By Brian Rock. Brian is a social studies teacher at East Orange Campus High School in East Orange, New Jersey. He is the Vice President of the East Orange Education Association, and he serves on the New Jersey Education Association’s Congressional Contact Committee. He is also a member of the Urban League of Essex County Young Professionals.
You walk the streets at night and something might happen, but you’ll probably be ok. If you drink the water, you know that’ll mess you up forever.
That’s how a teenager from Flint responded when we asked the group, “Do you feel safer walking the streets of Flint or drinking the water?”
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I was in a room with a group of teenagers from the local Boys and Girls Club and volunteers from the National Urban League Young Professionals. We were facilitating a “Take a Stand” activity to prompt the kids to discuss their feelings about the water crisis. We read out statements or questions, and the young people moved to one side of the room or the other based on their answer. Then, they explained their choices and we listened.
We were in Flint as part of a National Urban League day of service. We wanted to do something to help the community, so we reached out to people on the ground to see what they needed. Instead of collecting donations or money, they said, “Send us your people.”
And so we came. Along with three other members from the Essex County chapter, I drove out Thursday night and arrived tired and bleary eyed Friday morning, ready to serve. We joined dozens of members from around the country – the Executive Director of the Norfolk Education Foundation, a communications associate with Citizen Action New York, the membership chair for the Ohio Society for Public Health Education, an organizer and educator with the All Stars Project of New Jersey, and many more.
Friday night, we hosted a youth town hall at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Flint to hear what the young people thought about the crisis. In the morning, we returned to the Boys and Girls Club to distribute water, filtration supplies, testing kits, food, and other necessities. We helped prepare the community garden for planting, and we even did a little landscaping.
It was a moving experience, and the ideas the students shared at the town hall stuck with me. Listening to them and distributing cases of water the next morning really put into perspective the impact that elevated lead levels can have on a community.
Two months ago, news broke that Newark Public Schools – the district neighboring where I teach in East Orange – had found elevated levels of lead in their water. Last week, we learned that Bergenfield and Parsippany had the same problem. As more school districts follow suit and test their water, we will inevitably find that this problem is more widespread than we thought.
The morning after I got home from Flint, I woke up and went about my regular pre-school routine. I poured some coffee and skimmed through news headlines on my phone. One article immediately caught my eye – “After Newark and Flint: Mandating Clean Water for All School Kids.” It was an op-ed piece by Congressman Donald Payne, Jr., arguing in favor of a bill that he had recently introduced.
The TEST for Lead Act would amend the Safe Drinking Water Act and mandate that any state receiving federal funds through that program would have to require its school districts to regularly test their water for lead and report the results to parents.
It’s a small first step. It can’t make whole the children of Flint and Newark, but it can make sure that we identify problems early in other districts. Without regular testing, we could be silently poisoning our students and not even know it.
That’s why I support the TEST for Lead Act and hope that Congressman Payne gets the support he needs to make it a law. To do my part, I put together a letter writing campaign on Action Network and shared it with my friends in the National Urban League and my colleagues in the NEA/NJEA.
One of the other questions we asked the young people was, “Do you think adults and politicians care more for their own personal gain than for the well-being of the community?” Part of the group justifiably felt let down, abused, and abandoned by those in positions of power.
But one young man said, “Look at all the people who came out here to help us. Look at all these people who care.”
And so I ask that you help show how much we all care. Write your Congressperson and ask him or her to support the TEST for Lead Act. Stand with Flint, stand with Newark, and stand with children throughout our country.