assessment of the looming problem. Again, rather than give into political pressures to soften his statement, Del Toral stuck to his heroic guns, and continued to stand by his warnings.
Recently, I have been alerted to the creation of many Everyday Heroes throughout Michigan, students and teachers in high schools and colleges, along with many other citizens who are collectively challenging government officials to do the right thing for Flint, or be forced out of office, and who are also offering support in many ways to the men, women and children of this special city, that I still hope one day will qualify to be FLINT-HERO TOWN, USA!
P.S. It has been inspiring to see the actions of caring citizens across the country who have rallied for the people of Flint since the story has hit the news. Businesses, schools, organizations, and churches across Michigan are collecting water and personally delivering it to the people of Flint. Celebrities have given their voices: Cher sent 180,000 bottles of water and Pearl Jam is donating $300,000 of matched donations. Detroit is especially active with the number of businesses posting on Facebook that they are collecting. It is exactly this kind of compassion and action that Hero Town seeks to promote!
*Ed. = Education
Acknowledgements: Dr. Marc Edwards, Cora Keene, Siddhartha Roy