Flint water crisis drives widespread grassroots efforts: USA Today 1/29/16

The crisis over lead-contaminated water in impoverished Flint, Mich., is prompting a flood of quickly assembled grassroots campaigns to get clean, bottled water to the Midwestern city.

Images of the rashes of children who’ve bathed in the water and of brown liquid spilling from faucets have spread through social media and news organizations. They have lit a fire under people from Los Angeles to Syracuse, N.Y., from the Chicago area to Texas. Churches, community organizations, groups of friends and concerned citizens are raising money to buy and ship water, or asking for bottled water donations that they will drive to Flint themselves.

A few days ago, the Rev. Daren Jaime of People’s AME Zion Church in Syracuse, N.Y., had an epiphany that he wanted to help. He put the word out and now a citywide campaign that includes Syracuse schools and the Southwest Community Center is in place. Jaime also reached out to the Rev. Darius Pridgen of True Bethel Baptist Church in Buffalo, N.Y., and president of the Buffalo Common Council. Pridgen set up a similar sister effort in his city, and Robert Rich, president of the Roar Logistics public transportation company, based in Buffalo, is handling the transport of the water to Flint. The campaign seemed to take on a life of its own and people just want to help, Jaime said.

“It’s a human tragedy to be in America, to be struggling for the most basic of necessities, and to watch kids, about 9,000 of them, to be contaminated with lead poisoning,” Jaime said. “I think people have a sense of compassion for the people of Flint knowing that a basic right, something we need on a day-to-day basis, has been taken away from them.”

Even before the water crisis, Flint was in crisis. An estimated 41.6% of the city’s residents live in poverty, according to the Census Bureau. The city once known for being a bustling stronghold for General Motors’ Buick and Chevrolet divisions took a turn for the worse after General Motors closed up shop, leaving Flint to take one hit after another. Today, it is often referred to as one of the most dangerous cities in America. Its decline was the subject of the 1989 documentary “Roger & Me” by filmmaker Michael Moore.

A new problem hit Flint in 2014. Lead from corroded pipes began leaking into Flint’s water. The situation took a dramatic turn in recent weeks when the national media grabbed hold of the story. A turning point seems to have been a cover of Timemagazine that featured an image of a little boy with rashes on his face. Weighing on the story is the fact that Flint has such a high poverty rate and also is 56.6% black, according to the 2010 census, prompting many to charge that the city’s water disaster was not addressed adequately because of race and class.

The need appears to have set people into motion. Celebrities such as talk show hostJimmy Fallon and singer Madonna are donating, but grassroots efforts seem to be taking over the philanthropic end of things.

A couple of weeks ago, staffers at the GoFundMe.com crowdfunding website that allows members of the public to raise money for causes noticed a cluster of fundraisers for Flint cropping up organically, so the California-based company decided to help those efforts along.

The organization created a landing page for the 99 fundraising campaigns that had raised almost $365,000 from more than 8,700 donors as of Friday night. GoFundMe also launched a contest to add $10,000 to the campaign that raised the most by Friday night.

The fundraising includes many smaller donations from ordinary citizens. If these mechanics are reminiscent of President Obama’s first campaign, there may be a reason for that; Dan Pfeiffer, vice president of communications and policy for GoFundMe, is a former senior White House advisor and worked on President Obama’s campaign.

The grassroots is responding to the need because the Flint situation has struck a nerve, Pfeiffer said.

“You should be able to take for granted access to clean water,” Pfeiffer said. “An American city where a decent number of the population lives below the poverty line being told they have to buy bottled water and they can’t afford it, people understand the inherent unfairness of that.”

Chicago firefighter Eric Washington, one of the GoFundMe fundraisers, decided to launch a campaign after seeing the image of the little boy on the Time cover. Washington, the father of an 11-year-old boy, said the picture tugged at him. He reached his fundraising goal of $20,000 Friday night.

“This is my first time planning anything like this as far as being a humanitarian is concerned,” Washington, 33, said. “This is my first time reaching out to people on a large scale.”

Los Angeles podcasters Kennelia Stradwick, Sofia Stanley and Emile Ennis, hosts and creators of the Happy Hour Podcast, decided to launch a fundraising campaign after Stradwick, a native of Flint, filled in listeners on the dire nature of the situation in her hometown.

“I think it’s horrible, and that’s an understatement,” Stradwick said. “It affects every single person and, on a deeper level, it affects their family members. I have to make sure my family is OK every day, see how my cousins are doing … It’s a domino effect.”

The podcasters’ campaign initially aimed to raise $500, but now that they have raised twice that amount, they are reconsidering how far they want to take their efforts, they said.

Back in Syracuse and Buffalo, campaign organizers had enlisted retired NBA playerDerrick Coleman, who grew up in Detroit and graduated from Syracuse University, to help hand out water in Flint, Jaime said. Something about the Flint situation has touched people.

“We’ve got people from all over dropping off water at the church,” Jaime said. “Last Saturday, a couple of people from the community came by and just wrote checks. A couple of people donated pallets of water. I think people really identified with it.”