Flint is not the first poisoned American city. But we have the know-how to make it the last.
By now, the cycle of how environmental racism repeats itself is well-established: a natural or manmade disaster wreaks havoc on a disadvantaged city, leaving thousands of displaced residents. An already crumbling infrastructure ruptures due to generations of neglect, leaving those most vulnerable and unable to flee or relocate to bear the brunt of the consequences.
Then comes the “shock and awe” of emergency response, too often pushing aside the self-determination of local residents. The genuine need for outside assistance ushers in managers with extraordinary oversight, and emergency rule allows response plans to be implemented with little or no feedback from those directly impacted. By the time national attention and resources have shifted onto the next issue, sweeping changes that do little to address the systemic issues of poverty and inequality have been put into place. “Recovery” becomes a fallacy oft-cited in federal reports, but rarely demonstrated on-the-ground.
This is what happened in New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, where large swaths of the city remain uninhabitable more than a decade later. And it’s what was repeated itself after Typhoon Haiyan wreaked havoc in the Philippines in 2013.
It’s incumbent upon us to learn from these disasters to ensure that an inequitable recovery doesn’t repeat itself in Flint. From New Orleans to the Philippines to my own hometown of Oakland, I’ve learned that there are several key factors that will help Flint break out of the cycle of environmental racism:
Follow the lead of those who truly represent the community: Leaders should truly reflect the voice and needs of the community. These leaders must guide rebuild and be at the table with decisionmakers, and the splintering of those efforts only serves to undercut efforts to rebuild in a long-term and sustainable manner.
Create a political strategy: The “shock and awe” that characterizes every disaster response also results in the reshuffling of positions of power. Taking an audit of who those decision makers are, and formulating a strategy to build those necessary relationships, will help to ensure a proper community voice is strongly taken into account during the planning process.
Demand a community-controlled fund: Get funding to the right people and organizations. Those who are directly impacted should have a strong voice in determining the priorities and allocation of funding. The people most affected by the disaster should be elevated to a position of helping to determine their own fate.
Be a national example: Flint must be recognized as a national lesson and example of environmental racism. We should not forget the lead-up to the disaster: the long-standing infrastructural issues that saddled the city with a 41.5% poverty rate; the appalling apathy demonstrated by local and state officials, telling the black and brown populations to keep drinking the lead when public health advocates were sounding the alarm. By doing so, we understand that Flint was not an isolated event and help to prevent future repeats of the same disaster.
The small town of Versailles, just outside the boundaries of New Orleans, offers a powerful counterexample to the mismanagement that characterized the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As hundreds of the community’s Vietnamese residents quickly returned to find their homes in tatters, they rapidly sprung into action to rebuild. Led by Father Vien Nguyen, a local Catholic priest that encouraged the tight knit Vietnamese community to take hold of their own self-determination, they following the tenets of grassroots organizing by organizing into teams and moving home-to-home to rebuild.
Within months, the astonishing recovery saw more than half of their homes rebuilt, in stark contrast to the painfully slow recovery of neighboring communities. When local officials proposed the dumping of toxic debris from Katrina into a nearby landfill without an environmental impact study, the Vietnamese community in Versailles demanded accountability - and won.
There’s no doubt that Flint has a long road of recovery ahead of it. Residents have gone through some of the worst years in recent history and now deserve the best the country has to offer - in expertise, support and resources to help Flint make a comeback. Green For All stands ready to help.
Vien Truong is the Director of Green For All