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Flint whistleblower’s book selected as ‘Great Michigan Read’

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The phrase “nevertheless she persisted” could have been written with Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha in mind. Hanna-Attisha is the Flint pediatrician who with the help of friends, researchers and parents, proved there had been lead in the city's tap water since 2014 — when local government officials switched the source of the drinking water. 

April 25, five years after the switchover, the Michigan Humanities Council announced that Hanna-Attisha’s memoir, “What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City,” was selected as the 2019-2020 Great Michigan Read. 

During those subsequent five years, the residents of Flint were forced to go through a post-apocalyptic lifestyle. Residents could only drink and bathe with bottled water, while their children were at high risk for long-term health and behavioral problems. According to The Flint Journal, although officials say the water is safe to drink now, residents are still drinking bottled water due to lack of trust. 

While researching water problems, Hanna-Attisha faced relentless opposition from federal, state and local officials who began to circle the wagons to protect their assets. Despite the brutal backlash and possible cover-up — according to The Associated Press Friday, new documents were discovered in the basement of a state building — 15 government officials were charged with formal liability, including Nick Lyons, the state director of the Department of Health and Human Services. 

The book details not only the period of time surrounding the water crisis but also Hanna-Attisha’s early life as the daughter of an immigrant family living in suburban Detroit. 

It is not the first accolade the book or its author have received. The states of Vermont and Rhode Island have chosen it for their state reading program and the doctor-author was listed in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. The New York Times selected the book as one of its 100 Notable Books of 2018 and it was also picked as a 2019 Michigan Notable Book.

Following the revelations, Hanna-Attisha was recruited by several major universities, but she chose to stay in her position as the coordinator of MSU’s Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Health Initiative in Flint. 

Shelly Hendrick Kasprzycki, president and CEO of the Michigan Humanities Council, said the book was selected by six regional committees for its quality and important message of environmental injustice. 

“It speaks to the power of a lone voice, of persistence and the importance of the humanities,” she said.

Shannon Polk, a Michigan Humanities board member, was born and raised in Flint. She has seen firsthand the havoc and injustice the poisoning of the city’s water has caused to its residents. 

She said during the Flint water crisis, she was fixing a meal for her grandmother and inadvertently used tap water in the preparation. 

“When I realized what I had done I had to throw it all out and start over again,” she said. 

In her role as associate pastor of Flint’s Riverside Tabernacle Church, Polk helped run the church’s pantry — which serves 800 people a week — and helped provide free water to its members. 

Polk said Flint’s crisis is an example of systemic and institutional bias in society.

“We see a problem like poverty and we look away,” Polk said. “For so many people, Flint’s Water Crisis was ‘not my issue.’”  

She used Hanna-Attisha as an example of someone who could have ignored the problem from her station of privilege but instead used her privilege to evoke change. She added that the Great Michigan Read program will help emphasize that clean drinking water is everyone’s problem.

“You may not have lived in Flint, but it’s likely you know people who worked or worshipped in Flint or had friends or relatives who lived in Flint,” she said. 

Polk believes the Great Michigan Read program has the power to “help create a sense of community and assure we don’t repeat all this again.”  

As part of the Michigan Humanities Initiative, more than 12,000 copies of “What the Eyes Don’t See” will be distributed free to “partners,” including schools, libraries, colleges and even local book clubs. Those wanting to be partners must register online. Hanna-Attisha will tour the state promoting the program beginning in September.

Great Michigan Read Michigan Humanities Council

119 Pere Marquette Drive,

Suite 3B, Lansing, MI

(517) 372-7770

Register as a partner at,

michiganhumanities.org

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