In large-scale crises, scores of well-intended individuals and organizations often flock to disaster areas to lend a hand to those in need. These groups often come equipped with ready-made short-term solutions to what are typically broad, systemic problems.
But gaining understanding of the problem from those experiencing it is vital to improving the situation. In the rush to find answers and “help” amidst great uncertainty, the voices of those affected can be lost in the chaos.
Michigan State University (MSU) researchers found this to be the case during the Flint water crisis. To provide immediate assistance, thousands descended upon the city with bottled water and other supplies. At a deeper level, however, the situation from the perspectives of Flint residents was not fully understood.
Primarily through the MSU Office of Outreach and Engagement, the university has longstanding relationships throughout Flint with organizations such as the Community Foundation of Greater Flint (CFGF).
Artina Sadler, the food system navigator and program manager with the CFGF, had taken part in participatory modeling work at MSU through events such as the Innovations in Collaborative Modeling Conference. Participatory modeling is a computational approach that brings together various perspectives on major health and environmental issues to solve complex problems.
After learning more about participatory modeling, Sadler and the CFGF invited an MSU team to work in the city. MSU would bring the modeling expertise, and the CFGF would organize four workshops in distinct areas of Flint and one citywide meeting for a project dubbed Voices of Flint.
During the spring and summer of 2016, Flint residents were invited to attend various sessions to speak about their experiences. More than 60 participated, filled out surveys and collaboratively represented the complex dynamics of the issues, primarily identifying the causes, consequences and potential solutions to the crisis.
“It was extremely important that we frame this work as an exercise in listening,” said Steven Gray, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Community Sustainability. “We came into an emotionally charged situation, and we needed to respect that. The people of Flint were, and still are, dealing with traumatic circumstances.”
Sadler understood that trust between residents and the government at all levels was broken. They needed a way to communicate the community perspective to those in charge of the response and help bridge the gap to influence policy.
“MSU came into the situation as an outside observer who could look at the problem from a systemic viewpoint,” Sadler said. “It’s difficult to create change in government and policy with anecdotal feedback from just a few residents. But when we use participatory modeling to compile dozens of similar experiences, we have something to work with.”
After the workshops, researchers and community members collaborated to ensure the accuracy of the information. Using a participatory modeling software developed by Gray called Mental Modeler, the team published a research summary in December 2016.
The report showed that residents felt they have the least amount of power to effect change, and that governmental institutions don’t have their best interests in mind. Because of this mistrust, community members anticipated that recovery efforts would be more complicated and that some potential solutions would cause more harm and conflict than good.
Though those surveyed believe that infrastructural problems such as deteriorated pipes contributed to the water crisis, they conveyed that years of negligence, marginalization, loss of decision-making control and Flint’s depressed economy were the main factors in getting to that point.
Lead exposure was the primary health worry, but other physical and emotional consequences were expressed, including daily stress, uncertainty and fear of long-term health risks. Residents concluded that many of these issues would not be adequately addressed by simply enacting a “fix-the-pipes” approach.
The community had several ideas for solutions, ranging in time frame from short-term to indefinite. Replacing pipes and installing whole-house water filters in homes were foremost on their minds, but residents also expressed the desire to hire local contractors. Community members viewed keeping recovery funds in Flint as an opportunity to gain autonomy, improve the city’s tax base and stop the flow of jobs out of the city.
“The main goal of this project was to hear what the community understood the problem to be, what they believe caused it, and how they think it can be mitigated moving forward,” Gray said. “The residents’ feedback was tremendous, and their suggestions helped us create a report that community groups and residents could reference when talking about policies that address their concerns.”
Sadler said that keeping residents engaged throughout the project engendered trust and provided a safe forum for them to discuss the topics important to them.
“This was really a model in how you do community participation research,” Sadler said. “We were able to use the relationships we had in the community, and MSU brought a unique and credible process. The compassion that was shown in making sure to get it right by truly representing Flint’s people was amazing. The work we’ve done will hopefully last long into the future and inform the necessary steps toward progress.”