“This is the story of the most important and emblematic environmental and public health disaster of this young century. More bluntly, it is the story of a government poisoning its own citizens, and then lying about it. It is a story about what happens when the very people responsible for keeping us safe care more about money and power than they care about us, or our children,” writes Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha in What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City. Her new book is also a deeply personal story—the story of an immigrant, a pediatrician, a mother, and a concerned citizen who against all odds used science to prove the children of Flint, Michigan were being exposed to lead.
Credit: Michigan State University
Named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time Magazine in 2016 and dubbed a “bad ass” by Rachel Maddow, Dr. Mona has testified twice before Congress about the Flint water crisis, penned a New York Times Op-Ed for federal assistance for Flint children, and led the way for $100 million in federal dollars and $250 million in state dollars being awarded to Flint to address the crisis. As she continues to fight for the children of Flint, we spoke to Dr. Mona about hope in a time of crisis before her upcoming visit to ALOUD on July 11.
Your book weaves together your personal background with political, environmental, and public health histories. How did all of these pieces congeal into the saga of the Flint water crisis?
Dr. Mona: This book has so many seemingly disconnected topics like a genocide in Iraq, a public health history, the labor history, Arabic words and food. But when I began to write the story, I could not pull them apart because it’s all part of the lens that I see the world and my work, and it offers a full picture of how I got into this fight. The personal story of how I was raised and growing up in the milieu where injustice was keenly known gave me heightened antenna to look out for injustice wherever I am—not just across the ocean but right here in our own backyard. People ask me why I did this. It was a choiceless choice. It was because of my upbringing and this set of values.
How did growing up Iraqi American and having family stories from the Iraqi genocide prepare you for standing up against corruption and a failing system?
Dr. Mona: I always thought of myself as different and an underdog, and every day I felt blessed to be where I was [growing up in Royal Oak, Michigan]. The American Dream so worked for my family and I was so lucky to be where I was—I could have been where my cousins were in Iraq with air raids and sanctions. It was having that lens of being so lucky and blessed and being grateful that has pushed my work and my career in service.
Today we hear a lot about the bad news coming out of Flint, but your book is a love story to this place. What drew you to Flint?
Dr. Mona: Flint is a place of extremes. At one point Flint had the highest per capita income in the country. It’s where manufacturing started and it’s where the middle class started. Now Flint has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. It’s also a place where a lot of our civil rights struggles happened. The greatest irony of Flint in terms of the water crisis is that we are literally in the middle of the Great Lakes—we are in the middle of the largest source of freshwater in the world. Twenty percent of the freshwater in the world is around us and yet, to this day, people don’t have safe drinking water. What drew me to Flint, what has kept me in the city, what wakes me up every morning is the incredible resilience of the people here who are tough and loyal. This crisis has brought people together and everything we are doing is a model for the nation.
A low point of your fight was when you acquired the data that children were suffering from increased levels of lead, but you were initially dismissed by state officials. How did that affect your faith in government?
Dr. Mona: I’ve always been a believer in government—especially in the role to protect public health, to fight injustices, and to get rid of inequality. We need programs to protect our most vulnerable people, and the protection of air and water is the government’s job. But I now know about these weak rules and regulations that have failed to follow science. It was a massive realization: we are not a society that values children and values public health; that has been a lesson for Flint that must be shared.
The public library’s mission is to provide free access to ideas and information. What role do you think public libraries play in times of crisis or in standing up to injustice?
Dr. Mona: Our public libraries are the places to have these discussions and discourse and to connect people—especially people who are not alike. A big part of the Flint story is how it was folks from different disciplines, from different walks of life who came together. Often we think we’re alone in our fights and that there’s nobody else who cares about the issues, but having discussions and being exposed and having meeting places lets you realize that other people care about the environment, or children’s rights, or voting rights, or mass incarceration, or whatever issue that a library can provide a venue for.
Credit: Michigan State University
Learn more about this upcoming ALOUD program:
What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha
In conversation with journalist Geoffrey Mohan, LA Times
Wednesday, July 11 7:30 PM
Mark Taper Auditorium–Central Library