May 4, 2016
The day was clear, the sky was blue and though I was high above the city of Flint, I could still pick out tiny specks of people on the ground. I was sitting in a tiny four-seat airplane, not entirely comfortable, but reassuring myself that the pilot knew what he was doing. After all, he was an Air Force pilot and astronaut who had just finished a mission on the Discovery space shuttle. I’ve been very fortunate to do some cool things in my life and this ranks right up there.
I was working for a U.S. senator at the time and managing his military academy nomination process. As part of my work, I had arranged for the astronaut, who had been one of the senator’s previous nominees to the Air Force Academy, to return to his hometown of Flint to talk with high school students. After all the events of the day were done, he still had time before his flight out of town and wanted to renew his license at the Flint Bishop airport. He asked my coworker and me to come along on his test flight – how could we refuse?
I looked down at the huge Buick City auto plant and the tops of downtown buildings. Tiny cars drove around the streets and little dots of people moved through the neighborhoods, many of them showing signs of blight. They were moving among half-burned structures and overgrown lots — small marks that looked insignificant from my vantage point. Except they weren’t insignificant — they were people with hopes and dreams and struggles and pain. From where I was, it would have been easy to ignore who they really were, but I had met so many of them earlier that day, I couldn’t.
I met elementary students with stars in their eyes wanting to be astronauts. I met high school students excited about going to college. I met teachers frustrated with a lack of resources and parents worried about paying the bills. I saw others on the streets doing their best to get by. Not a one was insignificant.
And then years later, their water was tainted with lead. I can only imagine how insignificant the residents felt when no one seemed to be listening. But Mona Hanna-Attisha listened. She’s an assistant professor at MSU’s College of Human Medicine and a pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center. She didn’t just listen — she acted. She tested and investigated. She found high lead levels in Flint’s children, which are certain to have lasting effects. She spoke up for those who couldn’t. She pushed and demanded someone take notice. Like any good Spartan, she refused to back down when people’s lives were at stake. Watch the MSUTODAY FEATURE: Promise for Flint to learn more about this Spartan rock star who will also be speaking at this Friday’s undergraduate convocation. She’s flat out amazing.
Journalism students Maria Braganini and Kelley Waterfall also discovered that every life in Flint matters. They joined their professor Geri Alumit Zeldes to produce a five-part documentary series to explore the crisis through the lives of its residents. Check out the STUDENT VIEW: Faces of Flint, to learn more about these two talented young women.
MSU instructor and nurse Judy Strunk knows all about how fragile life is. She has worked in neonatal intensive care units with the tiniest of babies and in regular labor and delivery units. Read her FACULTY VOICE: A nurse’s delivery 27 years later, to learn how a random coincidence has her teaching a former tiny patient.
These four women live by one of my favorite Dr. Seuss quotes. “A person’s a person no matter how small.” To a Spartan, every life is significant. Spartans don’t look down from above and ignore the tiny specks. Spartans get down on the ground and dig in to make it better. You’ll find them in communities all over the world creating positive change. Spartans use their brains and their skill to help those who need it and never give up. Who will improve people’s lives one community at a time? Spartans Will.
Photo by Kurt Stepnitz