Committee Calls For U Of M To ‘Dismantle Concentration Of Knowledge And Power’ In Aiding Flint

The implications of the drastic, criminal failure of Michigan’s Gov. Rick Snyder and his emergency management system to keep Flint residents safe from lead-tainted drinking water have become so widely known and understood, even beyond a national audience, that celebrities, politicians and organizations everywhere are feeling the need to speak on the matter, if not get directly involved. As it turns out, the University of Michigan is no different, but in doing so U of M “faculty, staff, alumni and students,” urge the university to take great care in just how, exactly, it offers help and solidarity, and their words are worth considering for everyone choosing to get involved.

In a recent, lengthy letter to U of M President Mark Schlissel, the Equitable Research in Flint Organizing Committee thanked Schlissel for his “timely reaction as details of the Flint water crisis emerged,” but take issue with “the lack of community engagement” leading up to the U of M, U of M-Flint and U of M-Dearborn faculty meeting Friday, Jan. 29.

While the Committee agrees that U of M “has an important role to play supporting the Flint community,” and that its “human, intellectual, financial, technical, social capital” resources can play a large role “co-creating knowledge with communities, particularly like Flint, by collecting, analyzing and sharing data that substantiates the community’s experiences of trauma, injustice, dehumanization, and political disenfranchisement,” it also points out the following extremely apt point:

“Historically, relationships between researchers and marginalized communities have been fraught with extractive methodologies that benefit academics but leave communities unchanged or worse-off than they were before. We also recognize that a massive influx of researchers wanting ‘to learn’ something about the traumatic ‘experience’ of others could reinscribe harm through the research process. While universities have taken steps to avoid the most egregious abuses of power, we still have much to learn. Given our power and privilege, our actions must demonstrate respect for local knowledge and needs. We must act as allies that recognize civic leadership and place-based collective priorities in our efforts to support the communities we work in and with.”

The letter also states it is to the Committee’s understanding that “community representatives and organizers have not been invited to attend this meeting.” Right on point, the Committee states:

“The complicity that led to the current crisis includes the complete disregard for the concerns voiced by Flint residents over the course of two years. In order to serve the people of Flint, we must vigilantly work to dismantle the concentration of knowledge and power that created the Flint water crisis, and to ensure that the same denigrating and dismissive systems are not replicated through the University’s response. Flint residents must be integral to any research initiatives undertaken in and for their community.”

That point should be in the foreground of every organization or person’s mind who chooses to get involved, which is why the Committee also called for “any research endeavors be carried out in collaboration with, rather than for, community representatives.”

In the letter, the faculty, staff, students and alumni of U of M also call for the following:

  • An announcement that the January 29th meeting is just the first of a series of meetings, and that now and in the future, community representatives will be treated as partners in developing this research initiative.
  • This first UM-wide meeting should not focus on the various research projects the University could fund, but instead should generate a dialogue assessing whose voice is not yet at the table and how to support the capacity of those voices and Flint residents to attend.
  • That all meetings include trained facilitators from the University and the community, who can facilitate equitable conversations that help us work as partners with community residents. We have at our respective institutions a wealth of individual knowledge and experience with community-engaged research, as well as programs and institutes that support thoughtful community collaboration. A beginning step to this processes will be to ask: how can we, members of the UM community, use our resources to serve your short- and long-terms needs in this crisis?
  • That faculty and University staff recognize that by offering to collaborate with community members we are both offering resources and asking them to do additional work. We need to ask ourselves and community representatives how we can support community-level participation in a manner that does not further overburden them. This requires us to be rigorous in our efforts to ensure their voices and needs are paramount, as opposed to the professional interests of the academic community.
  • That in order to create a sense of safety and encourage wide participation, that we hold future meetings at physical locations that welcome broad participation – such as a public schools or local churches, and that we provide transportation assistance and childcare, as well as food and drink at these meetings.
  • That we commit to complete transparency regarding who and what is said at Friday’s meeting, and that for future meetings we invite a wider set of the UM community, staff and students. As one family, in addition to inclusion and effective action alongside community partners, we should also include researchers and staff from MSU, EMU, WSU, Kettering University and Mott Community College.
  • That part of our conversation includes how to thoughtfully and equitably apply our financial resources to community needs and priorities. Ultimately, Flint residents should play an integral role in the process of deciding how research funding is allocated.
  • And finally, given the immense effort it will take to address this situation – knowing that the residents of Flint will be dealing with the ramifications of this crisis for years to come – we must have honest, open conversations about what it will take to build safe, effective, and equitable systems in Flint, and the kind of commitment the University will be able to sustain.

In conclusion, the Committee reaffirms in the letter its belief that U of M can be “an ally in this work,” stating, “We have a number of professors, staff and programs committed to inter-group dialogue, trauma-informed care, and community-engaged, collaborative, participatory-action research,” adding, “This expertise should be called upon to help us all think about how to act respectfully and powerfully.”

As the letter also wonderfully concludes, Flint is not the only “postindustrial city facing critical issues of failing infrastructure, or other consequences of a history of environmental and social injustices,” nor is Michigan the only state. Yet the Committee’s affirms:

“The University of Michigan has the opportunity to be a model for community-university partnerships that are collaborative and equitable in their processes and outcomes.”

No doubt, and just as the Committee also states:

“This opportunity comes with great responsibility and will take a rigorous commitment to, and reflection upon, issues of inclusion and power as we move forward together…. We offer our support and resources to this initiative and look forward to collaborating with you.”

As we all seek to move forward in lending aid to Flint, it’s crucial we consider how we help, as well. The wrong kind of help can create a lot more harm than good, as may yet pan out with the Michigan militia threat of armed revolt if Flint’s crisis isn’t cleared up quick. The right kind of help, however, won’t just restore clean drinking water to Flint, but may just save lives.

You can read the Equitable Research in Flint Organizing Committee’s letter to University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel, here.

Featured image by Ryan Hyde via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.