Only Authentic Community Engagement and Empowerment Can Begin to Restore Flint

WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.

Reprinted from The Huffington Post - March 30, 2016

Nothing can make up for what was lost, but it might be the one way to get governing and democracy back on track.

The Flint crisis is perhaps the worst example of what can go wrong when people have no voice in the decisions that affect their lives: A generation of children faces the irreversible effects of lead poisoning. Nine people are dead. Trust has vanished. Residents saw their rights and dignity violated.

Thereís no question that Michigan officials failed their citizens. Itís an extreme example, but this kind of tragedy is the inevitable result when officials govern without listening to and showing respect for the people they were elected to serve.

We felt helpless from the get-go...[We] felt like we had no voice.


- Patty Warner, longtime Flint resident, via Citylab

To not only address the problem but also to make sure it never happens again, leaders will need to pay as much attention to the health of local democracy as to the immediate health of residents. Restoring trust and democracy will take time, effort and patience on the part of local officials and community members alike.

In the short term, here are five actions officials should take to lay the groundwork on the long road of righting relationships and fixing democracy:

Listen to residents and meet their immediate needs. Make up for past failures. Provide water, as much as residents need, when they need it. Replace pipes. Repay water bills. Set up funds to support the health and education of children affected by the crisis. Give residents the space to be angry. And listen to them and respond when they talk about what else they need. In concert with such ameliorating actions, take ownership of bad decisions and apologize.

As you respond to immediate needs, build durable mechanisms for ongoing and authentic public engagement. Transform city council and other public meetings into meaningful opportunities to interact with residents. Use civic tech to gather information and provide people with additional ways to weigh in on decisions. Empower communities through innovative democratic practices like participatory budgeting, and through more traditional ones, like citizen advisory boards.

Provide timely information and practice transparency. From the beginning, the decisions that led to the current crisis have been riddled with opacity and a lack of accountability. Now is the time to be transparent with residents. Give them the information they need, in a timely manner, in ways they can absorb, and continue that practice beyond the current crisis.

Partner with and empower community leaders whom people trust. With faith in official leadership gone, local officials will need to work with community members who ARE trusted. Identify respected leaders and organizations and build those relationships. But be careful to do so in an authentic, transparent way -- the last thing officials want is for the public to distrust by association the motives of local community members.

Pursue activities that slowly but surely rebuild the broken bond. Create opportunities for positive, problem-solving interactions between residents and officials that address real issues. Over time, these smaller efforts may help officials earn back residentsí trust. Visit homes and listen. Organize and attend recreational activities for area children. Deliver meals to elderly or disabled residents. Do well on a million small acts of governance that build the social capital and know-how to tackle bigger and tougher challenges down the line.

Such measures can lead to a Flint where residents have true ownership in decisions that affect their lives and where officials consult with residents as partners in formulating and implementing solutions. Whatís done is done, but officials and other leaders must do all they can to make sure that this never happens again. They can best do so by taking democracy to heart and pursuing it with passion.

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