Engaging Flint: Context and Connections for Faculty Involvement

  • Laurie Van Egeren, Ph.D.
  • Assistant Provost for University-Community Partnerships
  • University Outreach and Engagement
The Flint water crisis provides system wide challenges for civic leaders, local businesses, and area residents.

The Flint water crisis has emerged as one of the nation's gravest contemporary situations, forcing issues of public safety, government competency, racial and economic justice, and aging infrastructure to the forefront of the social and political landscape.

Michigan State University researchers are playing a valuable role in Flint, and many more are interested in doing so. At a meeting on March 25, 2016 organized by University Outreach and Engagement (UOE), faculty had the opportunity to hear from Flint residents and organizational leaders and MSU representatives who are working in the community.

At the request of Provost June Youatt earlier in the year, UOE was designated as the central repository of information related to ongoing MSU projects in Flint, while the College of Human Medicine and MSU Extension are coordinating MSU activities within Flint.

"We needed a cohesive platform that offered context and connection for faculty involvement in Flint, beginning with what is already in existence, how to get involved, and who can assist with potential involvement," said Laurie Van Egeren, assistant provost for university-community partnerships.

Van Egeren collected and maintains a comprehensive list of MSU faculty working in Flint, along with information about community partners and regional agencies. The goal is to respond to faculty inquiries about potential collaborations and interdisciplinary research opportunities with regard to current and future impacts from the water contamination.

"We don't want to overlap or duplicate efforts. Flint residents are already struggling with overwhelming challenges. Multiple requests for cooperation or participation can be a burden," said Van Egeren.

Mark Burnham, vice president for governmental affairs, was at the meeting to offer observations about the political context regarding Flint. He discussed the core questions being asked by state legislators and congressional members about 'who decided not to treat the water?' after the switch from one source to another, as well as questions regarding the quality of testing methods used early in the switchover. Burnham also emphasized the need for data that can assist in decision making as local, state, and federal officials move forward.

MSU Contacts for Faculty Involvement in Flint

General Information:

Laurie Van Egeren, Ph.D.
Assistant Provost for University-Community Partnerships,
University Outreach and Engagement

Healthy Flint Research Coordinating Center:

Debra Furr-Holden, Ph.D.
C. S. Mott Endowed Professor of Public,
Health, Professor, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics,
College of Human Medicine

To Connect to Flint Projects:

Joan Ilardo, Ph.D.
Director of Research Initiatives,
College of Human Medicine

Deanna East, M.A.
Associate State Leader,
Health and Nutrition Institute,
MSU Extension

Robert Brown, M.P.A.
Associate Director,
MSU Center for Community and Economic Development,
University Outreach and Engagement

Historical Perspective

Flint had already suffered through turbulent times prior to the contaminated drinking water.

Its nickname, "Vehicle City," was earned in part because of the manufacturing of carriages built in the 1800s and, later, the automobiles produced by Buick and Chevrolet. When General Motors shut down many of those plants in the 1970s and early 1980s, Flint experienced devastating economic conditions that persist today, including unemployment, poverty, crime, and low-performing schools.

Those unfortunate conditions appealed to researchers who focused on Flint residents for data studies, but who would then produce their reports and go on to pursue other work. Each time, the community would be left to determine how to resolve their challenges with analysis or advice, but little sustained support. Civic leaders and other Flint participants who experienced such processes came to recognize the initial optimism of promising projects that then dried up after funding ran out or priorities shifted to other pursuits.

What remains is an uncomfortable wariness about inviting outside groups into the community to conduct research or "fix a problem." And that was before the water contamination catastrophe.

Flint's Water Crisis

Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager for Flint in late 2011 to address the city's financial deficits.

In April 2014, Flint switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save money. Residents drinking, cooking, and bathing in the water immediately began to vocalize problems about foul-smelling and foul-tasting discolored water, along with the development of skin rashes and a variety of other ailments that seemed to emerge with the switch.

It has since been discovered that state and federal measures were not implemented to treat pipe corrosion, allowing poisonous levels of lead to leach into the water supply. Lead is a neurotoxin that affects cognition, and is particularly dangerous for children.

Further compounding the problem was the initial denial of any potential health problems or public safety concerns, accompanied by a slow response, from officials responsible for the water source switch. Community members were frustrated by government officials who continually denied, dismissed, or ignored their growing concerns.

