Jewfro: So You Want To Help Flint

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By Ben Falik

An organizing principle of my life is the power of volunteerism to turn people’s values into value: Everyday people can transcend the transactional nature of daily life in order to repair the world.

This makes the paralysis I feel about Flint all the more paralyzing. First, guilt that my children have unlimited access to the cleanest tap water in the world and medical attention at the first sign of rash or fever. Then shame that I’m now thinking about my kids — the privileged grandchildren of General Motors — rather than theirs. Then a sense that, if we are willing to lean into the discomfort that we are accessories to this crime, we might be willing and able to pay our debt to society.

Along the way, our best intentions can have unintended consequences. Among them:

Water, water everywhere. If you sent bottled water to Flint, you’re in good company with Cher and Rasheed Wallace, among countless others, in reacting to human suffering with compassion and action. Now you can stop. In the same way that food banks benefit far more from financial support than the cans in the back of your pantry, your dollars will flow further and last longer than a trunk full of water. If you want to give Jewishly, there is a Flint Emergency Relief Fund at jfmd.org.

I made a modest donation with the confidence that … “100 percent of all funds raised will be donated to the Flint Jewish Federation to assist people with needs related to the crisis, as well as to the Flint Child Health & Development Fund (led by the United Way of Genesee County and established at the Community Foundation of Greater Flint) to ensure that children are afforded the resources and interventions to overcome this population-wide exposure to lead.”

Service as pretext for political inaction. This is a political problem that, as cynical as we may be about our public leadership, requires a political solution. I don’t know what that solution is — further federal intervention, recalling the governor, scaling back emergency management, real transparency, checking Nestle’s bottling of Michigan water, funding government agencies to provide sustainable services, lowering barriers to regionalism, redrawing legislative district lines, ending term limits — but I know we need to demand multiple proposals and demand to have a say in which ones proceed. The elbow grease of the good people of Michigan and the noblesse oblige of our elite may feel more immediate and accessible; they are not a substitute for the body politic.

Flint as helpless. The residents of Flint are victims of something that, to me, recalls the banality of evil. They are not helpless. We risk compounding the injustice of poisoning Flint’s children if we infantilize their parents. These are families that have shown tremendous resilience in the face of a problem that stretches back well before the world took notice. Lead poisoning is only the latest in a long line of indignities that those who have stayed in Flint, by choice or necessity, have faced. The only acceptable solutions to Flint’s problems will be ones that engage and empower its residents.

But we are not at liberty to desist from Flint. To be part of the solution, we should:

Be attentive. The country will experience Flint Fatigue in the coming weeks and months. We need to remain vigilant to ensure that this stays on Michigan’s front burner, especially when the media moves on to the next natural or manmade or electoral disaster.

Be flexible. If — when — you volunteer in Flint, as it says at helpforflint.com, “The most important thing to bring with you while you volunteer is a good attitude. There will be a lot of people who want to help. Not everyone will be able to volunteer at delivering water door to door. Some people will be asked to help by assisting support groups by sorting donated relief supplies.”

Be advocates. Your service or philanthropy should bring you closer to our neighbors in Flint on their long road to recovery. It does not excuse you from addressing the root causes — institutionalized racism, concentrated poverty, globalization — that conspire against many of our fellow Michiganders.

Be back. Being an effective volunteer in Flint will almost definitely mean being a repeat volunteer in Flint. Each time you go, I suspect it will feel closer to your community, perhaps to a point at which Flint feels like part of your community.

Be in touch. Want to help? Write me at ben@werepair.org. We are continuing to explore ways that Repair the World can serve in the spirit of Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Susan Low
Susan Low 02.21.2016

Beautiful and thoughtful response on how to help those in need in Flint.
Kudos to Ben for this helpful article.