By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern
Water You Fighting For activist, Melissa Mays, is not a stranger to standing up and speaking out. Nicknamed “Champion of the Underdog” at a young age, she always protected and helped the “little guy” succeed. She was working as a financial planner when her job transferred to Flint, Michigan. At the time, General Motors was cutting back benefits for retirees, and Mays would help people in retiring comfortably. Later, she went into music promotions and marketing, specifically for metal bands.
Flint, MI was struggling financially, and the head of MI at the time, Governor Snyder, put the emergency manager law in effect. He appointed an unelected emergency manager that had the power to veto all local government. In reality, Mays says this was a guise to privatize all of Flint’s assets which in effect began cutting multiple revenue streams. What prevented Flint from going bankrupt was the water crisis.
In 2014, the decision was made to switch the city’s water supply to the Flint River though residents knew to not fish or even go there. For decades, industry had been dumping waste into the river. The government did not test the water and went against locals’ wishes and switched the water supply. Mays said she was naive in thinking that the government would never give people something that was bad. Then, some residents began reporting brown and orange water running in their homes. This was as a result of Flint River water being 19 times more corrosive. The government would try to ease people’s minds by telling them that these houses with brown and orange water were just isolated incidents as a result of old pipes and such. Mays called these people lucky. Because their water had an odd color, they knew to immediately stop using it. Everyone else’s clear, normal looking water kept being used. Unfortunately, residents did not realize water could still be contaminated even without obvious odors or taste. Additionally, Flint residents’ water bills increased tremendously. Those in Flint paid in one month what residents in other nearby towns paid in 3 months.
Residents began talking to each other about odd things happening to their bodies like rashes. In September of 2014, Mays’ son got pneumonia, or Legionnaires, because of legionella in their plumbing. Mays also developed a respiratory infection that did not subside for 3 months. Her hair started falling out and her muscles and bones began aching.
In January of 2016, residents received a letter that stated for the past nine months their water had been contaminated with cancer causing byproducts total trihalomethanes (TTHMs). Again, residents were assured that they were most likely fine but to consult with their doctor about the water. This time, Mays went to Google to search for more information and came across Lois Gibbs and Stephen Lester of CHEJ. They provided her with information about TTHMs, and Mays realized residents were being lied to. The government was also using outdated data to justify the water’s safety. Mays knew she had to do something.
Since Mays was a promoter, and her husband was a graphic artist, they created Water You Fighting For in January of 2015. The organization started as a website portal for information because she wanted residents to be informed about the lies and issues. To further spread the word, Mays spent her tax money making door hangers to put on people’s front doors. They had a protest, and Mays conducted a “bootleg” epidemiological study by asking residents about any symptoms they may have had and where they were located to create a map. She figured that if people were informed and enough information was gathered, the government would see what is wrong and fix things. Mays found out that this was not the case.
Things then snowballed. They gained a lot of media attention but then it dissipated, though the crisis was and is still ongoing. Mays said that she does not like being lied to, and does not like that she, her kids, and Flint residents were hurt. Mays has had to deal with trauma from the consequences of speaking up. Her break lines have been cut, and she has been followed and threatened. That does not stop her, though. She knows this is what she is meant to do.
In 2015, with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU), a lawsuit was filed and then settled in 2017 to force the city and state to replace all lead and galvanized steel service lines. This is still in progress. Mays stated that the settlement was not enough, but it was a start.
People have asked Mays why she does not relocate and she says that 1) she did not do this, 2) if she leaves, they win, and 3) she does not know anywhere else she would go. Mays has testified before Congress, and traveled across the nation to organize other groups fighting for a clean environment. She believes the most important thing is to build a community that unites against racial, economic, and geographical lines. That is what public officials most fear. As for Mays and Flint fighters, she says that they are going to continue what they do best – getting in the face of elected officials and pushing for laws.
“We’re not victims, we were victimized. We’re not victims, we’re fighters, and we’re not gonna give up until they replace every piece of damaged infrastructure or pay for it.”