Everywhere she goes now, from testifying before the US Congress to the coffee shop, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is recognized—and thanked. Hanna-Attisha, the director of Flint, Michigan’s Hurley Hospital Pediatric Residency Program, was named to the 2016 TIME 100, the magazine’s list of the world’s most influential people. PEN America, a group of writers dedicated to human rights, chose Hanna-Attisha and Flint mother/activist LeeAnne Walters to receive the 2016 Freedom of Expression Courage Award. (Last year, PEN honored the surviving staffers of the Paris attack on the weekly Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine.)
Flint’s Christ the King Parish honored Hanna-Attisha with the Father Norman Dukette Award, named after the pioneering black Catholic who founded the parish to serve the African American community. Even the doctor’s suburban Detroit Catholic school teachers will attest that even as an elementary student, Hanna-Attisha demonstrated a tendency toward fearless, not-to-be-ignored, straight talk.
Her most recent recognition, however, comes from being one of the heroes in the Flint water crisis, a scandal of bureaucratic indifference, ineptitude, and bad choices. A crisis where bottom-line politics were placed before commonsense compassion, it is a prime example of institutional racism.
After the city of Flint switched its water supply source in a questionable cost-cutting move in 2014, the 39-year-old pediatrician is credited with exposing how that resulted in a near-doubling of the number of children with dangerous levels of lead in their bloodstreams.
State of Michigan officials initially dismissed Hanna-Attisha’s research, before they corroborated what she already knew: Flint’s water was poisoning its children. “Why do pediatricians freak out on lead?”she asks audiences. “Because lead never should be in the body of a child.”
The impact of the Flint water crisis means that more than 8,000 Flint children under age 6—the most vulnerable to the neurological and cognitive damage that can be caused by lead—drank contaminated water, says Hanna- Attisha. And when tap water ran brown, smelled funny, and was clearly not clear, she told a March audience at Michigan State University, “nobody listened.”
What’s happened in a city where 60 percent of children live in poverty, said Hanna-Attisha, has added to built-in disadvantages for many of Flint’s children. “We have shifted their IQ down,” says the doctor and mother. The city’s water system was so damaged, says Hanna-Attisha, that drinking from it is “like drinking through a lead-coated straw and . . . there’s no knowing when a flake of it will fall off.”
A task force appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder—who faces calls to resign over the the city's water crisis—summarized part of the tragedy this way: “Flint residents, who are majority black or African American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities.”
In early May, US President Barack Obama visited Flint, Michigan, to assess the city’s water crisis. In addressing the situation, the president pointed out that too often situations such as in Flint arise because “we underinvest when the communities that are put at risk are poor, or don't have a lot of political clout, and so are often not as heard in the corridors of power.”
At coffee shops, strangers pick up Hanna-Attisha’s tab. In the ladies’ room at the theatre with her two daughters, playgoers salute her work. And the mail brings handwritten letters of praise, including from her fifth-grade Catholic school science teacher.
“If she had an idea, she made sure she was heard,” recalls Nancy Sadowski, who taught fifth-grade science and math at Guardian Angels in the Detroit suburb of Clawson. “She wasn’t intimidated. She was always so absolutely determined and focused, and she’s living that now,” says Sadowski. Hanna-Attisha says she was floored when she received Sadowski’s note.
“That letter from my fifth-grade teacher was just amazing,” says Hanna-Attisha. “She wrote about what a stubborn and smart kid I was in Catholic school, and I am stubborn.” Born in Sheffield, England, to Iraqi-born parents, Hanna-Attisha moved to the Detroit area as a child. Her family hails from an area in northern Iraq that’s home to a shrinking, terrorized Christian population and which has fallen under ISIS control.
“It was just incredible to look back at my foundations. I’m Chaldean Catholic from Iraq.We know what it’s like to be a minority, to struggle,” says Hanna-Attisha. “Any member of any immigrant community would fight injustice. It’s probably one of the reasons that I do the work that I do.”
