By Talia Gordon, University of Chicago §
A future full of possibilities starts by drinking pure quality water– Nestlé “Pure Life®” Bottled Water
In October 2018, Mayor Karen Weaver delivered her third State of the City Address to a public audience scattered among the rows of the recently refurbished Capitol Theater in downtown Flint. To resounding applause, Weaver introduced herself as “Mayor of the resilient and great city of Flint, Michigan!” Invoking city residents’ strength and perseverance, Weaver described Flint’s recovery as “the greatest comeback story of all time.” Weaver then spoke about the history of disinvestment and discriminatory practices that have made Flint a national emblem of post-industrial decline and a case study for infrastructural failure, racial injustice, and manufactured disaster. But, Weaver assured the audience, as residents worked hard to rebuild in the wake of crisis, Flint was becoming known around the world for something else: “our resilience.”
The Mayor’s address marked four-and-half years since the city’s water supply was switched to the Flint River in a measure instigated by the state-appointed Emergency Manager to reduce municipal spending. In April 2014, immediately following the switch, Flint residents began reporting foul-smelling, bad-tasting, rust-colored water coming out of their taps. People started experiencing rashes, headaches, nausea, hair loss, and other bodily symptoms. Residents protested, showing up to City Hall with plastic bottles full of filthy, orange liquid. Yet, for over a year, city, state, and federal officials insisted that the water was fine. Then, on December 16th, 2015, the quietly creeping crisis appeared in two sentences buried deep on the back page of the New York Times under the headline: “Michigan: Flint Appeals for Help.”
“The mayor of Flint has declared a state of emergency because of problems with the city’s water system caused by using water from the Flint River, saying the city needs more federal help. Mayor Karen Weaver, who announced the declaration Monday night, said the city would need to spend more on special education and mental health services because damage to children caused by lead exposure is irreversible” (emphasis mine).
In Flint, where over 46% of residents live below the poverty line and 57% of the population is African-American, the lead contamination crisis underscored the devastating consequences of decades-long disinvestment by state and federal administrations in an already disenfranchised community. In response to the crisis, the White House swiftly expressed a commitment to repair its effects, promising to support Flint’s “recovery and resilience” (White House, 2016). Since 2016, this commitment has materialized in an array of initiatives in Flint specifically dedicated to building “resilience”: the capacity to withstand, recover from, or adapt to adversity. Indeed, over recent years, resilience-building has become the centerpiece of U.S. public health and disaster management strategies for helping communities respond to crisis. At the same time, U.S. mental health researchers have increasingly focused on building individual resilience as the key to preventing trauma- and stress-related disorders. Together, these approaches promote resilience as a universally buildable capacity — and national imperative — that enables citizens to not only survive, but thrive, beyond adversity.
However, the aims of resilience-building strategies appear paradoxical in the context of Flint, where crisis is ongoing, conditions of adversity are chronic, and the imperative to thrive is directly undercut by policies that continue to severely diminish social welfare assistance for local citizens. This apparent paradox is not unique to Flint: at a moment when the national rates of inequality in the U.S. are increasingly seen as a social and political crisis, communities across the country are relentlessly enlisted as responsible for recovering — and emerging strengthened from — the effects of structural and institutional failure. In Flint, this paradox is reflected in the disjuncture between temporal trajectories of transcendence charted by resilience-building initiatives, and conceptualizations of recovery shaped by residents’ experiences of crisis. As the people of Flint attempt to address these experiences, local discourses of recovery and resilience index orientations in and towards time that tell us something more broadly about the way people make sense of and manage adversity in the post-welfare U.S.
