If you were anywhere near the Michigan League over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, you likely noticed hordes of high school students running around in suits. What was going on? Had the career fair come early? Was the University of Michigan promising admission to the best-dressed minors?

Not quite. That weekend, more than 600 high school students traveled to Ann Arbor to participate in a Model United Nations conference called MUNUM. For four days, they assumed the roles of diplomats and world leaders from different countries, and debated and attempted to resolve some of the world’s most pressing issues.

The day after the conference ended, dozens of rightfully angry people gathered in Ann Arbor to demand justice for Flint. In the eyes of the protesters, justice seemed to imply that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) be recalled due to his complicity in the Flint water disaster. Other calls for justice have included reparations for the damage to the property and people affected by the lead-tainted water.

But money and personal consequences for the officials deemed responsible are necessary — but insufficient — components of justice for the nearly 100,000 people who were poisoned by their government. Justice is a dubious concept when so many people have been subjected to immeasurable long-term harm.

The closest thing to justice that our state can deliver to the city of Flint, aside from monetary compensation — aid in dealing with long-term consequences of lead poisoning and punishment for the complicit officials — certainly includes policy reforms to prevent a similar situation from happening in the future. That’s where our government officials would be best served by taking a lesson from the idealistic high schoolers who flooded Michigan’s campus for the MUNUM conference.

At MUNUM, I directed a committee of about 80 high school students, and challenged them to reform a global trade agreement that requires almost every country in the world to adopt and enforce copyright, trademark and patent protection laws. If that issue sounds a bit dense, that’s only because it is. International trade law isn’t exactly a topic of casual conversations — especially among high schoolers.

But there is an important reason to discuss this issue — the law in question often restricts low-income countries’ abilities to provide affordable life-saving drugs to their citizens during health crises. Powerful, developed countries claim the agreement is necessary for economic reasons. Low-income countries often counter that it prioritizes company profits at the expense of human health.

The students in my committee debated this issue as if it affected them personally. They came to a resolution far more comprehensive than anything I’ve seen suggested elsewhere, least of all by the U.S. government.

The reason they were so effective in representing the interests of other people affected by an issue they probably hadn’t thought about before seemed to be their ability to empathize. Empathy is a skill Model UN tries to cultivate, prompting students to totally assume the mindset of diplomats with a national identities different from their own.

If there’s any single thing I could point to as a cause of the Flint water crisis, it’s the complete failure of Michigan leaders to empathize with the people they were appointed to serve. But this lack of empathy doesn’t necessarily stem from a personal failure on the part of our leaders (though that certainly may have played a role).

Rather, this total failure to understand and advocate for the interests of Flint residents is systemic, and therefore susceptible to repetition. It’s called Public Act 4, a 2012 law that strengthened the power of emergency managers. In 2012, Gov. Snyder remarked that “these new laws recognize the vital importance of financially stable, economically vibrant communities to Michigan’s future.”

But by enhancing the authority of leaders far removed from the people they serve, it lowered the likelihood that these leaders would adequately value the interests of the people they were appointed to represent.

Failure to empathize may sound like a pretty squishy explanation for what has surely become one of the most costly and highest-profile government-made catastrophes of the Snyder administration. But the entire concept of American democracy is derived from the idea that the most effective and just leaders are those most able to understand, relate to and advocate for the people they serve.

Emergency managers almost by definition don’t fit these criteria. They are supposed to override local interests with the goal of taking tough but necessary austerity measures that elected officials are sometimes too fearful to impose. This is deemed necessary, and may be appropriate for addressing budgetary concerns in a strictly financial sense. Public Act 4 gave emergency managers power over most noteworthy city operations, and even the authority to renegotiate contracts.

In Flint, the state had far more power than should’ve been necessary to restore fiscal solvency. This power is, in the most direct and fundamental sense, what caused the Flint water crisis.

It’s hard to imagine local leaders who wouldn’t react promptly to yellow water flowing out of sinks, showers and fire hydrants throughout their city. It’s even less likely that local government would have failed to respond immediately to concerns over lead poisoning, the effects of which will continue to impact their city for decades, long after state officials have turned their attention to other issues.

But for nearly two years, more than 8,600 children in Flint have been exposed to water with elevated lead levels, irrevocably raising their risk of learning, behavioral and attention disorders. Despite knowing about the issue for months, the state failed to acknowledge or resolve the problem.

They continued to deny the lead concerns until 38-year-old Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha studied data on the blood lead levels of child Medicaid beneficiaries in Flint, and repeatedly alerted state officials that the numbers were extremely high.

The Flint water crisis has since become a national controversy. Everyone from Cher to Ben Carson has weighed in. President Barack Obama has declared a state of emergency. Snyder himself has even admitted that he and his administration had failed the people of Flint.

The state has promised money and profusely apologized for their mismanagement of the water crisis, but state leaders have yet to produce adequate solutions to the problems they created. The city still lacks adequate plans and funding to compensate victims and create special education and juvenile corrections programs for the more than 8,600 children now statistically more likely to need these facilities.

I’ve seen no evidence that those plans are in the works. Soon, the 24-hour news cycle will find something new to talk about. Cher, Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson, Michael Moore and the other celebrities who have thrust Flint into the national spotlight will focus their attention elsewhere.

But the people of Flint will be living with the impacts of this government failure long after the bottled water donations and news trucks have stopped showing up in their town. The state officials, reporters and out-of-town advocates can all move on as soon as it’s convenient for them to do so. Those affected by the poisoned water don’t have that luxury.

No amount of restitution or retribution can change that basic fact. Justice for Flint requires that the state honor the legacy of the city and people it so monumentally failed by preventing a repeat incident elsewhere. To do that, our legislators must reform Public Act 4.

Victoria Noble can be reached at vjnoble@umich.edu. 

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