A Shock to the Conscience: Candy J. Cooper and Marc Aronson Discuss Their Nonfiction Book, 'Poisoned Water,' and the Flint Water Crisis

Pulitzer Prize finalist Candy J. Cooper and 2006 ALAN Award-winning author and editor Marc Aronson discuss their new nonfiction book, Poisoned Water: How the Citizens of Flint, Michigan, Fought for Their Lives and Warned the Nation (Bloomsbury; Gr 6 Up), and the reality of the Flint water crisis. 

Poisoned Water book cover and author photos


Candy J. Cooper and Marc Aronson recently published Poisoned Water: How the Citizens of Flint, Michigan, Fought for Their Lives and Warned the Nation (Bloomsbury; Gr 6 Up), a searing nonfiction book for young readers that examines the Flint, MI, water crisis. Through extensive reporting, research, and interviews, Cooper and Aronson shed light on the city's history of injustice and the relentless determination of its citizens. 

SLJ spoke to both authors about the book, their research process, and the power of youth activism. 

In Poisoned Water's introduction, you recall making a presentation to Flint’s Community Based Organization Partners as a visiting researcher. You note, “There is a deep pool of injustice in Flint’s overall history as well.”

Much of the book examines the history of systemic racism, income equality, and segregation that shaped Flint and thereby led to the water crisis. Social justice activists may also cite this situation as an example of environmental racism. How did environmental racism influence Flint’s water crisis? How does environmental racism contribute to and uphold the oppression of marginalized communities?

Candy Cooper: In Flint, you can almost visualize a layer cake of racist policy over a century. You start with a layer of Jim Crow segregation, and then you cover it over with job and housing discrimination, restrictive covenants, government redlining, white flight to the suburbs, and disinvestment. The water crisis is the top layer.

It was Keishaun Wade—a high school student at the time—who made the connection between that history and the water crisis. I’m very glad we were able to condense, translate, and make those connections for a [general] audience.

I have read many pages of government emails sent around [and] during the water crisis, including one that read, “I’m not sure Flint is the kind of town we want to go out on a limb for.” A state investigation described these responses to citizen complaints as arrogant, belittling, and dismissive. But I heard some other notes there. I read in those emails bias toward an entire group of people. The question always asked is, would the same water crisis have happened to a wealthy and majority-white town?

Marc Aronson: We often teach the history of race relations in K–12 via key topics—slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement—as if America had this problem but, in a series of turning points we fixed it, or at least addressed slavery, segregation, voting rights, etc. But what that leaves out is how racism was, and is, pervasive—not just one law, or one kind of discrimination.

Every decision about who gets loans so they can buy houses and build up family equity, who has the political power to keep a toxic dump out of their neighborhood, whose water pipes are well maintained, is as much a part of this nation’s history of racial discrimination as any law about where to sit on a bus or who can play Major League Baseball. Flint gives us a chance to open that discussion.

Recently, the publication of books such as American Dirt has opened up discussions about who has the “right” to tell certain stories. When a reporter is researching and writing a story that discusses a community or group of people they are not a member of, how can the reporter ensure that their coverage is free of implicit bias?

If unchecked or unchallenged, how does implicit bias not only harm marginalized and underrepresented voices but perpetuate stereotypes and/or dangerous narratives?

CC: This question weighed on me throughout my reporting in Flint. Was I authorized to tell this story? It was a very personal question for me because most of my journalistic work has been about people with the least access to power, or about the powerful but through the eyes of the people most affected by their decisions.

During this time I went to my son’s college graduation, where the keynote speaker, Isabel Wilkerson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Journey of the Great Migration, talked about something she called “radical empathy,” about how we, as a country, need to try much harder to put ourselves in others’ shoes. I decided that the very definition of being a journalist requires radical empathy, or trying to understand the lives of people you rarely initially know. In the end, I tried to listen hard to Flint residents and quote their words directly as much as possible, to make them the tellers of the story. I tried to up my radical empathy and apply my craft as best I could.

MA: From my POV the best check against bias, whether in regards to the “outsider” to a community or, indeed an “insider” within a community, is care, thoroughness, and scholarship.

