Voices of the Forgotten: Flint Speaks Out
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there are human stories behind the headlines.
By Anna Davies
Over a two-year period, filmmakers embedded with cops in Flint, Michigan. The Netflix docuseries Flint Town reveals the everyday struggles of an under-resourced police department.
Born from water, flint is a hard rock that can spark fire. As it turns out, so can its namesake town in the Midwest, as evidenced by a 2016 water crisis that pushed the community of Flint, Michigan, into the national spotlight. The city became emblematic of a war between the people and their politicians — one in which the water itself became everyone’s mortal enemy.
But just like a flint rock reveals intricate patterns and a history, a closer look reveals the town of Flint as far more complex than the 2016 headlines suggest. Poverty, unemployment and lack of resources have all shaped the Flint story, as has resilience and community spirit. Residents of the town share their stories. The headlines are only part of the story.
“I grew up here. My home is here. And I think there’s a reason why I need to be here.”
Porcha Clemons, 27
“One of the things so many people have asked me over the last few years is, ‘Why don’t you just move?’ But it’s not that easy. I look after my grandma full time. I grew up here. My home is here. And I think there’s a reason why I need to be here,” confides Porcha Clemons, a former dancer for Detroit Pride. “Back then, it was more family-oriented … more community-oriented. It’s definitely changed. You see crime more than I think there was when I was a kid.”
Clemons owns Heart of Worship Dance Studio and teaches two free classes a week to Flint children. For her, staying in the area isn’t a point of pride so much as a duty. “When you grow up with something like this, you think that people don’t care about you,” she says. “I want to teach these kids that they’re important, they’re special, that they have outlets.”
Like many other residents, Clemons has a stockpile of bottled water through private donation, though recently she’s started using tap water for showers. “My hair falls out and feels funny,” she says flatly. “But it just got to the point where it’s easier to take a shower with the tap water than to have to boil water.”
Living in Flint has hardened her and her family about trusting police and politicians. “We would get notices — ‘If you don’t pay your water, you’re going to lose your home’ — and we couldn’t use it at all.” Some families were even threatened with removal of their children if the bill wasn’t paid. (In Michigan, the law states that parents are neglectful if there is no running water in the home.)
“[Flint] has definitely changed. You see crime more than I think there was when I was a kid.”
“There’s been a lot of talk, but what is depressing is not seeing anything done,” she says. She remains involved locally and appreciates how her community has leaned in to help each other. “We want people to come in and fix the situation.”
“We’ve become a joke.”
Jeneyah Bell McDonald, 45
Jeneyah Bell McDonald struggles with how her town has been portrayed in the media.
“People look at our town and think everyone’s a criminal, everyone’s on welfare. Who cares what happens to them? And that’s not true,” she says. A teacher and lifelong resident of Flint, McDonald has close ties to her community and sees her neighbors differently. “People need to know there are so many Flint residents who are hardworking, well-educated and betrayed by a government that was supposed to protect us.”
The health effects of the crisis have touched McDonald’s home. Her youngest son, Josiah, was diagnosed with autism, and McDonald has a sense part of the diagnosis stems from the water Josiah drank from the poisoned pipes.
“I grew up in Flint, my house is paid off, our community is here. We belong here. And we live in the United States of America and deserve to have clean drinking water. When the water switched to the Flint River, Josiah was just 7 or 8 months old. Before the state of emergency was declared, we started buying bottled water. We knew something was wrong.” She uses bottled water when she can, and she keeps her sons’ bath time short. “They know they can’t play in the tub. No toys, no bubbles, in and out.”
At the height of the crisis, McDonald says she was spending $200 each month on water alone, and even today she gets billed for tap water she can’t truly trust. It’s the hardest bill to pay. “Right now, it’s past due. How can you pay for poison?”
If you want to keep a city positive, you have to start with law enforcement.
Given the real struggles the crisis has kicked up, she feels especially resentful of the extent to which Flint has become a punch line. “We’ve become a joke. I’ve heard so many people say, ‘Oh, you must have drunk the Flint water,’ as a way to insult someone. It’s not funny, and it’s not fair.”
“There’s a lot of public distrust.”
Santino Guerra, 20
Santino Guerra was barely a year old when his father was incarcerated. While for some that kind of experience would instill a distrust of law enforcement, it had the opposite effect for Guerra, who at the age of 19 was elected as Flint’s youngest council member in 2017.
“Growing up in a single-mother home, I saw how much families have to deal with,” he says. While he says that his family’s relationship with law enforcement has been “mixed,” he views a strong police force as the foundation for a strong township. A double major in criminal justice and sociology at the University of Michigan–Flint, Guerra sees public safety and tackling urban blight as equally essential in shifting the future of the town.
“If you want to keep a city positive, you have to start with law enforcement. When you get the streets safe, that’s when businesses want to come in, and that’s when people want to move to your city,” he says.
He’s spent hours doing ride-alongs with the police, and he has no doubt that one of the biggest challenges the police department faces is lack of funding. In 2012, just prior to the water crisis, there were only 122 police officers in town for over 90,000 residents, when 200 would have been optimal. One of Guerra’s first actions on the city council was to vote in favor of a 3 percent raise for police officers — the first in five years. “I think that money could solve a lot of the issues that we see going on, not only in the police department but throughout Flint,” says Guerra.
He admits that it’s been difficult overcoming the resentment many residents feel toward their police and politicians. “There’s a lot of public distrust,” he admits. “After being lied to for so long, I don’t blame them. That’s why I got involved in politics in the first place. I tell them: We drive on the same roads, we pay the same taxes, and I have the same water issue. Transparency, and openly talking to people about what’s going on, is the best way to bridge that gap.”
“From disrepair, we can have rebirth.”
Bryant Nolden, 52
Flint is a different place than the one Bryant Nolden grew up in.
“It was a great city,” he recalls. “We were the birthplace of community education, and community education meant that just about every school inside the city had an enrichment program.” Flint had well-funded sports clubs and plenty of options for after-school activities. That hasn’t been the case in a long time.
Flint — the birthplace of General Motors — was once flush. But when GM closed its plants and shipped jobs overseas, the city’s tax base plummeted. Nolden, a former teacher and the Genesee County District 1 commissioner, says the change is palpable.
The lesson is, if you think something is happening, make a lot of noise and make yourself heard.
“I saw a tragic change in the education system,” he says, noting that as schools were forced shut due to lack of funding, the number of students enrolled in Flint community schools dropped from 30,000 students when he was growing up to 5,000 today.
“The same thing happened to the police department, the fire department and the department of public works. We lost a lot of basic services.” Nolden says this has resulted in a high crime and high student dropout rate (he estimates that 36 percent of the Flint population is functionally illiterate).
Despite the many challenges the city is facing, Nolden is optimistic about its future. “Within the next five or 10 years, I see Flint as a town people won’t be able to recognize. We’re seeing young people go to our area colleges — University of Michigan–Flint, Mott Community College, Baker College and Kettering University. Because of the spotlight on Flint, infrastructure is being repaired and businesses are coming in. From the despair, we can have a rebirth.” In addition, a $3 million grant to Flint from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is being used to hire an economic development team for the city.
“Pray for us, and realize that what happened here wasn’t something that just happened — it was man-made. The lesson is, if you think something is happening, make a lot of noise and make yourself heard.”
- Anna Davies, OZY Author Contact Anna Davies