The Lack of Environmental Justices in Detroit and Flint, MI

By Christina Spires

CatlinSpeak (Portland, Oregon)

Barbara Thompson, a sixty-seven year old school teacher retiree, resides in suburbs of Flint, MI., just outside of downtown. As a retiree, she receives social security to provide for herself,  but also is an emergency substitute for the high school she used to work at. Unfortunately, Thompson’s home has been struck by the current water crisis in Flint, and she suffers from headaches, memory loss and high blood pressure. Although these are all symptoms of old age, Thompson leads a very healthy lifestyle, leading to the conclusion that it is the water. Thompson wants to move to a neighborhood with a better tap water system, but because she only has social security as means for support, she cannot afford to live elsewhere in Michigan, keeping her bound to the suffering due to poor water quality in Flint.

Similar to Thompson, thousands of other people in Flint are experiencing the the injustice of not having access to clean water, which should be a basic human right. Despite the quality of water, homeowners are still paying water bills, putting a dent in the livelihoods of those residing in Flint.

Despite the impact of the Water Crisis, Flint is a city that had been suffering for years, especially as the auto industry began to decline.

Another Michigan city affected by the fall of the Auto Industry and environmental injustice is none other than the city of Detroit.

Victoria Green is a 5th grade student at the Spain Elementary-Middle School in the heart of Detroit. As an Elementary student, whether she is learning long division or reading, she spends her entire day learning in one classroom. Her classroom is amongst the many throughout the school suffering from leaking pipes from the bathrooms and black mold on the walls. When she isn’t in class, she likes to run with her friends, which she now does in the hallways due to buckled flooring and fungus in the gym, and gas vents polluting the air in the playground.

Due to the poor maintenance of the school facilities, Green is constantly gets sick, with multiple headaches and trouble breathing, inhibiting her mother to go to work at her minimum wage job.

These symptoms are not only affecting students in schools across the city of Detroit, but the teachers as well.

“The odorous smell of mold and mildew hits you like a brick wall when you step through the front doors,” writes Lakia Wilson, a counselor at Spain Elementary-Middle School, in the PBS NewsHour Teachers’ Lounge Blog.

When Wilson began working at Spain Elementary-Middle School, she recalls being overjoyed by the quality of the facilities and the education the students were receiving. 19 years later, she describes the school she once loved as “the poster child for neglect and indifference to a quality teaching and learning environment.”

Because these conditions are so extreme, teachers from ninety out of the hundred schools within the DPS are on strike. According to the Washington Post, it is illegal for teachers to strike, but to combat this, these hundreds of teachers are calling in sick to get around this law.

Detroit and Flint are among the poorest cities in the United States, with 40 percent of persons below the poverty level and household incomes of $25,000 a year, according to the Census Bureau. In addition this low income, less than 15 percent of residents with a high school diploma or a GED have a Bachelor’s degree, and no experience in higher education. Unfortunately, these shocking numbers correlate with the racial demographics of the two cities. In these cities, the black population makes up over half of the city’s population, with Detroit at 82.7 percent and Flint at 56.6 percent.

Among one of the richer neighborhoods in Michigan is Beverly Hills. Although the population of Beverly Hills is drastically smaller than these major cities, the median income of Beverly Hills residents are four times that of a Detroit resident at $106,847. The major differences between these demographics are that  68.2 percent of Beverly Hills residents have a Bachelor’s degree, proof of more success and a larger generated income. The poverty level is 2.5 percent, which is significantly different from Flint’s 41.5 percent. Along with this information 90 percent of the population is White, whereas Blacks make up only 6.6 percent.

Although Detroit and Flint are on opposite sides of the spectrum from Beverly Hills, there are substantial differences between the two cities and statewide demographics. These differences are seen most dramatically in the median household income of $48,411, and the persons below poverty level of 16.8 percent.

From these demographics, it is obvious that Detroit and Flint are being neglected by the state and multiple forms of Environmental injustice.

According to Organizing People/Activating Leaders’ (OPAL) Principles of Environmental Justice, public policy should “be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples, free from any form of discrimination or bias.”

Along with this, one principle explicitly writes, “Environmental justice calls for universal protection from nuclear testing, extraction, production and disposal of toxic/hazardous wastes and poisons and nuclear testing that threaten the fundamental right to clean air, land, water and food,” a principle violated in the Flint water crisis.

In relation to Detroit teachers, one principle states that “Environmental justice affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment, without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment,” explaining the rights of the teachers to leave the schools for the sake of their health.

From these principles, it is obvious that the state of Michigan has infringed on the principles of Environmental justice, putting both Detroit and Flint at risk.

Although the magnitude of these problems are extreme, action is now being taken to better the lives of the suffering residents.

Flint has received major assistance from Obama as he provided the city with over $80,000,000 in aid, along with $367,000 from rock band Pearl Jam. With help from the American Red Cross and outside donations, residents of Flint also have access to clean, bottled water.

In Detroit, the “Sick-out” rallies held by teachers have proven successful in gaining nationwide attention, resulting in district-wide investigations and corrections, according to the Detroit Free Press.

“I’m sorry most of all that I let you down,” apologizes Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in a state address in response to the recent hardships in Detroit and Flint. “You deserve better. You deserve accountability. You deserve to know the buck stops here with me,” looking to the future of equality and Environmental Justice with optimism.

Image Credit: NBC News

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (

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