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TWE Interview: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha On Her Fight for Justice Beyond the Flint Water Crisis

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The Women’s Eye contributor Patricia Caso talks to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician and author of “What the Eyes Don’t See–The Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City,” about her fight for justice during the Flint Water Crisis and why she still advocates for change.

TWE Interview: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha On Her Fight for Justice Beyond the Flint Water Crisis

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician and author of “What the Eyes Don’t See–The Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City,”

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, author "What the Eyes Don't See"/Photo: Courtesy Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha/Photo: Hurley Medical Center

By Patricia Caso/September 5th, 2018

What could be more important for communities and children than clean, drinkable water? Pediatrician and Professor Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is known for bringing her research and unrelenting call for change in the lead-poisoned Flint, Michigan water to the nation’s attention.

Lead is a neurotoxin, affecting young children most severely. There is no safe level. To date, 140,000 people have been impacted from the 18-month ordeal.

“This is a story about how all of us, no matter where we are, what we do, or how we came to this country, have the power within us to open our eyes, to be awake to these injustices all around us, to get involved, to be active…” Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

In Dr. Mona’s new book What the Eyes Don’t See–A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City, she writes about how she came to find high levels of lead in her young patients’ blood. With the help of the community, she then courageously confronted  government officials  demanding a change back to healthy water. I caught up with Dr. Mona to learn more about her determination and why she sees that her advocacy is just beginning… 

EYE: You’ve been described as a “whistleblower,” “global hero” and “courageous truth teller.” How do you see yourself?

DR. MONA: I’m doing my job. I’m a pediatrician, a mom. This is what I hope everyone would be doing in my situation. I literally took an oath to protect kids, but I would challenge people that we all took an oath to protect kids.

No matter who you are or what you do, it is all of our duty. There is nothing special about me. This is what we should all be doing.

EYE: How did you summon the resourcefulness to keep the pressure on to get Flint what it needed after officials publicly dismissed your findings, personally demeaned you and questioned your credentials?

"What the Eyes Don't See" book by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha/photo: Courtesy Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha/One WorldDR. MONA: At some point, I believed them. I believed the data. I thought I was wrong. I almost regretted doing what I did. Why didn’t I just stick with minding my own business and doing my job as a pediatrician? I just wanted to hide under my sheets. That lasted for about ten or fifteen minutes.

Inside me grew this resolve that this had nothing to do with me. They could keep attacking me for as long as they wanted, but this had everything to do with the children that I have been charged to protect.

I literally took an oath to protect kids. The numbers in my research were statistics; they were facts but more than anything every number was a child. Every number was a child that I had probably cared for within the last year or so.

So, that’s what got me back into this fight. It was the kids. It was a fight for the future that ultimately lives and grows inside our children.

EYE: Even though you ended up at the center of the outrage, you weren’t alone.

DR.MONA: It’s about a team, a village of support. So many times, we think we are alone in these fights. Even myself, I thought in my world of pediatrics that we have a monopoly on caring for children; who else cares more about kids than pediatricians? I was wrong, totally wrong.

It took the partnership with a water expert, journalists, moms and activists, all different kinds of folks who came together and had each other’s backs and fighting for the same thing, and they stood right next to me.

EYE: Eighteen months after the water switch and your activism, Flint went back to its original water source. How is the Flint water now?

DR. MONA: The Flint water has dramatically improved. However, in the 18 months that we were on this untreated corrosive water, it ate up our pipes and infrastructure. We are in the process of replacing our lead pipes.

Over 6,000 pipes have been replaced, but there are 9,000 to go. Because of that infrastructure work, because of that earth-moving work, people still need to use filters and bottled water.

That work disrupts the lead underneath and can potentially increase risk. It’s a good thing that they are doing this infrastructure work, but people still need to take precautions.

Michigan State University

EYE: What is left to do?

DR. MONA: There is no magic cure, no antidote for this crisis. This crisis is so much more than just about lead. It was an added toxicity to a population already riddled from so many toxicities from poverty, violence, discrimination and lack of nutrition.

All these impact children. It will be resilience and science-based interventions that will mitigate the impact of this crisis and promote children’s development.

These are not one-time fixes. These are long-term work. What we’ve built in Flint is a model public health program. It is improving the trajectory of our children.

LOOK AT SOME OF WHAT WE ARE WORKING ON:

    1. Expanding home visiting programs
    2. Near universal pre-school
    3. Childcare centers with mindfulness in schools
    4. Massive literacy work
    5. Play structures
    6. Parenting support for nutrition education
    7. Trauma care
    8. Family engagement
    9. Mobile grocery stores
    10. Medicaid expansion

This is work that needs to be funded and supported for years, if not decades.

EYE: You say Flint’s story is bigger than Flint?

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha at Book Passage 7/18/Photo: P. Burke

Dr. Mona on her book tour at Book Passage, Corte Madera, CA/Photo: P. Burke

DR.MONA: Yes. Absolutely. It is a story about communities all over that are suffering from very similar crises be it a lack of democracy because of voter disenfranchisement or gerrymandering or mass incarceration. It is about environmental injustice.

Flint is certainly not the first place where a community of color or a poor community disproportionately gets impacted by the burden of environmental contamination. It is about a breakdown of our infrastructure due to austerity and inequity.