For example, Mayor Weaver’s proclamation that the City of Flint and its residents are already “resilient” suggests an end to crisis. Yet, for people in Flint, the effects of crisis far exceed the event of contamination. First, while contamination was a catastrophic and injurious event, the conditions of decline from which it emerged have long constituted a social and economic crisis. Second, in the aftermath of contamination, new crises continue to emerge. In early 2018, Flint saw a nearly 75% drop in literacy among third-graders, which prompted the city’s school board vice president to declare the local education system in “crisis mode.” Meanwhile, the steady increase in reports of stress-related psychological illness in Flint has been described as a “growing mental health crisis.” Third, five and a half years after the switch, the majority of Flint residents remain without reliable access to safe drinking water. In April 2018, Michigan’s governor closed the remaining state-funded water distribution centers in Flint, citing reports that the city’s water supply consistently met federal safety standards. However, the corroded pipes in the municipal water system have yet to be completely replaced. This fact, combined with residents’ distrust in all levels of government and ongoing concerns about the presence of lead and deadly bacteria in the water supply, has meant that the majority of people in Flint still drink, cook with, and even bathe using bottled water. The Nestlé company, which has been the primary provider of bottled water to residents since the state-run distribution centers closed, was scheduled to make its last delivery to Flint in August 2019. Although Nestlé recently agreed, at the Mayor’s request, to continue supplying water beyond the August end date, it remains unclear how much longer the company will extend distribution. Without state assistance or corporate donors, Flint residents will be left to rely on the patchwork provisions of local faith-based organizations and the philanthropy of private citizens for their water. Finally, as other known and unknown consequences of the contamination crisis loom, the collective future in Flint contains damages as yet unrealized.
Given these conditions and the contingencies they portend, what does “recovery and resilience” look like for the residents of Flint? How do recovery efforts and resilience-building activities undertaken in the context of chronic adversity intervene in the effects of the ongoing crisis, which continue to proliferate over time? And how do these effects and interventions shape possibilities for collective life in Flint, now and in the future?
My dissertation research explores these questions by examining how community-led recovery efforts and top-down resilience-building initiatives are intersecting with lived experiences of crisis and adversity in Flint. Contending that the management of adversity is a central feature of collective existence in the U.S., I focus on the ways that recovery efforts and resilience-building activities in Flint are shaping and being shaped by visions for the future. In particular, I examine what happens as people’s experiences and understandings of adversity bump up against the temporal logics of interventions aimed at addressing the consequences of the contamination crisis. At the same time, I consider how the cascading effects of the crisis have disrupted or sidelined normative trajectories of social life in Flint, opening up space for different desires, imaginaries, and aspirations to develop.
In what follows, I highlight the temporal orientations in recovery and resilience discourses by animating how people use these concepts to make claims and form relations of solidarity. I first describe the idiomatic force of the notion of “healing” in relation to temporal trajectories of recovery, then examine the rhetorical shift “from crisis to recovery” in official public discourse. Finally, I discuss the local uptake of resilience as a concept for understanding lived experiences of crisis and adversity in Flint.
In October 2017, Mayor Weaver delivered a much different State of the City Address to the audience of people packed into Flint’s City Council chambers. The words “resilient” and “resilience” were nowhere to be heard. Two years had passed since the city’s water supply was switched back to its original source, and tests consistently showed that the presence of lead in the municipal system was back below “action level.” However, Weaver adamantly disagreed with state and federal insistence that the crisis was over. In addition to the infrastructural and medico-scientific factors that kept Flint residents drinking, cooking, brushing their teeth, and bathing with bottled water, the Mayor described the social and psychological impacts of the crisis as barriers to recovery. Besides “literally getting the lead out of Flint,” Weaver argued, the city’s residents needed to heal before they could begin to recover.
The Mayor’s 2017 framing of “healing” as a prerequisite to, rather than a part of the recovery process has been echoed to me often over the past year by Flint residents. For some, the healing necessary for recovery is predicated on practical, logistical, or material factors, while for others, the notion of healing is more affective, more psychic — symbolic, even. For many people, these ways of conceptualizing healing are inseparable. Further, while residents continue documenting personal injuries and other ways the contamination crisis affects individual lives, talk about healing can collectivize through conversations about shared experiences and visions for the future. At the same time, residents’ focus on healing (or not yet being healed) can hold recovery in suspension, operating as an expression of refusal and a form of protest against the ongoing conditions of crisis. Thus, as the Mayor and other officials make the rhetorical shift in public discourse from “healing” to “recovery” to “resilience”— even as the effects of crisis continue to proliferate — residents’ resistance to follow suit creates possibilities to make claims and forge new modes of solidarity instead.
