Flint fights back: Environmental justice and democracy in the Flint water crisis (Pauli, 2019) Pauli, B.J. 2019. Flint fights back: Environmental justice and democracy in the Flint water crisis. MIT Press. ISBN: 9780262536868, 432 p., $35.00.
A conversation between the authors of "The poisoned city – Flint’s water and the America urban tragedy" and "Flint fights back: Environmental justice and democracy in the Flint water crisis".
Benjamin Pauli: First of all, Anna, it’s a pleasure to be in conversation with you in this format. It’s not just that I always enjoy speaking with you, but that there’s a lot to be learned, I think, from comparing our respective approaches to writing about the Flint water crisis. When we were working on our books, we were, of course, aware of what the other was up to in a general way, but without knowing exactly what the other’s book was going to look like. In my case, I knew yours was coming out first and I was afraid there wouldn’t be anything left to say once it did! Instead of two redundant books, though, I think we’ve ended up with two different refractions of a very complex situation, each of which arguably has its own strengths and limitations in attempting to shed some light on what happened.
I wonder if you could begin by talking a little bit about the position you found yourself in when writing The Poisoned City, and how you acquired whatever authority you feel you have to write about the crisis. Obviously you are not a resident of Flint and were not “living” the crisis the way that others were. One could argue that there is a depth of understanding that comes from the lived experience of crisis that isn’t easily attainable by people coming to a crisis situation from the outside. Speaking as a resident, we have seen a lot of journalists write authoritative-sounding pieces on the crisis despite having a very limited grasp of what’s going on here. To put it bluntly, how did you come to decide that you were the right person to write about a crisis that was not your own—and even, in some sense, not totally accessible to you as an outsider? How did you convince residents on the ground that you were that person? And how did your position in all of this factor into the way you represented the crisis to the outside world, and your sense of accountability to Flint residents for that representation?
Anna Clark: Thank you, Ben, for this thoughtful start. I'm so grateful for this conversation.
Your questions about authority are important. I’m not from Flint. I don’t work in Flint. I wasn’t raising children in a water crisis, as you were. Absolutely, lived experience is essential wisdom; people must be empowered to tell their own stories and be heard. At the same time, there is value in independent journalism — not as a replacement, but in addition. I’m not a character in “The Poisoned City.” I didn’t have conflicts-of-interest, or pre-existing assumptions about the people and institutions I’m writing about. That independence can be a pathway to meaningful perspective. On the other hand, outsiders are often exploitative and extractive. I see this all the time in Detroit, where I live.
If you're an outsider, you have to earn it. I’ve reported on hard-hit cities for years, including emergency management, public services, systemic racism, and community organizing that expands our sense of the common good. The Flint water crisis knit it all together, which drew me in. But Flint is not Detroit. While reporting, I had 2.5 years to be as present as possible, learning and listening. Residents were understandably skeptical: “What’s your angle?” I wanted to contextualize the water crisis with America’s history of urban disinvestment, segregation, and infrastructure inequality, but at the start, so much was open-ended, and I didn’t have an easy answer. It was important to begin with questions, not conclusions.
When someone chose to speak with me, it was usually because someone they trusted trusted me. I also had to do my homework. I spent tremendous time in archives. I audited classes on environmental justice, water law, and urban policy. Mindful of outsider gaps, I hired a fact-checker and requested feedback on drafts from community members. So that Flint could see the book first, we had a pre-publication open house and delivered 100+ free books to residents. I give back a portion of what I earn to the Flint Public Library. I feature Flint writers at events so that my book is appropriately contextualized with their lived experiences.
But I'm imperfect, and this ethical journalism effort is a journey. In your book, I was intrigued by how you straddled identities — Flint resident and newcomer; professor and activist; parent and scientific collaborator; embedded and observing. Given that multiplicity, I wonder who you ultimately felt you were talking to. Who is “Flint Fights Back” for? How do you navigate different forms of accountability with your readers around the world, your neighbors, your colleagues, even your family? I’m also curious about how book-writing shaped your daily choices, knowing that this or that action might become a scene. Was it difficult to be fully present in your community while it was at the height of crisis—or quite the opposite?
Benjamin Pauli: These are great questions, Anna. It was certainly challenging to juggle all the obligations and expectations associated with the different roles you mention. To do this sort of work, you kind of have to live with the messiness of it all and accept that you’re never going to be on perfect terms with everybody all the time. Participating in water activism meant associating myself with people whose sensibilities and tactics were not always understood or appreciated by other residents, including some of my next door neighbors. On the other hand, participating in scientific work on water quality and conducting a research project of my own occasionally made me suspect from an activist perspective. Since there’s no way of pleasing everybody, all you can hope to do is sustain a critical mass of credibility, so that even when people disagree with you they still have faith that you're trying to act thoughtfully and responsibly.
