The fight for clean water in Flint, Michigan

In October 2016, residents of Flint, Michigan were told that their drinking water was unsafe, after the city switched water sources two years before. The switch caused pipes to corrode, causing lead and other contaminants to enter the city’s water supply, running through the faucets, showers and drinking fountains all over the city. Many of the city’s residents soon began noticing health issues, physical and behavioural.

The situation in Flint is not entirely unique. It’s 2023, and 2 billion people live without safely managed drinking water around the world, according to the UN. Their goal is to change this by 2030 by strengthening the participation of local communities in improving water management as one of the ways that the UN hopes to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water. 

Bishop Bernadel Jefferson is a living example of this. A lifelong activist dedicated to mobilizing her community against any injustice, one of the defining fights of her life as an activist is the one for clean water in Flint, Michigan, a fight that continues still today. 

Jefferson’s grandson went from being a straight-A student to having severe difficulties in school. Her grandchildren would develop rashes after showering or swimming, and she noticed that many people in her community were having similar symptoms.  

“When you see mothers lose their babies because of the water, when you see children that have been contaminated by the water, it disturbs you,” she said. 

Seeing her family and community suffering, Jefferson decided to take action. She and a group of other local pastors traveled to Michigan’s capitol to address the governor and demand change. Jefferson knocked on doors around her neighborhood to educate people about the issue, and she’s travelled all over the country to cities with water issues to share her story. 

When Jefferson believed funds that were granted to aid the city’s water issue were being misappropriated, she attended a city council meeting with a group of community leaders and residents so large that the meeting was forced to change rooms. 

She has worked with the local police department to educate law enforcement about behavioural changes in the community’s youth because of lead contamination, explaining that officers should be trained to exhibit extra patience when working with local youth. 

“It's our responsibility there and when we find out something is to introduce it or to allow the public or the community to know what's going on. That's why we are a voice in the community for the community to make a difference,” she said. 

Flint’s water is now considered clean, though many residents no longer trust it. Bishop herself still drinks from water bottles. She's made lasting change in her community. Jefferson’s story shows that while one person might not be able to fix a water crisis, they can empower their communities to look out for each other and participate in making their city a better place. 

For those who want to participate in their own local water systems, Jefferson said, “the most important part is to get involved in the community… even if it’s just one other person or two other people.”

She recommends seeking out local leaders and holding power accountable.

“If you see a problem, then what is the problem? What can I do? And then who is connected? Is it the mayor? Is it the city council? Is it the county commissioners, the road commission?” she said. 

“Who do I need to go to because you were elected to handle my problem, so therefore wherever I gotta go, in order to get my problems handled, I'm gonna make you be accountable.”

“Everyone is important, and everyone can bring something to the table.”