Pardee RAND Faculty Leaders Discuss the Flint Water Crisis

By Pamela Felder, Le’Brian Patrick, Melissa Kosinki-Collins, Casey Schreiber, and Jameta Barlow
2016 Pardee RAND Faculty Leaders in Policy Research and Analysis

The long-term historical issues of racial inequities, discrimination, and implicit bias evident in the water crisis in Flint, Mich., require deep consideration and analysis. Therefore, as representatives of the 2016 cohort of Faculty Leaders, whose work intersects with the experiences of underrepresented and/or underserved populations affected by this crisis, we share the following observations and recommendations for research, practice, and related resources.

While the root causes of this complex and dire situation are related to the disappearance of work and the resulting unemployed and underemployed workforce, exacerbated by an abuse of power and employee misconduct at the state level, what is often missing from the larger analysis is an intersectional perspective. One of the key goals of the Pardee RAND Faculty Leaders program is to develop a broader reach into historically marginalized communities to influence teaching, research and service related to policy analysis and implementation.

This paper is intended to support this goal by giving additional attention to the communities affected by the Flint Water Crisis, lending illustration to the broader reach concept through building racial and cultural awareness. And, we see this paper as a form of advocacy for these communities to inform and create pathways for educators to bring policy analysis into their teaching and inform students about policy analysis as a viable career option. Furthermore, we recommend strategies that may support policy initiatives to strengthen racial and cultural awareness related to the crisis and ongoing efforts designed to rebuild and sustain positive community relations. These strategies include discussing research that could be helpful in restructuring community relations, raising questions for further examination about the impact of the crisis, and providing resources that address cases of historical crises impacting similar underrepresented groups and communities of color.

Research on Building Racial and Cultural Awareness

A little over two decades ago, research by George and Louise Spindler estimated that within 25 years of that time, European Americans would no longer be the majority nationally. To some degree that prediction is slowly becoming a reality, with many classrooms now filled with persons considered “minorities.” With this growing diversity, both within and outside the classroom, it has become increasingly important that policy makers, implementers and other persons with power gain better knowledge of, and respect for, the various groups that they may come in contact with daily. The Flint water crisis provides many examples where such cultural awareness and openness could have increased the speed at which aid for this area could have been effectively communicated, delivered, and received. George and Louise Spindler, while primarily focusing on educators, emphasized the importance of using cultural therapy in building cross-cultural relationships.

Cultural therapy predicts that when we understand ourselves (including our biases and their development), we are better able to reach out and help others, especially those unlike ourselves in social class, ethnicity, culture, and other attributes. Likewise, if those in need of aid understand themselves and their situations better, they can learn with less acrimony and resistance. People are cultural agents and, as such, we bring to all social situations preconceptions, assumptions, and habits acquired by experience gained from interaction with others, the mass media, and a host of other socialization agents. Further, community psychology has a rich history in social activism, community engagement and science. Community psychology advocates for several principles: community, power, inclusion, ecology, prevention and promotion, commitment and empowerment. It also incorporates six values: health, holism, respect for diversity, accountability to oppressed groups, caring, compassion and support for community structures and self-determination, participation and social justice. (See Nelson and Prillentsky’s work for more information about these principles). Mutually, these principles and values offer a holistic approach to understanding contextual issues involved in the Flint water crisis: they offer a pathway that has yet to be exercised.

We believe this perspective is helpful in not only ameliorating this conundrum, but also in healing social relations between the citizens of Flint and the city’s leadership, and between leading entities. Understanding this perspective could be especially useful to policy analysts (current and emerging) and graduate students who should be encouraged to prioritize racial and cultural awareness in the development of their policy and/or research agendas. Additional research about supporting racial and cultural awareness for doctoral students can be found here.

Raising Questions about the Impact of the Crisis

The Flint water crisis has raised several public health concerns that have physiological implications. Use and consumption of contaminated water in Flint has both led to an increase in the community’s lead exposure and been connected to an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in Flint. It’s important to consider how common is the bacteria that causes the disease and how it’s spread. Could antibiotics be effective in treating this disease? Lead is virtually impossible to remove from the body entirely and causes a variety of acute and/or chronic health issues (reviewed in Kim et al. 2015). Legionnaire’s disease is a pneumonia caused by a bacteria found in contaminated fresh water sources. The community is now left to consider the societal implications of these exposures, such as:

  • What is the long-term effect of lead exposure on adults and children?
  • How will we remove lead from our community, from the water, and from the pipe infrastructure?
  • How will exposure affect the next generation?
  • Is it time to panic or can remediation efforts be effective?

