Local Partnerships Empowering Youth and Community to Learn About their Water
In the wake of the water crisis that began in 2014 and exposed tens of thousands to toxic lead levels, many Flint, MI residents were left not knowing who to trust about the safety of their water. In 2018, two organizations, Flint Development Center, a community center located in a former elementary school, and Freshwater Future, an established organization dedicated to the protection of the Great Lakes, stepped up to address this challenge of trust. The organizations created the Flint Community Lab. The Lab began as a summer pilot program with 15 teens and aimed to both inspire local youths to get involved in their city’s water issues, and to provide accurate information to residents about the water that serves them. Because of its unique strategy of engaging youth to address one of the most high-profile water issues in America, the Flint Community Lab has earned the US Water Prize for Cross Sector Partnership.
During the 2018 pilot, the teens collected 160 tap water samples from 60 homes over the course of six weeks. Those samples were then analyzed by the University of Michigan Biological Station. The teens shared the testing results with residents, provided information about health issues associated with lead exposure, and showed residents how to properly install filters to help restore their confidence in tap water. The youth proved to be trusted messengers in the community and participants in the program expressed that it was rewarding to see the impact of their work. Daryl Sparks, one of the teens involved said, “My favorite part was seeing people change their minds after we told them what we were all about. People were excited and happy about the work we were doing, and that made me want to continue doing this.”
Flint has now replaced thousands of lead service lines, and the city’s overall water system now meets the federal standard for lead and copper. However, with skepticism about Flint’s water lingering, the importance of the Flint Community Lab is greater than ever, and it is growing to meet the challenge. In early 2020, the Lab put in place its own testing facility within the Flint Development building and has set a goal of conducting at least 7,000 water tests in Flint and developing water safety plans for 200 families. The program is proving to be a gateway that can lead to careers in the water sector for the teens involved.
With its impact on both water issues and the youth of the community, the Flint Community Lab exemplifies the broad-based impact that cross-sector partnerships can have across America. Watch our video abou the Flint Community Lab below.