When one’s research is rooted in one’s own community and involves people with whom one has long-term, multifaceted relationships, there are all kinds of feedback loops going on all the time, so a unique kind of accountability arises. And it was my fellow residents—our local water activists in particular—who were really the "audience" with which I was most concerned. If I'd written a book that people in the struggle thought had fundamentally missed the mark, I would have felt pretty bad. Which is not to say, of course, that I in any way intended to parrot activist views uncritically or romanticize activism itself. I didn't think this was in the interest of anybody—not the activists or the academic audience I also hoped would find value in the book.
But speaking frankly about the collective action of marginalized people—with all of its imperfections as well as its triumphs—is always a delicate matter when you're doing it from a position of relative privilege and power. Where the rubber really hits the road is when people have a chance to read and respond to the finished product, and I'm pleased to say that a year after the book's release I still seem to be on pretty good terms with just about everybody—with the notable exception of the “hero” engineer who threatened to sue my publisher before the book was even out!
As for my own role in the story, like any participant observer I had to make tough choices about how to balance the participation part and the observation part. That was only secondarily a question of methodology for me—my first thought was not to be the Ph.D. white guy who appears on the scene to explain what's going on and tell people what to do about it. If anything, I was too meek, I think, in deferring to others whenever possible and taking on leadership roles only when explicitly asked. It's one of the reasons why I show up as a character only sporadically in the book—I tried to limit these appearances mainly to instances where I was a bit more proactive.
I'm hoping to shift gears now and ask if you could discuss how you settled on your "urban tragedy” framing of the crisis. I think it's a powerful way of reminding us of the many deep-seated, structural vulnerabilities Flint faces and of deriving lessons from the crisis that can be applied to other postindustrial cities. That said, personally I've found that the deep-historical view of the crisis doesn't always adequately explain the fine-grain decisions that were the most proximate "causes" of the crisis, and without which the crisis may not have happened. I also wonder how taking the "urban tragedy" view affects our sense of who is accountable for the crisis, and whether it risks blotting out the more distinctive aspects of the crisis. Do you have thoughts about any of that?
Anna Clark: "You have to live with the messiness of it all."
"All you can hope to do is sustain a critical mass of credibility, so that even when people disagree with you they still have faith that you're trying to act thoughtfully and responsibly."
I want to amplify your words because they feel both wise and, as a practice, incredibly challenging. Especially with truth-telling, and safe, affordable drinking water—both pursuits demand perfection. Mistakes can cost lives! But then, this is why we need each other, right? To be “more perfect,” we must figure out how to work together in ethical, effective ways. No single person—or institution, or community—has a monopoly on wisdom and moral authority. Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of "the danger of a single story." Flint's experience makes the stakes painfully clear.
Which I suppose is a good segue into your questions about positioning the water crisis as a manifestation of urban crisis. You're right, my book gives less attention to "the fine-grain decisions that were the most 'proximate' causes of the crisis, and without which the crisis may not have happened." It is not that I don't think these decisions aren't important, or that the people who made them shouldn't be held accountable—they should. My intention was to walk readers through what happened with the water crisis, and, in foregrounding history and urban policy, I had a few different purposes.
First, I think it absolutely shaped how things played out in Flint. Why did residents pay some of the most expensive water bills in the nation? How was water infrastructure affected by massive vacancy and decades of deferred maintenance? Why was local democracy suspended, and authority given to a series of state-appointed emergency managers? Why was a cut-rate reboot of the old water plant deemed “good enough”? Why was it so evidently easy for resident concerns to be deflected for so long—not only by state and federal officials, but by others who might have intervened sooner, including universities, environmental groups, and journalists like myself?
The answers, it seems to me, are intimately related to the history of racism, urban disinvestment, and environmental injustice. While wealthier and whiter communities are not immune from environmental disaster, it is impossible to imagine it playing out like this in Ann Arbor or Grand Rapids.
Also, as I was writing, the story was unfolding in real time—including the criminal investigation and class action lawsuit. I knew the legal process wasn't going to wrap up in time to provide a convenient narrative structure to end the book. Indeed, to this day, it's unresolved. What information about the culpability of individuals is not yet public that may emerge in subpoenas and testimonies? While I look forward to the future book that synthesizes all that and more (including how this generation of Flint kids fare), I felt mine would serve a greater purpose in contextualizing the crisis, and considering what it takes to build better, healthier, and more inclusive cities.
Speaking of what is unresolved: Do you think there will be accountability for the Flint water crisis? What does that even look like? What would it take for you to say that the water crisis is "over"? How does that vision of what is possible compare to global movements for water and democracy that you looked at in "Flint Fights Back"? Also, your book gives thoughtful attention to outlining the different narratives, or "cultural spurs to action," that emerged throughout the water crisis—their origins, their uses, their contradictions, and their effectiveness—but I wonder, did you have any concerns about implicitly conveying a reality where truth is relative?
