When the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, broke out in April 2014, residents were exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water that fundamentally altered their ability to conduct basic, daily activities. Even after months of investigations, accusations, illness, and tragedy, little has changed on the ground of Flint. Residents still rely on bottled water for drinking, brushing their teeth, and rinsing vegetables. They clean themselves with baby wipes, or even jump in and out of the shower for a quick rinse.
In order to cope with the hardships of the water crisis, arts and cultural organizations have created various projects, including gallery exhibitions, documentaries, spoken word performances, and urban revitalization actions. These arts projects further serve to assuage grief, raise political awareness, educate, and try to resume normal life as much as possible.
To expand the horizons of Flint’s low-income young people, Natasha Thomas-Jackson and Lyndava Williams created Raise It Up! Youth Arts and Awareness. Youth involved in the program have participated in national poetry competitions that allow them to share the trials and tribulations of shifting relationships with family, friends, school, and church.
The Flint Institute of Arts (FIA), constructed at the height of Flint’s affluence in the 1950s and 60s, committed to expanding its programming by 500% after traces of lead were discovered in the drinking water. “We expect the number of children in Flint with cognitive and behavioral deficits to increase significantly due to increased exposure to lead,” explained Monique Desormeau, the FIA’s curator of education. Repairing damage from the water crisis won’t end with replacing lead pipes, she said. Flint’s cultural and educational institutions must be prepared to deal with cognitive and behavioral fallout from lead contamination for at least a couple of decades.
“We will increase opportunities to participate in hands-on activities, listen to children’s literature, explore spatial concepts through creative movement, and look at and talk about works of art,” she said. Providing a wide range of educational opportunities—which research shows increases children’s ability to learn—is “how the FIA can make a positive impact on the future success of our children.”