Elder Sarah Bailey is the vice chair of Community Based Organization Partners (CBOP) in Flint, and a passionate advocate for Flint's fellow citizens. "We are traumatized. This was done to us—we didn't allow it and we didn't deserve it," said Bailey, addressing attendees at the March 25 meeting.

"You have to gain the people's trust if you want to work in Flint. We need help, but in partnership. We are asking you to come and bring your expertise."

Elder Sarah Bailey
Vice Chair, Community Based Organization Partners in Flint

State officials finally acknowledged the water contamination after Mona Hanna-Attisha, assistant professor in the College of Human Medicine and pediatrician at Hurley Children's Hospital, confirmed high lead levels in children tested in Flint. Lead levels compared to 20 months prior to September 2013, and again from January to September 2015, correlated with significant lead increases in children after the city's water source switch.

Independently, Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher, produced testing results from Flint water that indicated it was 19 times more corrosive than water previously available from Lake Huron. Homes in Flint contained lead levels that exceed safety standards, at dangerous levels in some areas.

Those two sets of research results provided substantial evidence that Flint had an alarming water contamination problem that was negatively impacting public health, with possible long-term implications.

Bob Brown is a longtime Flint resident, along with his wife and son. Brown is the associate director for the MSU Center for Community and Economic Development, and has an office in Flint that was established by University Outreach and Engagement. He has served as vice president of the Genesee Food Bank, and as interim president and CEO of United Way of Michigan, and is active in his Flint neighborhood and in the community.

In an emotional address to attendees during the March 25 meeting, Brown described what it has been like living in Flint with poisoned water: "Our timeline is well known. We switched from Lake Huron water to Flint River water on April 25, 2014. Some people saw immediate changes in their water. Others did not. For me, lead is an insidious interloper. In my water you can't see it or smell it or taste it. It creates an illusion of safety. Trusting, for the most part the official word, I closely followed prescribed water alerts—such as the boil alerts—and kept up with news accounts to be informed. The crisis, which was rampaging through our pipes, was not an everyday concern. I thought I was protecting my family. By the summer of 2015, however, it was apparent that something was really wrong."

"Late that summer water filter distribution began. It was a trickle but we got one. With Flint water, any lead concentration over 15 parts per billion is bad news. Our filters could cope with up to 150 parts per billion. Thank God. Now we would be safe. I couldn't do much about the past but at least we were protected going forward. My family was now safe. And then we tested our water—200 parts per billion. The EPA called us at 9:00 on a Sunday morning to deliver the news. I was devastated! I had followed all the warnings, all the protocols and my family continued to be poisoned. I am the father. I am the provider and protector. I am failing. My heart is breaking. For 18 months my family has been poisoned. Has the lead poisoning been that high that entire time? There's no way of knowing. Why didn't I do something sooner? This is the trauma that you are walking into," said Brown.

Examples of MSU's Involvement with Flint

When Dr. Hanna-Attisha made news headlines by conveying the alarming results of lead testing in Flint's children, MSU administrators and colleagues were able to provide information, answer questions, and act as a conduit between community members and external constituencies to respond with swift support for the Flint community.

"MSU is uniquely situated to respond to these sorts of problems because we have knowledgeable people already working in communities. Our land-grant mission guides our efforts today, just as intended when MSU was created more than 150 years ago," said Van Egeren. "It enables our faculty to understand, assess, and respond quickly to challenging problems, working side by side with community partners."

MSU Extension (MSUE) has had an established presence in Flint for more than a century. "We have 15 education professionals working in Flint," said Deanna East, associate director for the MSUE Health and Nutrition Institute. "We are helping from within, and we have been in Flint for a very long time. The trust is built on a foundation of helping Flint residents since 1913."

Rick Sadler is an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine. He is a public health expert who conducted spatial analysis research to detect patterns where geographic areas of Flint had no healthy food availability. The research led to collaborating with Flint's local food bank to allocate new distribution sites in areas that needed service.

"Local context is essential to understanding the scope and extent of the problems. Seek long-term solutions, not just descriptive research, if you want to work in Flint," Sadler said.

Dr. Sadler works with MSUE and the Edible Flint food collaborative to identify geographic areas that could support urban gardening. He sees a need to test those gardens for lead levels based on the current water contamination issues.

"Ongoing collaborations are necessary for maintaining trust," said Sadler.

Jennifer Johnson was the first member of MSU's new Public Health Research Group in Flint. She is the C.S. Mott Endowed Professor of Public Health and associate professor in the College of Human Medicine, and came from Brown University in January 2015 to help build an academically vibrant and socially responsive team of community-engaged scientists based in Flint. Johnson conducts National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded randomized trials of effectiveness, cost-effectiveness, and implementation of mental health and substance use interventions.