She’s also undertaken directing the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Public Health Initiative, designed to research and remediate the impact of Flint’s lead contamination. “There was a foundation of service, of looking at injustices and helping those who are suffering,” says Hanna-Attisha of her Catholic schooling. “I don’t know whether it’s the most important thing that drove me to do what I do, and continue to do, but it was definitely part of my foundation.”
As the Flint water crisis exploded into the national spotlight, Catholic institutions also stepped up to become part of the solutions.
“You got water?”
Another car rolls into the parking lot of Flint’s Catholic Charities center, and staffers load up four 24-bottle cases for Flint mother Angie Lara.
For Lara, 36, the stop here is routine and vital to take care of her four children. “The water smelled funny. It looked funny. I refused to take showers and tried water bottles instead,” says her 11-year-old son, James Lara.
“This is a bad condition. We shouldn’t even be going through this.”
Catholic Charities of Shiawassee and Genesee Counties, located on the edge of downtown Flint, has been a lifeline for thousands. In January and February, its staff was daily passing out 4,000 cases of water—each with 24 bottles—from trucks in the parking lot of its headquarters, across the street from St. Michael Catholic Church.
Initially, state-run water distribution centers required photo ID, which scared away Flint residents who are undocumented immigrants and are ineligible for state driver’s licenses. The requirement was later lifted at the state-run centers.
But distrust runs high, and many folks make sure to get their bottles and jugged gallons at Catholic Charities—no questions asked. Catholic Charities director Vicky Schulz is blown away by the generosity of people across the country.
A furniture company teamed up with a Detroit-area television station to collect donated water. A Pittsburgh Catholic school raised $1,200 through a dress-down day to send Catholic Charities money to help Flint. A New York man donated his work bonus check—and his boss matched it. Ohio State University social-work students brought water in a rental truck.
Unexpected expenses in dealing with a water crisis include needing to buy equipment to move pallets. Purchasing traffic cones became a necessity to form vehicle line-up and exit lanes after staffers’ parked cars were hit.“ We’ve been in hazmat mode since September,”says Schulz. “But people coming to us for water now have realized more about the other services we offer.” It’s meant a couple hundred more families are using its food pantry and its personal-needs closet, as well as inquiring about its services for counseling.
“You’d think it’s a basic human right in America—good clean water,” says Schulz. “And we don’t have it.”
There’s no end in sight. As of mid-April, Flint’s water supply—even though it had been switched back to being treated by the Detroit water system—was still showing unacceptable lead levels because of the city’s aging pipes. It was safe for bathing, officials said, but not for drinking without using a filter.
At three Flint Catholic schools, the water fountains are off-limits. At St. John Vianney Catholic Elementary School, six-foot stacks of water fill the stairwells. Gallon jugs of water are lined up in the basement cafeteria. Over a giant circular box of water bottles, 4 feet high, at the end of the school corridor, sits a statue of an angel in prayer. Tests of the school water last fall indicated lead levels some three times higher than government safety standards for lead.
“This is just our new normal,” says Principal Lara Daniel. A Catholic elementary school by the same name in Gainesville, Wisconsin, raised donations for the school. An alum now teaching in the Miami area sent a check and challenged other Archdiocese of Miami principals to help out the school. Catholic school principals about 70 minutes away raised $8,000 for whatever the school needed.
While the stacked-up water bottles seem plenty, Daniel says the school doesn’t turn any donation away.
“We don’t know how long this is going to last.”
Catholic Charities of Shiawassee and Genesee Counties: While you can designate it for water, a general donation can be used to help the organization take care of long-term needs arising from the lead water crisis. To make a donation, visit its GoFundMe site at gofundme.com/FeedFlintHealthy or send a check to 901 Chippewa Street, Flint, MI 48503.
Flint Child Health & Development Fund: For health intervention services. Make note that it’s for this particular fund. Make payable and mail to: Community Foundation of Greater Flint, 500 S. Saginaw Street, Suite 200, Flint, MI 48502.
Patricia Montemurri, the author of this blog, is a Detroit-based freelance multimedia journalist. For 36 years, she was a staff writer for the Detroit Free Press and has long covered issues pertaining to a wide range of topics, including the Catholic Church.