In his 2021 book Standpipe, Delivering Water In Flint, author David Hardin paints a portrait of a community reeling from the lead poisoning of its public water supply. Volunteering to deliver clean water to Flint households, Hardin finds both profound hardship and the will of the Flint community. The Library of Michigan named Standpipe one of 20 Michigan Notable Books for 2022. FLOW interviewed him about what the plight of Flint revealed to him.
FLOW: How would you characterize the state of the community while you were volunteering there? Did you see resilience as well as tragedy?
The folks who invited me into their homes never failed to challenge my narrow assumptions about what kind of people live in Flint. I arrived armed with a story of the city acquired over time from local news, hearsay, and Michael Moore. It wasn’t completely inaccurate, but it was unbalanced and biased, absent the perspective of first-hand experience. Resiliency and hope exist alongside despair, complacency, and anger. I would say that the citizens of Flint, by and large, are not defined by crisis, be it lead-poisoned water, racial injustice, economic inequality, or post-industrial decline.
The human spirit is vast. It encompasses both good and bad and in between, something I was reminded of every day in Flint.
FLOW: Some of the most affecting passages in the book are where you describe individuals.
Trying to preserve memories of the people I met was the genesis of the project. I didn’t set out to write a book, but only to capture brief sketches of interesting people going about their lives in the midst of an existential, urban crisis. My heart went out to the children I met. Growing up in Flint is challenging, but many of the struggles are born of abstraction: institutional racism, lack of political agency, poverty, deindustrialization. Access to fresh water is concrete, inarguable, the reason humans settled along the banks of the Flint River in the first place. The book is full of portraits of citizens and fellow Red Cross volunteers. I like to think of them as small jewel-like paintings.
FLOW: What has the experience of volunteering in Flint taught you about the value of water?
I grew up taking clean water from the tap for granted. I’m fortunate to have been born at a time, in a place, where clean water was seen as essential to a functioning democracy, a fundamental communal right, not a privilege for the few. Community activists and public health officials worked long and hard to pass laws to insure everyone has access to safe, clean water. I no longer take it for granted. The work continues. Communities around Michigan are struggling with water problems, from Ann Arbor to Muskegon. The wells of people living near former or active military installations are threatened by the class of chemicals known as PFAS. Lead service lines and antiquated municipal systems affect millions.
The folks who invited me into their homes never failed to challenge my narrow assumptions about what kind of people live in Flint. The citizens of Flint, by and large, are not defined by crisis, be it lead-poisoned water, racial injustice, economic inequality, or post-industrial decline.
FLOW: Your narrative intersperses the story of the people of Flint with episodes of your own story. What inspired this idea, and what do you see as the connection?
Weaving together my experience in Flint with the arc of the fractured relationship I had with my mother seems obvious, in hindsight. It took quite a while before I was able to recognize my own feelings of loss, grief, rage, and helplessness mirrored in many of the people I met in Flint. These emotions are nothing new to the citizens of Flint; my troubles pale in comparison to the woes of a city long in decline. But finding empathy for them enabled me to be with my own feelings in a more skillful way and move toward equanimity, a practice that never ends.
FLOW: As you make the rounds promoting your Michigan notable book, what kind of responses do you get?
Those who haven’t read the book assume it’s a journalistic account of the Flint Water Crisis. Some very good books have been written about the origins of the water crisis and threats to the health of Flint’s citizens. I hope Standpipe complements these fine books and gives readers a different perspective on an issue that continues to resonate here in Michigan.
I grew up taking clean water from the tap for granted. I’m fortunate to have been born at a time, in a place, where clean water was seen as essential to a functioning democracy, a fundamental communal right, not a privilege for the few.
FLOW: How did you emerge from the experience psychologically?
I volunteered in Flint only for a short time, as compared to many others. On a typical day, my emotions ran the gamut from determination to gratitude to wariness to joy to boredom to anger–repeat. Going to Flint in the first place was a direct response to personal grief over my own loss. I left with mixed feelings: guarded hope for a better future for the citizens of Flint, anger toward those in power responsible for the crisis, and a sense of gratitude for having made a difference, however small–putting a check mark in the good column.
Access to fresh water is concrete, inarguable, the reason humans settled along the banks of the Flint River in the first place.
FLOW: Are you hopeful or pessimistic that our government can treat communities like Flint with respect?
I would like to think otherwise, but I’m afraid our native sense of working for the common good has been eroded by economic inequality, corporate greed, fear, misplaced anger, and the machinations of those who would fuel populist rage for political advantage. Divisions over masks, vaccination, and the settled science of climate change–our ongoing culture war, sometimes leave me feeling pessimistic. However, the human spirit is vast. It encompasses both good and bad and in between, something I was reminded of every day in Flint. At the end of the day, my grandsons give me hope for the future.
For information on this year’s Michigan Notable Books and related author appearances, visit the Library of Michigan website.