Fundamentally this is a story about our deep obligation and our civic responsibility to care and provide for each other. These are today’s stories.

This is a story about how all of us, no matter where we are, what we do, or how we came to this country have the power within us to open our eyes.  We can be awake to these injustices all around us, get involved, be active and make a difference especially for the most vulnerable, our children.

EYE: What advice can you give individuals and communities from your Flint experience?

DR.MONA: There are many lessons, importantly, for building a team. It is building a village of folks that may look like a rag-tag team, maybe not look like you or similar professions. The diversity elevates your voice and mission. Also, science speaks truth to power. We are very much in this climate that is in science denial, fact denial.

Ultimately it was evidence that felled the Michigan house of cards. I knew when I was doing this work that I needed data in my pocket. Flint is a story where the community collaborated with academia to improve the situation.

It is also the realization that you are powerful, that you have a voice. A lot of that power comes from your voice at the ballot box. So, vote!

EYE: Looking back, what was the most shocking part of this crisis to you?

DR. MONA: This whole crisis was driven by efforts to save money, to strip the power of government with no regard for public health or public welfare. Just a few months into the water switch, General Motors, which was born in Flint, stopped using the water because it was corroding engine parts. They got a free pass to go back to Great Lakes water.

If that was happening to engine parts, what was it doing to people, the infrastructure? The criminality, the cover up, the denial and dismissal of citizen’s complaints were shocking. They died from Legionnaire’s disease because of the water. What happened to that professional responsibility and obligation? If we cannot take care of each other and our neighbor with the most fundamental basic human right, water, then who are we as a society?

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha at Book Passage/Photo: P. Burke

Photo: P. Burke

EYE: Please explain the meaning of your title, What the Eyes Don’t See, and what you hope readers take away from your book?

DR. MONA: The title is very literal. We do not see lead in water. It is invisible, colorless and odorless. We also do not see the impact of lead. It is known as the silent pediatric epidemic. It is not something that is acutely present. In a bigger picture, the title is about people; it’s about places and problems we choose not to see in Flint and beyond.

It is a rallying cry that we all need to open our eyes and each other’s eyes to these problems and act upon them. I hope people get that this is about way more than Flint. It is fundamentally about deeper crises in our nation. It is also about how we all have the responsibility to act upon these issues, to be resisters. We have to take care of each other.

EYE: As a professor teaching new pediatricians as well as a practicing pediatrician, has your mission changed as a result of this crisis?

DR.MONA: Absolutely not. I was trained as a pediatrician, and I train my students and residents that it is your job to be an advocate. It is literally part of our responsibility, moral and ethical obligation, to use our very credible voices in our community to speak up for children. We are clinicians, educators, researchers and we are advocates.

Kids can’t vote. It’s our duty to advocate for gun control, immunization and other protections. I love the part that the role of advocacy plays in our profession. I was reminded of that in this crisis and in the recent situation of child separations at the border.

Pediatricians were the most vocal speaking up for children. These are all our children. What is happening has the potential to leave life-long scars.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha in classromm, author "What the Eyes Don't See"/Photo: Courtesy Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

School photo/Courtesy of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

EYE: What has this experience meant for you?

DR. MONA: Writing the book was a very reflective process. I think I’ve grown in many ways. I’ve also tried to remain as grounded as possible. Right now, I am in Flint in my office, still going to Clinic, still doing what I’m doing. I recognize the privilege I have with this microphone that I’ve been given to advocate for children.

I am going to hold on to this microphone as long as possible to advocate for Flint kids and for kids all over the country who are suffering from the same toxicities: poverty, violence, racism, unemployment and hopelessness.

Those all impact children’s development. I am going to continue doing this for as long as I can, knowing that our work here is really just beginning.

EYE: Have you always been activist-minded, even before this crisis?

DR. MONA: I think so. In high school, I was protesting environmental issues regarding a local incinerator. There’s a long family history of activism and fighting for social justice. My great uncle fought in the Spanish Civil War against Franco and the Fascists.

It’s always been instilled in me to be a fighter for justice, no matter where I am. That’s why this book is so much more than about Flint. It’s my memoir, an immigrant story, which has to be included because that is the lens I see the world. 

Every day, I am grateful to be part of this country, but I also acutely know what injustice can be for vulnerable populations. It is that perspective that set me on a path to medicine, to service.

EYE: I read your book is becoming a movie?

DR. MONA: It is true. Before the book was even written, it was optioned for a movie. I know they are working on scripts but I really don’t know where they are in the process. If it happens, I hope it would inspire young girls, especially in science, to use their brains, to use their voices. The future opportunities are in their hands.

Dr, Mona Hanna-Attisha, author "What the Eyes Don't See"/Photo: Mike Naddeo

EYE: Would you consider running for office?

DR. MONA: I get asked that a lot. Not at this time. Our work is just beginning and that is my absolute focus right now.

EYE: Dr. Mona is certainly a hero and changemaker not only for our time but the future.  Some of the proceeds from What the Eyes Don’t See go to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint.

We wish you success as you continue to mitigate the consequences of the poisoned water. Thank you for your time!

TWITTER: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

FACEBOOK: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

PUBLISHER: Random House

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