Rebuilding trust

Flint teens help their hometown recover from water crisis

A group of four young people wearing matching Fresh Water Crew tshirts stand in a kitchen holding input forms and a water testing bottle.
From left to right, Anayla Gray, Marquise Willis, Daryl Sparks and Naijha Friend are shown at a Flint home where they collected water samples. Photo: Courtesy of Freshwater Future

Daryl Sparks has experienced Flint’s water crisis from three vantage points: he’s lived it, protested government agencies that caused it and, most recently, worked to help the community recover from it.

Sparks was one of 15 Flint teens who were part of the Youth Water Testing Program, a pilot program designed to provide trustworthy information about drinking water quality in individual homes. It was developed by Freshwater Future and the Flint Development Center, two grantees of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Over the course of two months, the teens collected 160 tap water samples from 60 homes; those samples were then analyzed by scientists at the University of Michigan. The teens also showed residents how to properly use drinking water filters and shared information about health issues associated with lead exposure.

After five years of dealing with Flint’s water crisis, Sparks said it was gratifying to see skeptical residents respond favorably to local teens who were trying to restore trust in the community.

Nigel Crader logs water testing information gathered during a visit to a Flint home.
Photo: Courtesy of Freshwater Future

“My favorite part was seeing people change their minds after we told them what we were all about,” said Sparks, who is 18. “People were excited and happy about the work we were doing, and that made me want to continue doing this.”

The success of the pilot program spurred the development of the Community Water Lab, which is scheduled to open in January 2020 in the Flint Development Center. The community-based lab will be the cornerstone of a program designed to educate and engage all Flint residents around the issue of ensuring the city’s drinking water is safe.

Flint has replaced thousands of lead service lines, and the city’s overall water system now meets the federal standard for lead and copper, according to state and federal agencies. But the water crisis isn’t over: health experts continue to urge residents to drink only bottled or filtered water, there are still isolated cases of high lead levels in tap water, and the community’s trust in government agencies has been shattered.

A 2019 survey of Flint residents, conducted as part of the Mott Foundation’s Focus on Flint report, found that 79% of those surveyed drink bottled water at home. Sixty-three percent said they lacked confidence that the water system will improve in the next year.

The Youth Water Testing Program found that filters, when used properly, were effective at removing lead from tap water.
Photo: Courtesy of Freshwater Future

“The community’s lack of trust in government likely will be the wound that takes the longest to heal,” said Ridgway White, president and CEO of the Mott Foundation.

Flint’s water crisis was caused by a switch in the drinking water supply, from Lake Huron to the Flint River, and the failure to adequately treat river water to prevent the corrosion of pipes. In 2015, when scientists discovered high levels of lead exposure among Flint’s children, Mott provided a $4 million grant to help reconnect the city to the Great Lakes Water Authority, which draws water from Lake Huron.

In 2016, Mott committed to providing up to $100 million over five years to help Flint recover and rise from the water crisis. The Foundation has provided $94 million in related grants to date.

As part of that work, Mott provided $106,277 in grants to support the Youth Water Testing Program. The program already has proved its worth. It revealed that roughly one-third of Flint homes the teens sampled lacked a working water filter, and several of those homes had elevated concentrations of lead in tap water. Data also showed that lead concentrations were low to non-existent in homes with working water filters that were installed and used properly.

Jill Ryan, executive director of Freshwater Future, said having local teens carry out the water testing program, while working with scientists at U of M, was critical to its success.

A crew from WBEZ, a Chicago-based radio station, came to Flint to interview Jill Ryan, left, and Daryl Sparks about the Youth Water Testing Program.
Photo: Courtesy of Freshwater Future

“We recognized that there needed to be a local aspect to this testing program, because Flint residents no longer trusted the state,” Ryan said. “We want people to have all the information so they can make informed decisions about the water they drink and bathe in.”

When it opens in 2020, the Flint Community Water Lab will provide free water tests and free filters for all Flint residents, as well as information on drinking water safety, health programs and where to get assistance. The facility also will offer job training programs in lab operations, water sampling and related fields, which could help Flint residents turn their experiences with the water crisis into jobs.

At its core, the water lab and associated programs will be designed to empower residents by providing trustworthy information about the safety of their water. Ryan said several community groups will work together to ensure that the water center is a safe space that gives Flint residents of all ages the knowledge they need to overcome the lingering effects of the water crisis.

Michael Harris, a partner and founder of the Flint Development Center, said the Community Water Lab will have immediate and long-term benefits. “It’s going to be a powerful force for rebuilding trust in our community, and it will be an ongoing way for Flint kids to learn skills they can use in careers in the environmental field,” he said.

Harris and Ryan said they believe the Flint facility will be the first community-managed water lab in the United States. They said it could be a model for hundreds of other U.S. cities that are struggling with elevated lead levels in drinking water.

“Flint put the world on wheels, we helped the U.S. win World War II, and we can help our country solve this problem, too,” Harris said.