From Crisis to Recovery
This kind of resistance was evident at a water filter training I attended last November, where an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officer gave a presentation on “Communication Strategies” during home visits to install sink filters. The officer asked training participants, most of whom were community health workers and all of whom were Flint residents, about ways of “moving families from crisis to recovery.” One person responded: “By asking people: what do you need to need to move to recovery?” Then she added: “But sometimes people don’t know!” Another person echoed: “As a resident, I ask myself what I need and sometimes I don’t even know.” Then someone else spoke up: “Our work as a community and as providers is to let people vent, let them talk about their feelings, so that the community can heal.” These responses to the officer’s question about “moving…from crisis to recovery” reflect the ways residents push back against official discourse, insisting instead on a different tempo and trajectory for recovery — their own and others’. Further, by claiming that people in Flint, including themselves, did not “know” what they needed for recovery, training participants expressed solidarity with one another and with residents in “the community.”
The EPA officer’s question borrowed directly from the title of a community-led study conducted in December 2017 to help government agencies and other entities better understand the programs and services that Flint residents needed to move towards recovery. The study offers a comprehensive picture of a community decidedly in crisis. While the replication of survey data is beyond the scope of my own research, the conclusions in the narrative report could have been comprised of my field notes, taken over a year later. That is to say, many of the conditions of crisis documented by the study remain very much the same today. Moreover, in some ways, the conditions have worsened. The last line of the report states: “the free bottled water supported by the State is an essential resource that should continue as one of many efforts to move Flint forward from crisis to recovery” (From Crisis to Recovery: Household Resources, 2017:15). Yet less than six months after the report was published, Michigan’s governor closed the last remaining state-run water distribution centers.
Soon after the report was published, Mayor Weaver adopted the phrase “from crisis to recovery” in public discussions. As the crisis moved into its third year, city, state, and federal officials began touting the accelerated pipe replacement process as evidence of Flint’s comeback. For some residents, recovery is synonymous with infrastructural repair. For example, Q, who works for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in Flint told me: “After the service line replacement, people can start to heal. So, by 2020, that’s when people can start to heal.” Here, Q deferred recovery into the future, pegging healing to the specific temporal trajectory of pipe replacement. Others, like V, a social worker, express worry that all the infrastructural fixes in the world won’t bring them closer to the healing necessary for recovery to happen. As V shared during a debate about recovery at a community action meeting, “I have the best water filtration system in the world at home, and I still drink bottled water.” V could not foresee this changing. “But,” V added, with a laugh, “I’m seeing a therapist about it.”
Indeed, later in our conversation Q also spoke of addressing “mental trauma [as] a big component of the healing process.” While the water crisis initially magnetized resources aimed at mitigating the effects of lead exposure, there is growing concern about the long-term psychological impacts of contamination. This concern has resulted in community-led and top-down interventions focused on addressing trauma, specifically, in Flint. In September 2016, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration awarded the city a $5M, 5-year grant titled “Resiliency in Communities After Stress and Trauma” (ReCAST). As a federal initiative, ReCAST aims to build resilience in Flint by empowering residents to reduce the effects of trauma, improve behavioral health, and engender sustained community change (SAMHSA 2016). One of the primary goals of the ReCAST program is to transform Flint into a “trauma-informed” community by training residents in the Community Resilience Model (CRM). Developed and administered by an international non-profit organization, the CRM “trains community members to not only help themselves but to help others within their wider social network” by regulating their own nervous systems so that resiliency can be “restored or increased.” CRM is not a therapeutic model; rather, as co-creator Elaine Miller-Karas explained at a recent ReCAST-sponsored Resiliency Summit in Flint, CRM is about “the democratization of mental health.”
