I remember Oprah saying after she visited Africa that she would never leave the water running again while brushing her teeth. The majority of African countries are still considered developing nations, where potable water access is extremely limited. People in parts of Africa still regularly die from water borne illnesses.
Although it's disturbing, I'd wager that the average American isn't kept up at night by these facts (and it's quite possible that after all these years, Oprah lets her tap run once in a while).
When the Flint, Michigan water crisis hit, I think most of America was dumb-founded. Undrinkable, lead-tainted water poisoning residents in the most super-powered developed nation of them all? That's just crazy talk. But it wasn't. And it's not.
Flint residents were suffering - and continue to suffer -- from the daily consumption of what is considered to be the life force for everything -- water. Rashes, seizures, mystery illnesses -- they have all become a part of "regular" life for Flint residents. There are fears that longer-term effects -- cancer and brain damage -- are inevitable. And daily life is so difficult on the most basic level. Just count how many times a day water is used to get a glimpse at how compromised people are without it.
I felt paralyzed just reading about Flint in the paper. Overwhelmed. Depressed. Enraged. I called our town hall. What could we as a community do? How could we rally around people who were suffering so near our Illinois border? I was told we could donate to UNICEF or any other number of emergency support organizations that were servicing Flint. I don't know if it was because Michigan is a Midwest state, or because I felt tremendous guilt at filling my dogs' water bowl to the brim, but simply sending a check just didn't feel like enough. I wanted to do something.
I managed my frustrations by pointing out every drop spilled, every half-empty glass left sitting out, and of course putting the kibosh on needlessly running sink water. I considered renting a truck to do a small supplies relief drive amongst my friends and heading straight to Flint. But where exactly would I be going? And what exactly would I be doing? Good intentions coupled with my cluelessness didn't get me anywhere. I perseverated. I fretted. I binge watched bad reality T.V.
Late one night, my husband came home with the answer. Like all solutions, this one was printed on neon paper because it's a fact that nothing productive or progressive is ever printed on paper that's white or in pastel hues. It announced that a coalition had been formed through various non-profits in Englewood and they were collecting emergency relief items and heading to Flint to distribute them to the most vulnerable of its residents -- the disabled and the elderly. Englewood, Chicago to the rescue!
Considering the reputation Englewood has in the media as a poor food desert ridden with gangs and violence, the notion of an organized community effort does not fit the narrative, but I have long known a different Englewood -- one of community gardens, committed teachers, concerned residents, determined voices and active hands. My spirits were buoyed by the announcement and I joined in on the shaking of trees for supplies. My husband and my oldest son were offered two spots in the "Flint or Bust" caravan, and after a massive Englewood-organized effort of counting, sorting and bagging, more than 300 care packages were assembled. Volunteers were met on arrival by Flint community leaders and donations were personally distributed with dignity door to door. Received with gratitude, handshakes and hugs, the relief effort was a huge success.
So you don't live in Africa. And you don't live in Flint, or Englewood, or Glencoe for that matter. It's too easy to damn the stranger and celebrate the martyrdom of our own. It's too simple to thank G-d for our luck and pray for the rest. I'd like to think if the residents and leaders in Englewood hadn't organized, that I wouldn't have simply accepted my state of marinating in frustration while watching The Bachelor.
We must all do our part. It's the truth even if it sounds preachy. Sometimes it will mean initiating and other times it will mean following. Always it will mean paying attention to suffering, no matter how far away we'd like to pretend it seems to be.