Catching up with Dr. Karen Weaver, former mayor of Flint, Michigan
If you’ve already read my book “Find Your Fire: Stories and Strategies to Inspire the Changemaker Inside You,” you’ve met Dr. Karen Weaver, the former mayor of Flint, Michigan, and one of the most inspiring #Firestarters I know. In honor of International Women’s History Month, I felt called to give you an update on Karen’s story. And we all know that Karen is a history maker. (So were her parents, which you can read more about in my book.) But I also kept thinking about something Karen said during our interview for “Find Your Fire”:
Flint is happening not just in Flint.
Those words echo in my mind when I read about the environmental disaster caused by the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, or the ongoing water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi. And I definitely recalled them when my own city of Austin struggled to restore power after an ice storm earlier this year (just a couple of years after another winter storm led to widespread extended power and water outages here).
I caught up with Karen via Zoom recently to talk about her continuing evolution as a #Firestarter, what’s going on with the Flint water crisis and how we can do more to make our communities healthy and safe places for all.
Not Slowing Down
While Karen has been out of office since 2019, her schedule is still full. She continues to put to use everything she learned in Flint to help other communities. In fact, she will be visiting Jackson soon to talk about that city’s water crisis and its mental health impacts.
Karen has served as interim executive director of the African American Mayors Organization (a group I am also passionate about supporting) and been involved with the Mayors Innovation Project. She’s been able to pour more time and energy into the Karen Williams Weaver (KWW) Foundation and its projects, including co-hosting a radio show for a year. One of her foundation’s priorities is “making sure communities are informed and educated about issues that matter and make a difference in their day-to-day living.”
While the Flint water crisis has fallen out of the headlines for those of us in the rest of the country, it’s still very much a part of daily life in the city, Karen says.
“I’m disappointed about where we are right now,” Karen says candidly. Work to replace lead water service lines is still ongoing. “There are still people who don’t have access to clean water. We’ve had some bad readings with our water when it’s being tested.”
Charges have been dropped against people who had been implicated in the water crisis. Payments from the settlement fund have been delayed. The city is also grappling with the long-term effects of lead exposure, such as increased need for things like special education in schools and mental health services.
“All of those things we talked about and knew we would see a negative impact — we’re seeing it now,” she says.
That’s a lot of cumulative stress on a community. And, as Karen points out, that stress didn’t start or end with the water crisis. Flint had already suffered economically when General Motors scaled back its operations there, costing the city tens of thousands of jobs. In recent years, Flint has had to deal with the effects Covid-19 pandemic on a population whose health was already compromised by the water crisis.
“We have a traumatized community,” she says. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘You can just walk around and feel the anger, the depression, the anxiety in Flint because these things have not been addressed.’”
However, she maintains hope, and tries to spread it to others. “When you’re going through these things, how can you continue to give people hope and make them part of the healing solution?”
Using Your Voice
Talking with Karen always reminds me of the power we all have to drive change in our communities. I think we’ve all learned over the past few years that life can be upended anywhere by environmental or human-created disasters. In other words, no one is safe from a crisis. But we don’t have to wait for a crisis to take action. Use your voice to speak up for preparedness. A community that has access to healthy food, physical and mental healthcare, safe public gathering spaces and accurate information will be much more resilient. Yes, those things should be basic human rights. But, as Karen points out, they are things that Flint and other communities have had to fight for.
“If you have those things in place, they protect you more,” Karen says. “And they lessen the negative impact of what you are going through.”
Whatever your community concerns are, take them to your elected officials, she says. Show up at city council or county commission meetings. Even better? Bring other people who feel the same way along with you. “There’s power in numbers,” Karen says. “You can show up. You can demand things. And you can question. And that’s what we should be doing.”
As Karen talked about in “Find Your Fire,” one of her most ardent wishes is for the rest of us to learn from the disaster in Flint. “There’s always an opportunity as a result of a crisis,” she says.
One part of learning from the Flint tragedy means educating ourselves about environmental racism. You might discover injustice happening in your own community — and an opportunity to start your own movement for change.
I’ll leave you with some powerful words from Karen in “Find Your Fire.” If anything, they’re even more true today:
Don’t ever let people say you don’t have power, because that was what they told me. And I said, “My voice is my power.” That’s true for you, too.
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