Flint's Reflection in our Eyes

By Rich Harwood

There’s an old country song I often quote in speeches I give, the refrain of which is, “I can’t see me in your eyes anymore.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about that line in the context of what’s happening to the people of Flint, Michigan.

I suspect that most Flint residents can no longer see themselves in our eyes and the eyes of their supposed public “servants,” and frankly, it’s because too many people have turned the other way. Residents in this city of 95,000, once a major national industrial center and a shining example of American ingenuity, fear brushing their teeth, bathing and even drinking their own water.

Perhaps there was some good reason for switching the community’s water supply from Detroit to the Flint River. To me, that debate overshadows even more important questions: Why after the ill-fated change did it take months for anyone to hear the cries from Flint? And even when those cries were heard, why was there so little action to fix the situation? Many observers have said what has already gone through so many of our own minds: This would never have happened in a largely white, middle class community. But Flint is largely African American and many people there live in poverty.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s – after GM closed its plants in the area and the community was still reeling from the job losses and effects of various failed attempts at quick fixes – my colleagues and I spent a number of years working closely with people in Flint to help them put their community on a better course. It was slow, hard work; nothing came easy. Mistrust, violent crime, abandoned homes and lots pervaded the community. Hope was in short supply. But what I also came to know is that Flint residents are some of the most spirited and resilient people in all of America. Indeed, while the community certainly suffers from myriad challenges, it is rich in the kind of dogged determination that I believe is the great strength of our communities and this nation.

At the time, when I would tell people who didn’t live in Flint about our work there, I can remember having to answer the same question over and over again: Why not just let the struggling community die? Wouldn’t that be easier? More cost effective? In fact, just this past week, The Washington Post ran a front-page article with the headline: “Many in Flint wish to leave but can’t.” Darren Bently, a 33-year-old Flint native, whose parents and grandparents have called Flint home, was quoted as saying, “I never intended to leave. This is my home. This is my family. This is everything I know.” He and others don’t want Flint to die.

Many political leaders in Michigan and the federal government are running for cover as the fallout from this tragedy piles up. Meanwhile, some leaders have suddenly adopted Flint as their cause. But where have they been all these months? In all the posturing and positioning it would be easy to forget a basic truth: Communities are more than playing fields for political leaders. They’re where people make a go of life. Where families are started and reared. Where people gain a sense of belonging, safety and pride. They’re where the seeds of real change are often planted, by one person and then another making a choice to step over the threshold from their private life into public life, and to work with others to get real things done even amidst their differences. 

The truth is that Flint was suffering long before residents began to fear consuming its water. Like so many other places in America, Flint has been ignored. We go there only when we must – and dare I say, too often, we go there only when it’s advantageous.

It seems to me that to give communities like Flint a real shot, we must do better. We must be willing to do the hard work of building trust, of getting our hands dirty in the messiness that is change. And at the most fundamental human level, this requires us to be present, to see and hear one another, and to reflect the reality of people’s lives in our words and actions.

To fail to see and hear people is to deny them of their reality. When one’s reality is denied, it strips people of their basic dignity. Too many people who could have helped Flint turned the other way. In too many communities, people are fighting uphill battles to combat challenges and aspire to a better life. They want to know their lives matter and that they count. Right now, too often, they’re going it alone. They can’t see themselves in our eyes anymore. Maybe they never could. What are we going to do about that?