Book Review: What the Eyes Don’t See

What do you do when your kid is dirty?

You bathe them, right?

Flint Water Crisis

What would you do if your pediatrician said, “there may be a problem with the water. It would be a good idea to start making your baby’s formula with bottled water. Also, don’t bathe them in your water — it may not be safe. Use bottled water instead.”

If you’ve ever bathed an infant, you know it’s a messy, physically involved process. Adding the complications that come from being unable to just run water from the tap is not on any parent’s wish list.

Compound that with the challenge of being a single parent, of being on a budget below the federal poverty level, of struggling to meet your children’s basic needs much less track down enough bottled water to bathe them in it.

The Flint Water Crisis

That’s what Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha told a parent when she first started becoming aware that there may be excess lead in Flint’s water. This was before she tried to get the attention of public health (and public works (the distinction is important)) to let them know children were potentially at risk after the city switched its water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River.

In Dr. Mona’s book, What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City, she describes her role in discovering the problem, trying to get the attention of leadership, and advocating for a solution.

It’s important to note that she also weaves in her family’s history, because their immigration to the United States and their roots in Iraq, including the genocide they witnessed, contribute to her commitment to doing something about environmental injustice.

A Reminder to Speak Up

This book reminded me of the importance of speaking up, and of continuing to ask questions if the first “no” or “that really isn’t an issue” just doesn’t align with reality. I’m not always a person to fight (okay, that may not be true for things I’ve written, but it’s a skill that (for me) is a work in progress).

Effective advocacy often requires trying more than once and dealing with rejection. It also requires having iron-clad facts, lots of them, but conversely being able to boil them down into a one-pager (or one sentence if needed — time with elected officials or their staffs can be fleeting).

How to Help an Advocate

I was struck while reading this book at the toll Dr. Mona’s (she prefers being called that, by the way) advocacy took on her personal health and mental well-being, as well as on the life of her family (she has two young children).

Therefore, straight from my head, here are ways you can support someone who has taken on a massive cause without personally having to confront a hostile or uncooperative elected official:

If they are a personal acquaintance, help with child care or meals

Provide behind-the-scenes support —- write letters to officials, share advocacy points on social media, make phone calls

Give them an ear, just an ear. They may need someone they trust in whom they can confide, someone to say, “yes, it matters — I get it”

Check in with them long after the most high-pressure moments have ended; such advocacy certainly has positive effects, but post-crisis life can be a big adjustment

A Note about Senator Stabenow

Michigan’s Sen. Debbie Stabenow was certainly not the only elected official to advocate for a thorough resolution and long-term arrangements for Flint’s recovery, but her involvement had a personal meaning for me.

I type Sen. Stabenow’s name often, because I have a role in preparing a newsletter about agricultural issues (she’s in the most recent issue as a matter of fact). But now I know that she has a background in social work and that she played an active role in the Water Infrastructure Improvements for America Act and other measures to help Flint.  It was signed by President Obama in December 2016 — #ThanksObama.

What We Can Still Do

Flint still has challenges: This article details where things stand on the testing of the current water supply, on the entities that are still donating bottled water since the state stopping doing so in April, and the issue of plastic accumulation due to all of the bottles. I recommend reading it to remain informed.

The Flint Child Health and Development Fund, created by Dr. Mona, supports “a myriad of interventions proven to promote children’s potential: home visiting services, nutrition education, breastfeeding support, mindfulness programming, literacy efforts, play structures, and much more.” Donate here or buy the book, since a portion of the proceeds go to the fund. 

We can speak up in our own communities, states, and the nation (the world, too, of course). There are plenty of problems to solve in our world, some of them exacerbated by people who hesitate to speak up for fear of losing their jobs. If you don’t know where to start, look into an organization like RESULTS, which as domestic and international outreach and does a great job of helping people learn to advocate in big and small ways.

Flint Water Crisis

My incredible advocate friend Yolanda, at the RESULTS conference.

Because, honestly, using dirty water is no way to bathe a baby, much less feed him or her.

Flint Water Crisis

Source: Democracy Now

**Note — the picture above is alarming, but it’s important to note one of Dr. Mona’s main points: even “clear” water can (and did, in Flint’s case) contain dangerous amounts of lead.

**Note #2 — this isn’t so much a review as an attempt on my part to deal with how furious these types of things make me, and to encourage you to join me in the fight(s).

Related Articles:

‘Environmental Injustices’ Disproportionately Plague Poor Communities, Flint Doctor Says

I am linking this post to Kat Bouska’s site, for the prompt “write a post inspired by the word ‘dirty.'”

15 thoughts on “Book Review: What the Eyes Don’t See

  1. Behind all the other “ugly” that continues to happen on a daily basis, it’s easy for Flint to slip to the back of the mind. But they still don’t have clean water and we need to remember that and continue to advocate for them.

  2. Tweeted. I am interested in one of the Democrats running in the Michigan primary for governor in particular. I need to see where he stands re Flint. So much in the news occupies us; it’s hard to keep attention on anything for more than a few seconds.

  3. Amazing that they still have not resolved the Flint water crisis. We can’t drink the water where I live but at least we can clean children in it! Amazing that I have better quality water in a coastal Ecuadorian fishing village than they have in Flint, Michigan.

  4. The Flint Crisis is SO infuriating. I’m proud of that doctor for speaking up and insisting something be done, but cannot believe how long it is taking them to fix the problem. I wonder if the Flint community will ever recover from the effect of this.

  5. This is a great post! I love your reflections on speaking up- recognising that it’s not easy, but that there are times when we have to in order to see things change, and also that we need to support each other in that.

  6. Pingback: Practical Ideas for Fostering True Collaboration: A Frontline Festival - Let's Grow Leaders

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