For the first time since freshman year, I no longer feel like I’m a part of the Flint community.
Though looking back on it all, I’m not sure I ever really was. It was not my city that underwent a mass population and job flight, leaving homes and businesses a shell of what they once were. It wasn’t my elected officials who lost their power to a state-appointed entity.
And now, it’s not my kitchen sink that needs a filter. It’s not my children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, cousins, sisters, brothers or otherwise who have been exposed to drinking and bathing in unsafe water. My hometown has not become a synonym for poison in the national media.
Instead, at the end of the day, I get in my car and drive I-75 south back to a community that’s never known the kind of hardship that Flint has continually dealt with. For a long time though, I felt like that was okay. After all, I’ve spent the majority of the day, almost every day, in Flint for the past five years. I’ve seen houses burn and new businesses grow and flourish. I did my best to venture out beyond downtown and meet the people who understand the real history of this city. It’s an often retold-and-spinned tale of how this place came to be, but I did what I could to decipher it. In the end, it felt like that had to be some kind of token I could count towards my badge of honorary Flint-membership.
Each time I met someone who was born and raised here, it felt like I was learning a little more about the fabric of this community. Every story, every new face bringing a new thread to the table and weaving together a fuller picture. I listened. I asked questions. I never once dared to assume I could understand. It seemed like people appreciated that. That, too, had to count for something.
If I had graduated just one semester earlier, I probably still would have felt that way. It isn’t the same now, in the midst of what has been rightfully dubbed the “Flint Water Crisis.” I can no longer claim ownership of this place, even with all my “knowledge” and “cultural competence.” It isn’t out of spite, or fear, that I say I don’t feel a part of this community any longer. I say it out of respect.
How could I now claim to be from Flint, when I’ve never had to buy a case of water to sustain my family for a few days? How could I say I belong when I’m not paying bills for a vital resource I can’t use? I’ve never had to boil my shower on the stove, or fear that someone I love has been irrevocably damaged by what comes out of the tap. So how, in all good conscious, can I claim to be a part of this community?
I can’t. It’s that simple.
I realize now that I am nowhere near as resilient as the people of Flint. For many of us, this place becomes home for a little while, but in the end we’re only visiting. In the coming years as this story develops, as these children grow older and question why their lives have been impacted the way they have, that will be an important distinction to remember.
I stand with Flint. I support these people in their fight for justice. But I also solemnly pledge to never to appropriate their struggle as my own.