Water as a Human Right:

Touro and U of Michigan Team Up in Virtual Town Hall Meeting

October 27, 2016

In order to save money after the Michigan auto industry crisis, the water supply for the city of Flint was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River, which had been found to be highly corrosive. Flint citizens complained that their tap water was foul and discolored, but officials took no action until a local pediatrician demonstrated lead levels two to three times higher in Flint’s children than in children in other parts of the state. Independent experts also tested the drinking water and found lead in the water supply. Residents have been relying on bottled water for cooking and hygiene needs, and fixing the system is estimated to cost 1.5 billion. 

Touro College Graduate School of Social Work students recently partnered with students from the University of Michigan Flint Campus on a Virtual Town Hall meeting on water as a human right. Below is a Q&A with Dr. Jennifer Zelnick, associate professor and chair of the Social Welfare Policy Sequence at Touro, who spearheaded the meeting on Touro's end.

Q:  This is such an important forum, how did it come about?

A: One of our student government leaders, Kneisha Newland, was reading about the crisis and was moved to help. The first question on her mind was--how can we get clean water to these people? That initial question led to others, such as  Flint residents are disproportionately low-income people of color--is there a racial/social class dimension to this crisis? I reached out to the program director at the school of social work in Flint, Dr. Otrude Moyo, to convey our students’ questions, thoughts, and desire to understand. Dr. Moyo put us in touch with faculty members  Todd Womack and Kasie Nickel- and the idea for the virtual Town Hall meeting was born!

Q: Were there any especially memorable moments?

A: For me, the most memorable moment was the description of President Obama’s visit to Flint. Residents, including social work students, said they felt that it was too little too late. It’s an election year, so they said they felt that their city was being used for sound bites and political purposes, while the critical needs of residents were being ignored.

Q: Were there any specific issues discussed from the perspective of social work or what social workers could do? 

A: We discussed what a public health crisis means for those who are vulnerable and already living at the margins, dealing with issues like substance abuse, domestic violence. It’s a huge added stress. Dr. Moyo also described how the community was caught unaware. An organized response was needed, but the community was unprepared. Now, a huge need is to develop a community voice to advocate.

Q: How was the topic of water as a human rights addressed?

A:  This was the basis of our whole discussion. In reference to the release of a report on how and why the Flint water crisis occurred, Lawrence Gostin, a prominent public health lawyer from Georgetown University, noted in a recent JAMA article, “I predict little will be done once memories of Flint fade. Although water is a basic human need, the Flint independent task force found that race and economic status played an outsized role in explaining government neglect.”  We also discussed other countries around the world that are struggling with both safe drinking water, and infrastructure development and how the U.S. shares much in common, despite being such a wealthy country and a world leader.

Q: So what was the outcome? What’s the next step?

A: Some exciting things have already occurred and more are planned. A Touro student, James Hernandez, started a public Facebook page and the students from the Town Hall have stayed in touch, sharing information about social justice and water rights. And we have scheduled a second Town Hall for November 11, and hope to host a larger group of students that may include additional schools around New York, and even internationally.

Q: What will the focus of the next discussion be?

A:  Right now we would like to stay with  the idea of water as a basic human right, and how to understand this from different dimensions. We also want to focus on accountability-- how can we hold government accountable in situations like what happened in Flint. And finally, the idea of responsibility among social workers: how can we turn our commitments into action? It’s a tall order, but the virtual Town Hall was an exciting start!