However, the local uptake of resilience-building initiatives such as CRM in Flint reveals a deep ambivalence among residents with regard to the implications of such an intervention. At the same Resiliency Summit where Miller-Karas spoke, Flint residents, community stakeholders, and providers, and researchers from across the country gathered in a local high school auditorium to discuss the social, material, and psychological dimensions of becoming resilient. During a panel titled “Perspectives from Engaged Flint Residents,” the facilitator began by asking, “How many of you are resilient?” A few tentative hands went up. Someone in the audience asked, “How do you be resilient when you don’t have support?” A panel member responded: “We need support to work at our optimum level of performance…but being resilient takes a toll.” Others on the panel shared perspectives and definitions, trading variations on a theme. Finally, a well-known Flint community researcher spoke: “Resiliency is a wonderful attribute to have but…I’m getting tired of always having to bounce back. And you have to prepare yourself to bounce back quite often in Flint.”
While the ability to “bounce back” is perhaps the universal shorthand for resilience, the notion of return (to shape, to place, to stasis) conjured by this definition is as illusory as bending time. Further, it belies the fatigue made so explicit by the last speaker. As residents remain in crisis mode, deferring recovery either on their own terms on those set for them by structures of power, what does it mean to be, or become resilient? When did the City of Flint and its residents become resilient, as Mayor Weaver claims? And if the Mayor’s claim is true, then what is being built by initiatives such as ReCAST?
Future Flint: From Crisis to Recovery to Transformation
During one of the evening sessions at the Resiliency Summit, the City’s Chief Recovery Officer invited the handful of participants in the room to answer some questions for Future Flint, the latest “collaborative and community-driven” recovery plan, under development for completion by the end of the summer. The plan promised to move Flint residents from crisis to recovery — and beyond. A few weeks earlier, I had answered the same questions during the same session at a conference for neighborhood groups in Flint. The questions were designed to build on previously collected data about recovery; yet for a community as over-researched as Flint, the sense of being asked the same things again and again aroused frustrations among participants in both sessions. A few months later, the Chief Recovery Officer attended a community action meeting to provide an update on Future Flint. The Officer began, describing the new plan as a “resident-driven blueprint for future community engagement.” People around the table, many of whom wore multiple hats — as resident, service provider, community stakeholder, organizational leader — let loose. People wanted to know what would be different about this recovery plan, and when “real action” was going to be taken to change “basic structural things.” Someone described the plan as a “placebo,” scoffing.
As people spoke, I recalled a different meeting, months prior, where the same group of people had debated the definition of recovery. The perennial problem of temporality had been at the forefront — how could residents move from crisis to recovery, when they felt in so many ways that the crisis hadn’t ended? Finally, one person had thrown up a hand and said: “The operational definition of recovery is when the last person affected by the water crisis dies.”
This definition, however severe, gestures to the ways in which the lived experience of ongoing crisis in many ways defies attempts at recovery. Here, “affected by the water crisis” can be interpreted to mean different things; at the extreme, it suggests that recovery is an impossibility — trauma is passed down through generations, and collective memories stretch as far back as time itself. Yet, even at its most literal, this definition of recovery underscores how the temporalities of water contamination and its consequences conflict directly with the notion of transcendence and enhancement suggested by resilience-building discourses. While recovery describes the return, however illusory, to a prior state of existence following injury or illness, resilience suggests a kind of psychosocial alchemy through which adverse experiences are translated into possibilities for new and better ways of being in the world. However, even as it gestures to a difference in the aftermath, the notion of transcendence offered by “resilience” may be as illusory as the promise of return, particularly in the context of ongoing crisis.
On April 25th, 2019, I joined a group of Flint residents gathered on a patch of grass outside the city’s Water Treatment Plant for a press conference to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the switch in water supply. Wearing black t-shirts that read “FLINT IS STILL BROKEN,” residents took turns voicing their frustrations and demands to a small sea of news cameras and reporters. The event was a reunion of sorts — for half a decade now, many of the people there that day had gathered regularly to protest the conditions of ongoing crisis. A local pastor took to the podium and gave an impassioned speech, urging the governor to restore state-supported bottled water delivery and calling on President Trump to grant Flint a federal disaster declaration, as residents cheered their approval. “Had this been done,” the pastor continued, “the army corps of engineers along with other federal resources could have made Flint a model city for recovery.” The pastor concluded: “The ongoing effects of the water crisis are an everyday reality. There have been setbacks in our recovery, and not much has changed in the lives of our residents.”
