Beginning a two-day reporting assignment in Flint, Michigan, I was in a Über rushing to a town hall meeting scheduled that evening, and on the phone with a wary resident.
“Who are you? Why are you here? What information do you want to know? And what are you going to do with it?” Sarah Bailey, a local church elder, asked me pointedly.
Caught off guard, my mind raced to figure out how to convince her that I wasn’t the enemy.
“Are you working for the Senate or the House committee on investigation?” she asked.
“Oh! No,” I responded, relieved to get a word in for myself. She peppered me with more questions. As I re-explained my project, she cut me off again.
“Can I just be honest with you?” Bailey asked.
“Yes, of course.”
“No one in Flint right now really wants to trust other people coming in from outside of Flint wanting to know anything until we find out who you are, why you are here, and what it is that you want to know and what it is that you’re going to do with what we tell you,” she said loudly. “We have a community here. We’re not just people in a petri dish for people to come in, grab information from us and then they’re gone.”
I had been waiting for such a response. Wasn’t I just another invader, descending on this town to gather what I could before returning to my easy, privileged life in the Chicago suburbs? Why would residents talk to someone who didn’t even know Flint existed before it was a national headline? What is a journalist without trust on her side? I knew the answer to that one: nothing.
I talked on the phone with Bailey for nearly an hour. After she shared her frustrations, I explained who I was, why I was there and what I wanted to know. She told me what her community had gone through. I asked if anyone from the church would speak to me in person the next day. Trust was on the line.
Bailey said she’d ask around. Minutes later, she called back with a source. She apologized for getting on her “soapbox.” I thanked her and promised to email her my story. A piece of advice she gave stuck with me the entire trip, during which I only stopped reporting for food and sleep.
“When the citizens of Flint seem like they don’t want to talk to you, they’re just tired,” she said. “We’ve been talking since 2013 … you can only scream so loud before you lose your voice and your enthusiasm.”
I interviewed seven residents and public officials in Flint. Sometimes, that meant sitting for hours with someone, trying to process the crisis together. They welcomed me into their offices, their homes, their places of worship, their lives. I promised to not hijack their stories like they said others had. We exchanged contact information. Trust was built and maintained with care.
Many people went out of their way to help me. The hotel shuttle driver took me downtown each morning. A random woman walked with me two blocks to help me find a coffee shop. Another Über driver gave me his cell number after I said it was hard to find cars sometimes. One source drove me to the closest restaurant – and made sure I texted her how the food was.
A 4-year-old boy whose life I was in for a total of 2.5 hours told me he loved me, while his five siblings ran to gather all the toys they wanted to show me. Meanwhile, their parents paused their busy lives to share with me the harsh reality of Flint’s situation, and the pain of knowing that the government had poisoned their children and fundamentally changed their futures. Their mom didn’t have time to cook that night, so dinner was clementines and microwaved hot dogs.
The most powerful thing I took from this reporting trip is that Flint has a heart of gold. For as many empty houses and challenges this community faces, there are as many strong, kind people. The city has limited funding, but they work to improve with what they have. As they drink, bathe, cook and clean from bottled water, they speak of good water as being a privilege. They face social challenges and neglect, but are unwilling to place blame indiscriminately.
What is happening in Flint is a disaster. The people are rightfully angry. Yet, their strength is humbling. This city had one of the nation’s worst public health and humanitarian crises of the century thrust upon it. Still, it made a nosy little outsider like me feel at home.
As Bailey ended her account, she paused to backtrack. She wanted me to know that all the pain she had told me about did not mean her community was down for the count.
“This is a resilient community,” she said. “And we will rise up.”
Devi Shastri is a junior studying biomedical sciences, journalism and neuroscience at Marquette University. She traveled during spring break to Flint on a solo reporting trip for the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism.