by Kate Snyder
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Born and raised in Flint, Michigan Jessyca Matthews, a high school English teacher, activist and artist helped to channel the frustration, fear and anger of her students and the community as they dealt with, and continue to deal with, the Flint Water Crisis. Her activism and art took her from her classroom to the state capitol, and her work in giving creative expression to this crisis has kept a spotlight on Flint.
“How this crisis was dealt with was unjust. This happened in Flint, but given the state of infrastructure in this country, it could happen anywhere,” said Jessyca.
Flint residents noticed an immediate change in the clarity and quality of their water in 2014 as soon as the supply was switched from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to water coming from the Flint River. However, it took over a year for action to be taken and the water supply to be switched back to Detroit. In that time, Jessyca, her students and community were poisoned by toxic water. They also experienced a feeling of powerlessness and frustration at having their voices ignored for over a year.
Pam Collins an Art teacher in Lansing and Jan Tichy, an artist supported by the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University teamed up with Jessyca to harness the energy of the students and address the Flint Water Crisis through art. The outcome, Beyond Streaming, A Sound Mural for Flint, changed the lives of the students, educators and community members involved.
At the installation, visitors see a wall of copper pipes and they can turn on the faucets to hear the poems 38 Flint students.
The exhibit is only open for a few more weeks (it closes on August 20, 2017), but to create a lasting impact, the team created a book with the 38 poems of the Flint students accompanied by the artwork of the Lansing students. The students and the community will have access to the art long after the installation closes.
This image is part of the book and it accompanies the poem Cold. Click here to listen to the poem.
This image accompanies the poem Drip! Drip! Snap! Snap! Click here to listen to the poem.
Students also used other creative means to expression their feelings about the water crisis.
Many students involved in the project chose to feature their work as a part of their Senior Presentations, which all of Jessyca’s students do before graduation. They felt changed by the work and connected to the community as artists and activists.
“It was so amazing to hear students identify themselves as activists because of their involvement in this project. It touched so many people and changed the way they felt about their ability to make a difference,” said Jessyca.
There’s been some resolution to the crisis with five arrests of Michigan officials to be held accountable and a scheduled return of drinkable tap water this Fall. But for Jessyca and the residents of Flint the fight is not over.
“Honestly it was a surprise for everyone that those five people were held accountable, but it’s not enough. We have no idea what effect this will have on the children who were poisoned by the water. What will the second half of my career entail as my colleagues and I work to teach students who may have severe learning or behavioral difficulties. An entire town was poisoned,” said Jessyca.
Moved by Jessyca’s advocacy and activism and the stories of her students, educators passed a resolution at the 2017 NEA Representative Assembly, to advocate and support Flint students and educators.
ACTION: Stand with schools and communities impacted by tainted water by supporting the Test for Lead Act.
Jessyca Matthews was recognized for her work at the NEA Conference on Racial and Social Justice held in July in Boston and was one of the 2017 Social Justice Activist of the Year finalists.