After the press conference, we boarded buses to Lansing to hold a protest on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol Building. Once again, people took turns speaking, sharing their experiences of crisis and calling for action from the State. As they spoke, groups of school children streamed in and out of the building, stopping to stare for a moment before being whisked away by their chaperones. Suddenly, one speaker addressed the onlookers directly: “You’re next! This isn’t just Flint! This is America! There ain’t no future in your future.” The person sitting beside me clarified the speaker’s message in no uncertain terms: “That means you’re gonna die early.”
This message – that the reproduction of ordinary life in the postwelfare U.S. is increasingly indistinguishable from dying – sits at odds with the imperatives of recovery and resilience-building efforts, whose temporal logics of intervention rely explicitly on the promise of a future that is better than the present. What then, does having “no future in your future” mean for thinking about the politics of interventions, in Flint and elsewhere?
Towards the end of the protest, a long-time activist summed up the crisis in a few words: “We were collateral damage in the drive-by of a capitalist market system to take our water.” Then with a chuckle, the activist continued: “But in the five years since this started, I think a lot of us in the city of Flint are growing, politically. We’re getting a little bit political, everybody. We ain’t just sitting. We fighting, too.”
As various entities jostle for the jurisdictional authority to make claims and stage interventions in Flint, new modes of local social collectivity and political solidarity are beginning to emerge. These socio-political modes demand attention for what they reveal more generally with regard to the ways that people are responding to the effects of crisis and adversity in the protracted aftermath of U.S. welfare state retrenchment. The emergence of such modes, I argue, gestures towards broader shifts in the cultural, political, and ideological foundations that have long given structure and meaning to collective existence in the U.S. Specifically, I suggest, as local citizens are tasked with managing the consequences of institutional and infrastructural failure with little to no assistance from the state, American ideologies of personal responsibility and strength in adversity are losing resonance in favor of more intimate and interdependent ways of life. In Flint, these changes are evident in the tensions between competing narratives of crisis, healing, recovery, and resilience, the ways these narratives manifest as demands for action, and the actions people take themselves, together.
Lead is a toxic object, a heavy metal that seeps into bloodstreams, soft tissues, and skeletal structures. Lead often remains in the body for years, distributing its destructive effects over time. Exposure is particularly damaging for children; chief among its consequences are permanent disruptions to brain development. In adults, lead exposure can produce neurocognitive changes that result in memory loss, mood swings, psychosis, and other psychological and behavioral symptoms that resemble — and effectively constitute — mental disorder. During pregnancy, lead absorbed into the body during prior exposure, even years prior, is released from bones and transferred to the fetus, which can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and developmental delay. In the United States, federal water quality regulations permit up to 15 parts per billion; however, no amount of lead is safe.
“The Community Resiliency Model” <https://www.traumaresourceinstitute.com/crm>
From Crisis to Recovery: Household Resources. Flint Cares, 2017.
“Resiliency in Communities After Stress and Trauma.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2016. <https://www.samhsa.gov/grants/grant-announcements/sm-16-012>
“Residents, activists gather at treatment plant of 5th anniversary of Flint Water Crisis” (April 25, 2019) < https://wsmh.com/news/local/residents-activists-gather-at-treatment-plant-of-5th-anniversary-of-flint-water-crisis>
Talia Gordon is a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. Gordon’s research examines the ways that people in socially and economically marginalized communities make sense of and manage the experience of adversity in the postwelfare U.S. This article draws on over a year of fieldwork in Flint, MI, as part of Gordon’s dissertation project, tentatively titled: “Why Resilience Now? Crisis, Adversity, and Collective Life in the Postwelfare United States.”
This post is part of our thematic series: Ecological Times.