Vision for Flint: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha's “What the Eyes Don’t See” tracks the city's public health crisis
While it’s easy to see the Flint water crisis as a story of government failing the people it’s supposed to serve, it’s a lot more than that. It’s also the story of a resilient community, the determined people who live there, and the activists who helped bring the situation to light.
Those stories meet in the work of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center. She played a pivotal role in the crisis, conducting research and publicizing results that showed how lead levels rose alarmingly in Flint children after the city switched its water source.
Now “Dr. Mona” has published a book about her experience, What the Eyes Don’t See. She will discuss the book at Rackham Auditorium with Chris Kolb of the Michigan Environmental Council, an event sponsored by Literati Bookstore and the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability, where Hanna-Attisha earned her bachelor’s degree (under its earlier name, the School for Natural Resources and the Environment).
“I never set out to write a book in my career,” Hanna-Attisha said in a recent phone interview. “It’s not about Flint, it’s about who we are and who we want to be.”
She’s excited about returning to speak in Ann Arbor, where she also earned a master’s of public health from U-M in addition to her MD from Michigan State.
“My time in that city was foundational,” she said, noting that Ann Arbor helped instill an appreciation for activism and the concept of service learning. “When I was a student there, everybody kept telling me, ‘You can change the world.’ I believe that, and I hope that I can share that same message with students -- to remain altruistic and continue to believe in service.”
In the book, she notes that iconic SNRE Professor Bunyan Bryant was an early mentor who introduced her to the then-novel concept of environmental justice -- the way pollution can be harder on people of color and lower-income areas.
“I was so fortunate, so blessed, and so privileged to have learned about that from one of the giants in the field,” she said, adding that Professor Paul Mohai was another important influence. “Having that foundation and that knowledge stayed with me throughout, stayed with me as a physician, and definitely was part of my work in Flint.”
The title of the book is adapted from a D.H. Lawrence quote, and it becomes a theme throughout the book: The eyes don’t see what the mind doesn’t know.
“It’s all about people, places, and problems that we choose to tune out, that we choose to close our eyes to,” Hanna-Attisha said. “The point of this story is: Just because it’s complicated and makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t mean that we should ignore it.”
The book reads like a well-written thriller novel, as Hanna-Attisha and others work to understand the scope of the Flint water problem, to draw attention to it, and ultimately to resolve it. She candidly points out “villains” in the story -- both specific government officials and larger, systemic issues.
“The real villains are the ongoing effects of racism, inequality, greed, anti-intellectualism, and even laissez-faire neoliberal capitalism. These are powerful forces most of us don’t notice, and don’t want to. These villains poisoned Flint with policy -- with decisions that were driven by lack of hope in government.” -- from the introduction to What the Eyes Don’t See
“If I had to locate an exact cause of the crisis, above all others, it would be the ideology of extreme austerity and ‘all government is bad government,’” Hanna-Attisha said. “The state of Michigan didn’t need less government; it needed more and better government, responsible and effective government.”
The author fleshes out the core story of the Flint water crisis with lots of interesting detail about how her heritage and family culture shaped her personality and taught the value of fighting the good fight.
“The story’s not about one person, it’s about a team. It’s about finding your village and finding your team and recognizing that you’re never really alone in these fights,” she said.
The state’s higher education community played, and continues to play, key parts in addressing the issues in Flint. MSU supported Hanna-Attisha’s efforts throughout the crisis and helped launch a model public health program as a result. The University of Michigan has also assisted with both direct assistance and research.
“Ultimately it was academia that spoke truth to power” in Flint, Hanna-Attisha noted. “One of the lessons is that academia needs to come out of the classrooms and exam rooms and be more in partnership with the communities we’re trying to serve.”
The most important thing she hopes people take away: “Flint’s not isolated. We have these kinds of crises all over. We just close our eyes to injustices, no matter where they may be. But we all have the power within us to open our eyes and to open each other’s eyes. It’s not enough to be awake and alert, but we have to act upon these issues. We should never be content with the status quo; we really can change that and should change that, especially for our most vulnerable population.”
For those who want to help the situation in Flint, Hanna-Attisha suggests donating to Flintkids.org, a child health and development effort that funds literacy, breastfeeding support, home visiting programs, and more. A portion of the proceeds from book sales goes to the fund.
And for those who want to help in other ways, Hanna-Attisha says, simply get involved. “There are issues and injustices everywhere, including Ann Arbor. You just have to find something that you’re passionate about. Is it immigration? Is it early literacy? And devote yourself to those causes.
“I certainly wasn’t the most important piece of the Flint puzzle. I was just the last piece. The state wouldn’t stop lying until somebody came along to prove that real harm was being done to kids. Then the house of cards fell.”
Bob Needham is a freelance writer and the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com.
Mona Hanna-Attisha will speak at Rackham Auditorium, 915. E. Washington St., at 7 pm on Wednesday, Sept. 12, in a joint conversation with Chris Kolb, president of the Michigan Environmental Council. Tickets are required but are free; more information here. The event is sponsored by Literati Bookstore and the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability.