Beginning a two-day reporting assignment in Flint, Michigan, I was in a Über rushing to a town hall meeting scheduled that evening, and on the phone with a wary resident.
“Who are you? Why are you here? What information do you want to know? And what are you going to do with it?” Sarah Bailey, a local church elder, asked me pointedly.
Caught off guard, my mind raced to figure out how to convince her that I wasn’t the enemy.
“Are you working for the Senate or the House committee on investigation?” she asked.
“Oh! No,” I responded, relieved to get a word in for myself. She peppered me with more questions. As I re-explained my project, she cut me off again.
“Can I just be honest with you?” Bailey asked.
“Yes, of course.”
“No one in Flint right now really wants to trust other people coming in from outside of Flint wanting to know anything until we find out who you are, why you are here, and what it is that you want to know and what it is that you’re going to do with what we tell you,” she said loudly. “We have a community here. We’re not just people in a petri dish for people to come in, grab information from us and then they’re gone.”
I had been waiting for such a response. Wasn’t I just another invader, descending on this town to gather what I could before returning to my easy, privileged life in the Chicago suburbs? Why would residents talk to someone who didn’t even know Flint existed before it was a national headline? What is a journalist without trust on her side? I knew the answer to that one: nothing.
I talked on the phone with Bailey for nearly an hour. After she shared her frustrations, I explained who I was, why I was there and what I wanted to know. She told me what her community had gone through. When we got cut off, she picked up right where she left off. I asked if anyone from the church would speak to me in person the next day. Trust was on the line.
I interviewed seven residents and public officials in Flint. Sometimes, that meant sitting for hours with someone, trying to process the crisis together. They welcomed me into their offices, their homes, their places of worship, their lives. I promised to not hijack their stories like they said others had. We exchanged contact information. Trust was built and maintained with care.
Many people went out of their way to help me. The hotel shuttle driver took me downtown each morning. A random woman walked with me two blocks to help me find a coffee shop. Another Uber driver gave me his cell number after I said it was hard to find cars sometimes. One source drove me to the closest restaurant – and made sure I texted her how the food was.
A 4-year-old boy whose life I was in for a total of 2.5 hours told me he loved me, while his five siblings ran to gather all the toys they wanted to show me. Meanwhile, their parents paused their busy lives to share with me the harsh reality of Flint’s situation, and the pain of knowing that the government had poisoned their children and fundamentally changed their futures. Their mom didn’t have time to cook that night, so dinner was clementines and microwaved hot dogs.
The most powerful thing I took from this reporting trip is that Flint has a heart of gold. For as many empty houses and challenges this community faces, there are as many strong, kind people. The city has limited funding, but they work to improve with what they have. As they drink, bathe, cook and clean from bottled water, they speak of good water as being a privilege. They face social challenges and neglect, but are unwilling to place blame indiscriminately.
What is happening in Flint is a disaster. The people are rightfully angry. Yet, their strength is humbling. This city had one of the nation’s worst public health and humanitarian crises of the century thrust upon it. Still, it made a nosy little outsider like me feel at home.
As Bailey ended her account, she paused to backtrack. She wanted me to know that all the pain she had told me about did not mean her community was down for the count.
“This is a resilient community,” she said. “And we will rise up.”
One of the 23 curse words running through my head escapes its poorly-constructed corral and gallops to my mouth and past my lips.
This year, I’ve been interning for the Marquette College of Communication’s O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism. The first half of the internship was research-heavy, as our team of four interns and O’Brien Fellow Miranda Spivack (a freelance journalist who formerly reported and edited for the Washington Post) combed through every open records and open meetings law in the country. With that done, we’re starting to report.
When I first heard about the government poisoning its citizens in Flint, I couldn’t believe something like it could be happening in America. How does a system that involves so many organizations and has so many safeguards fail to protect those in its care?
I knew my story’s angle could only attempt to answer one facet of this question, but as a (student) journalist, I felt it was my duty to try. So I researched, I pitched, I called big people who represented even bigger ideas. You know, the people who were profiled by the New York Times. The players in a national scandal. I waited and I called again.
Four exams and two papers later, I have made it through midterms week and can finally think only about Flint. I fly out tomorrow (better late than never, or so I tell myself). I survived half the semester and I’m sitting at home afraid to fall asleep for fear that I’ll miss my 8:30 a.m. flight. The fear in my head is loud and screaming. It reminds me of dollars invested in me by my university, phone calls never returned, cities never visited and an adventure unlike any other.
I have never done this before - just dropping into a city to talk to whoever will look my way. Murphy’s Law rattles around my head: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Could I have tried harder to create a more structured trip for myself? Always. Can I go back in time? Never. So my fear and anxiety feeds off the uncontrollable – the person who I can’t force to speak with me, the city I can’t control with my gaze. I am horrified and honored that I’ve been trusted to do this on my own. I just don’t want to fail.
What is it that I’m feeling? Mortified? Pressured? Clueless? Proud?
All those feelings, swirling around, make me wonder why we do this to ourselves. Why do journalists pack their backpacks (one pair of jeans + two shirts = two outfits) and wander into the unknown? Why do we gravitate to where people are hurting and where they have been wronged? Why do we recklessly talk to complete strangers and ask pointed questions on our quest for the truth?
So, if I had to answer the question of why journalists do this, I would guess it is because of those voices in our heads. As scary as the loud ones are, yelling and warning us of failure, we somehow hone in on a quieter one. It whispers in our ear of atrocities and pain, of beauty and curiosity. It pulls us to untold stories. We know we can’t heal or share everything. We know people will criticize us when we try. But the voice tells us that if we don’t venture out, no one else will.
So, tomorrow, I’m venturing out. Here we go.
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