"Capacity building is the key to putting things together for this kind of research. It is not an invitation to take over," said Johnson. "Don't respond with an eye to our own contributions; we need to deepen rather than divide our connections."

"Our mission is to serve respectfully and collaboratively," said Joan Ilardo, director of research initiatives for the College of Human Medicine. "We are listening to what the community needs from our expertise, and we are still defining what those needs are."

Ilardo and East are also contacts for the Pediatric Public Health Initiative formed by MSU and Hurley Children's Hospital to address the Flint community's population-wide lead exposure that is led by Hanna-Attisha. Johnson was also recently named to the Healthy Flint Research Coordinating Center as one of two MSU representatives.

Pathways to Connection

Several MSU contacts can discuss ongoing collaborations, projects, and community efforts to address the current water crisis. Faculty are encouraged to connect with one of these people to identify the best way to initiate or participate in Flint area research or service opportunities.

MSU faculty and staff currently working in Flint agree that it is best to start with someone who is familiar with the landscape.

"There are historical fears that Flint citizens have with outsiders. They've seen people stay long enough to build a relationship, study something, and then pull out. They've experienced it over and over," said Brown.

"For long-term problems we need longtime partners."

Bob Brown
Flint resident and Associate Director, MSU Center for Community and Economic Development

"It's hard for people in Flint to believe most official information sources anymore. How broadly you are networked is more powerful than any information currently announced by 'the experts.' If you want to work in Flint, the most successful way to enter is through a trusted person who is familiar with other trusted sources. Even that is hard to pinpoint, because it almost goes neighborhood by neighborhood," Brown said.

Brown points to FlintCares.com, a website created out of the Flint Water Recovery Group, as a way to provide Flint residents with the most accurate, up-to-date, and trust worthy information regarding the water crisis. "It is a way to provide information that allows residents to have access to knowledge and decision-making power."

The Group is a partnership of the more than 120 non-profits, churches, grassroots organizations, individuals, and residents who are working together to create solutions related to Flint water.

Elder Sarah Bailey is very clear about what is needed in the community. "You have to gain the people's trust if you want to work in Flint. We need help, but in partnership. We are asking you to come and bring your expertise."

According to Bailey, they will be respectful, but see 'clear through someone who is not honest' with them. "I can read through an NIH proposal. I know more about water and lead levels than I ever thought possible," she said. "Some of us have been in the basement of city hall looking at 3-by-5 cards in metal file cabinets that had information for lead lines installed back when we never thought about these kinds of things. We need to do the research. Data drives dollars and decisions."

New Development: The Healthy Flint Research Coordinating Center

April 26 announcement aims for coordinated research efforts with the Flint community now and in the future

Flint community partners, Michigan State University, University of Michigan Flint, and University of Michigan Ann Arbor announced a new partnership on April 26 to help address the current and future status of residents and their health.

The new initiative, the Healthy Flint Research Coordinating Center (HFRCC), aims to bring together Flint's Community Based Organization Partners (CBOP) and the universities for coordinated research efforts that will ensure community needs stay at the forefront, now and in future endeavors. The HFRCC has a core leadership team of two representatives from each of the three campuses and CBOP. The MSU members are: Dr. Jennifer Johnson, C.S. Mott Endowed Professor of Public Health based in Flint, and associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Biology, College of Human Medicine; and, Dr. Debra Furr-Holden, C.S. Mott Endowed Professor of Public Health based in Flint, and professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, College of Human Medicine.

"Michigan State has been a knowledge partner in Flint for a century now, and this effort will further complement the Hurley/MSU Pediatric Public Health Initiative and the other health, education, and community building efforts we're involved in today," said MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon. "With our University of Michigan colleagues, we are pleased to offer Flint residents a new point of access to a tremendous reservoir of collective expertise and to give our own researchers additional channels to serve the community."

Collaborating with the HFRCC allows researchers to learn more about each other's work and plan activities that complement, rather than duplicate, one another's efforts. The HFRCC will also make it easier for researchers and community organizations to share data sets and surveys of Flint residents. "The HFRCC announcement just one month after the March 25 meeting to inform faculty about ways to connect and partner in Flint is another illustration of the momentum and progress occurring in our University response," said Hiram E. Fitzgerald, associate provost for University Outreach and Engagement.

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photograph courtesy of MSU Communications and Brand Strategy

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