Benjamin Pauli: With respect to the question of accountability, I think there is very little chance that the criminal justice system is going to give residents what they’re looking for. People want justice to have a human face: that means that when harm occurs, particular people are held accountable for particular acts, and punished accordingly. It just seems unthinkable that a city of 100,000 people gets exposed to poisoned water and nobody goes to jail. But when harm results from a complex mixture of action and inaction across multiple institutions, it can’t help but seem artificial to bottle up responsibility in a few individuals—or even fifteen of them (the number charged with crimes under the last state attorney general). You end up with a situation where some people sort of become the fall people, blamed for what are in part systemic failures, and others seem to get off scot-free. So the process of retributive justice can end up looking, simultaneously, too harsh and too lenient. Of course, at the moment we don’t have any charges at all because they were all dropped summarily last summer, and I think there’s a strong possibility that the vast majority will not be refiled.
The damage done to trust when justice is not made concrete in the form of legal accountability is very severe, and in that sense Flint is unlikely to “recover” from the crisis for a long, long time. In other ways, too, we have not reached a clear endpoint to the crisis. People forget (or maybe didn’t know) that before there was a water quality crisis in Flint, there was an affordability crisis—local water activism first developed mainly around high water rates and shutoffs. We are far from solving that part of the crisis. Additionally, while water quality has improved substantially on average, we still have all kinds of infrastructure issues, including thousands of lead pipes in the ground, problems with water age and inadequate chlorination, and 200+ water main breaks a year, all of which pose ongoing threats to the safety and drinkability of the city’s water at the household level. Then we have to talk about all of the various needs residents have—health needs, financial needs, and so on—that have in one way or another become entangled with the crisis and are not being adequately met.
At the end of the day, it’s not up to me to determine whether the crisis is “over”—it means so many different things to different people at this point. There are, to be sure, some residents who want to move past the language of “crisis” altogether—preferring, for example, to say that Flint has entered the “recovery” phase—and that is very understandable. But there are others who continue to speak of “crisis” because they genuinely feel it to be an apt description of the predicament the city is in. I don’t think it’s my place to tell them they’re “wrong,” as if there is some objective definition of the Flint water crisis to which I have special access. Within a “crisis” there may be phenomena that can be pinned down more or less objectively, but the notion of crisis itself is almost totally socially constructed, as far as I can tell. As such, it is perpetually subject to disagreement, contestation, and redefinition. Looking at the crisis through different “narratives” is not an endorsement of relativism, but rather a reflection of the fact that much of what we mean by “crisis” is unavoidably perspectival, and an attempt to show that there is value in looking at a complex situation from multiple perspectives. I also think that lifting up community narratives has some value in its own right as a matter of justice, even when those narratives are debatable or incomplete.
As you suggest, Flint’s struggles and the local response to them can be seen as part of a bigger—indeed, a global—movement for safe, affordable, democratically-managed, public water. Flint offers, on one hand, a dramatization of all of the various obstacles to realizing that ideal, and on the other, a clarion call for a reinvigoration of it, joining a growing chorus of voices around the world. On the theme of reinvigoration: how hopeful are you that the “urban” crisis can be overcome in the foreseeable future? To what extent are we doomed to keep living the Flint water crisis over and over again in other cities? How do we get out of that trap?
Anna Clark: Without putting weight on what is likely to happen—because frankly, I don’t know—I am heartened by what is possible. It is not at all a given that we must endure never-ending cycles of manmade disasters in our cities, or the ongoing traps of unaffordable water and broken-down infrastructure. It’s not at all fated that communities with a large number of poor people or people of color must experience disproportionate environmental toxicity, making them into what Steve Lerner calls “sacrifice zones.” Actual choices created these realities—and actual choices can create a different reality. That’s the key: we have choices. Many people have already created alternative models, from the ground up, for what our cities might look like; we can learn a great deal by paying attention to the priorities and networks of mutual aid created by residents themselves.
Also, Ben, you and I are writing this in the midst of profound disruption. The coronavirus pandemic has suddenly made possible many changes that were once deemed too extraordinary to be taken seriously by those with policy-making power. In re-calibrating what “essential services” are, it turns out that the basics—water, food, shelter, health, and safety—are pretty revolutionary. Here in Detroit, water activists long pushed for a moratorium on mass shutoffs, but were denied because there was supposedly no indication that the shutoffs were a threat to public health. Two weeks later, as COVID-19 roared into Michigan, the state reversed itself. The statewide halt on shutoffs and the fraught work to reconnect people to drinking water is deemed a temporary emergency measure—but it sure changes the terms of debate, doesn’t it? Leaders have conceded that it is possible to keep people connected to their water, when we prioritize it, and that disconnection is a threat to public health. We have seen similar shifts with tax foreclosure and eviction policy.
Wherever things go next, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it, Ben. Thank you for your book, for the work you do, and for this conversation. I’m grateful.
Benjamin Pauli: Likewise! I have always appreciated your thoughtful and conscientious approach to journalism and your deep commitment to the people of Flint. Until next time!