Engaging Minority Communities in Flint
By Ashley Fisseha
March 28, 2016
Headlines continue to pour out of Flint
since the city’s lead exposure last summer. President Obama’s emergency
declaration in January 2016 required federal response to local and state
How could this happen? Who is
accountable? How do we fix it? And what do learn from this tragedy when it comes
to engaging vulnerable minority and non-English-speaking communities?
As congressional hearings transpired
in mid-March, I reflected on the large-scale response in Flint.
To help residents, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is working in with the Federal Emergency Management
Agency (FEMA), the Small Business Administration (SBA), the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) and the departments of Housing and Urban Development
(HUD), Agriculture (USDA) and Education.
The EPA Region 5
office in Chicago has developed the Flint Safe Drinking Water Task Force with the
National Risk Management Research Lab and is in constant contact with the
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Mayor of Flint. A number of nonprofit organizations, as well as state and local
government, has also arrived on site to provide relief.
But I continue to
wonder: How do we engage communities that are often overlooked in large scale emergency
responses? Minorities tend to be the hardest hit and oft forgotten in
environmental emergencies, and Flint is no exception.
Before thousands were
exposed to lead in their drinking water, 42 percent of Flint’s residents lived
in poverty. Latinos make up just 4% of the population, yet they received less attention compared to the rest of the
population. Additionally, 14 percent of Flint residents live without health
insurance. How do you reconcile these barriers?
reported that undocumented immigrants in Flint continued to drink the
long after officials advised residents to drink bottled water. According to
reports by EPA and Michigan Radio, Spanish speakers who had been unaware of the
contamination began receiving calls from family members in Mexico and South
America who had seen reports on CNN en Español and Univision.
Because they hadn’t
gotten word of the problem sooner, roughly 1,000 undocumented immigrants did
not receive adequate health care or water supplies and continued to drink
contaminated water that causes irreversible damage in children.
National Guard Troops,
EPA staff, local NGOs, and volunteers found that many undocumented immigrants were
not opening their doors to accept supplies in fear of being discovered. Prior
to a Jan. 22 statement by Michigan
that lifted the ID requirement to obtain free water supplies, many were also
not going to any of the fire stations or local grocery stores for provisions.
In response to this
challenge, NGOs and government agencies began hosting Spanish-language meetings
in churches and community schools to reach out to the residents. The EPA
published a Spanish-language website and documents in order to
reach residents, as did the State of Michigan Governor’s Office. Federal agencies and nonprofit organizations also joined hands to
host a public meeting in early March with informational booths to educate
residents on lead-poisoning symptoms, filtration systems, and advice.
In addition to the
Latino population, the Arab American Heritage Council in Flint reports that many
of the 42 Arab-American families also were unaware of the problem. Federal
agencies have held informational sessions in Islamic community centers for Arab-Americans as well. HHS and the
Michigan government also published information in Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish.
Leaving public administration best
practices and crisis prevention
aside, what can we, as current and future public servants, learn from this
emergency response? Minority communities are all too often forgotten amid the
rubble. It is imperative to seek counsel from community members to find innovative
ways to solve problems. In addition to simply engaging these communities,
public servants also have the responsibility to reciprocate efforts
in the majority communities.
For example, the MichiganCoalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights stated that the organization
received reports long after the rule on IDs went into effect that water
distribution centers were asking for IDs of residents
who needed water and supplies. MCIRR pressured the centers to
follow regulations when officials should have been enforcing this in the first
place. It is the responsibility of nonprofits and governments alike to safeguard
citizens’ rights and truly serve the interest of the people. We must be part of
Graduate assistant Ashley Fisseha is pursing an MS International Public Service at the School of Public Service.