Understanding and communicating the answers to these questions requires a basic understanding of science, technology and medicine. Everyone involved in the process—citizens, officials, response teams, and others—need to be versed about the problem. As a first step, it is imperative that communities be given the tools to evaluate a situation and make informed decisions as to their health and risk assessment. In the case of the Flint water crisis, citizens must understand the basic science behind the situation. A 2015 US census reports that only 11.3% of the community’s population has a Bachelor’s degree or higher. As the implications of the Flint water crisis are considered, it is important to recognize the significance of the role that the K-12 education plays in how the community will proceed going forward. Investing in the school systems in crisis communities can provide the younger generation a better understanding of the basic science surrounding the issues at hand and offer a chance to consider the ramifications of potential exposures. With a solid education, students will have the ability to think critically about remediation efforts and resource allocation in the future.

Resources to Consider Moving Forward

Flint had been in crisis long before the ‘Flint Water Crisis’ became part of the nation’s consciousness. It was a city experiencing urban decline due to the exodus of industry, the accompanying loss of population, and the concomitant disinvestment in public services and infrastructure. The negative symptoms of urban decline—such as high rates of poverty and blight, an eroding local tax base, lack of resources to support local government functions and the disenfranchisement of communities of color—accumulated over decades in Flint. The Flint water crisis occurred in a city struggling with multifaceted issues. This is not an incident that can be treated in isolation from the larger economic, political and social frameworks that comprise Flint. In order to better serve Flint, it is imperative to understand the local culture of everyday lived experiences, the political realities that guide resource allocation and the unique narratives that make Flint what it is.

Even though the particularities of place must be taken into consideration in building sustainable communities, the issues facing Flint are not unique. Cities in decline experience similar challenges when faced with disasters. Lessons can be learned from the successes and failures of cities such as New Orleans’ recovery after Hurricane Katrina, or even Pittsburgh’s steady rise in economic and social vitality following the collapse of the steel industry. Policy makers, disaster responders and the general public can increase capacity to address crises in an effective way by increasing their knowledge of the issues facing communities like Flint from local, regional and national scopes. We recommend the following resources for those desiring a more comprehensive understanding of the scope of the Flint water crisis and encourage their use in teaching, research and service:

  • Documentary films on Flint, Mich., including Roger and Me (1989), Flintown Kids (1989), Here’s to Flint (2016) and Undrinkable: the Flint water emergency (2016), provide a popular culture outlet for gathering information about significant historical markers and the social and economic contexts of myriad issues facing Flint.
  • Saints in the Broken City (2016) by Casey Schreiber provides a unique account of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina that shows how collective local narratives, in this case surrounding Saints football, fit within larger frameworks of disaster and recovery.
  • Nobody (2016) by Marc Lamont Hill looks at the intersection of race and class to examine the emergencies facing American citizens on a national scope.
  • The Origins of the Urban Crisis (2005) by Thomas J. Sugrue uses Detroit to explain how, over fifty years of history, once prosperous industrial cities became the sites of persistent racialized poverty.
  • When Work Disappears (1997) and The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (2012) by William Julius Wilson both address American discourse on the convergence of race and class and the devastating effects of joblessness on communities.


The Pardee RAND Faculty Leaders represent scholars from diverse academic specialties including education, sociology, biology, psychology, public health, women’s studies and urban planning. This commentary thus reflects how different disciplines can contribute to an interdisciplinary response to the Flint water crisis and the impact on crisis management and recovery to achieve positive, sustainable community development.

Our recommendations include to:

  1. exercise cultural therapy and community psychology methodologies within Flint and similar communities as a tool to build cultural awareness;
  2. apply intersectionality as an effective lens to understanding the history, culture and modern framework of localities in order to better meet the needs of vulnerable populations;
  3. engage and empower communities by delivering sound scientific information and culturally relevant resources so that they can not only make informed decisions about personal health risk behaviors as well as decisions regarding remediation efforts and future resource allocation but also become decision makers in the policymaking process; and
  4. conjoin local, regional and national scopes of understanding urban crises in order to more effectively advocate for communities like Flint.

Finally, an underlying goal for this paper is to motivate interdisciplinary approaches for addressing timely issues facing underrepresented populations.