Newsweek Op-Ed

Candy was constantly sharing her work with people in the community, learning from them, being challenged by them, growing from the connection. And she used every well-researched academic and adult study she could find. We both want more members of the Flint community to tell their stories. We hope our book encourages just that. I do think there is a problem in youth literature in that we have far too few people from underrepresented groups who focus on nonfiction—of any sort, from dinosaurs to the latest news.

In your Op-Ed for Newsweek, you compared the coronavirus to the Flint water crisis, namely in how the pandemic has most drastically hit Black and Hispanic communities. You wrote, “The pandemic is Flint, writ large.” How does the response of state governors, such as Andrew Cuomo (NY) and Gavin Newsom (CA), compare to the response of Flint officials? Are there common themes?

CC: If [Rick] Snyder had acted like Governors Cuomo or Newsom, he would have made Flint his highest priority very soon after he received the first warnings of trouble in 2014. Nine months after the water switch, he sent out a list of priorities for the coming year and Flint was 36th on the list. If Snyder had acted like those governors, he would have acknowledged the crisis and held regular press briefings to discuss the latest data on lead readings, lead pipe replacements, Legionnaires’ cases, and the number of lead-poisoned children as they became known. Instead, he waited until the evidence was overwhelming and irrefutable to make a public statement and a change. That was 18 months after the switch.

MA: While Cuomo and the state did not act as quickly as they should have—he has said just that—the main difference between the governors and Governor Snyder is that Cuomo and Newsom did not dismiss science, or seek to deny and cover up damage to vulnerable communities. Instead, they made addressing the crisis their only priority. Snyder did precisely the opposite. Indeed, the most recent reporting suggests that he knew much more about Flint than he admitted.

Your book shines a light on the residents of Flint who were determined to fight injustice. What is the role of grassroots organizations, citizen activism, and mutual aid in the context of the COVID-19 crisis?

MA: If we expand grassroots to mean the voices of those most affected by a crisis (think of the Parkland students, Greta Thunberg, and Malala Yousafzai), young people who are inheriting the world we have left to them who are speaking up, speaking out, demanding better from us. This is wonderful.

CC: Flint’s story seems like such a great reminder and teacher of the value of citizen voices coming together to enact change.

Read: SLJ's Review of Poisoned Water

Why did you choose to write this book for young readers? How does the writing and editorial process differ when writing for a young audience versus adults? What guided the shaping of the book’s narrative?

MA: First of all, why not? Adult books about Flint exist, so why shouldn’t younger readers know about the world they live in—the crises, crimes, and protests of their time? The great challenge of all youth nonfiction is that you must accomplish two impossible, opposite goals—keep the reader engaged, keep the story moving, but, also, supply the context that both allows the reader to understand events, and indicates why this story matters.

Candy did a great job of getting two stories: the background and the experiences, insights, and emotions of people in Flint now. My challenge was to help her weave those two together to accomplish those two goals—propulsion and understanding. Candy and I then looked, with our editor Susan Dobinick, for images that would not just illustrate events but would have their own narrative force. That’s the other secret of our books. We have images. Images tell stories.

CC: While writing and reporting, I never said to myself, “Oh, this is for a younger audience.” I wrote as if I were writing for a newspaper or magazine audience since that is where my experience lies. What became clear to me only after having written a first draft was that I could not be as discursive or digressive as I might like with an adult audience.

I couldn’t drop back and tell a long story about each and every kid I came to know. "Propulsive" is the word that Marc uses to describe the best young adult nonfiction, and perhaps we became ruthless about that. I am also capable of using a lot of visual detail in my writing, which generally results in a more visual or visceral account, and that is probably a plus when it comes to YA.

Throughout the book, you explore the fragile nature of trust and how the residents of Flint lost trust in their government and elected officials. In the context of advocacy, how does trust play a role in allyship? How did you earn the trust of the people you interviewed and profiled in the book?

CC: There had been so many decades of government decisions that disadvantaged residents in Flint. The water crisis became a tipping point on trust, and it extended to all outside researchers who came to Flint, including reporters. For me, then, distrust became a starting point. I listened to a fair amount of resentment and rejection, and it wasn’t always comfortable. But it deepened my understanding and helped the book.

The more I learned from people I talked to, and from my own research, the more I understood that distrust was an utterly warranted and rational response to the history of Flint as well as to the water crisis. My own way of working with that distrust was to spend more time in Flint. I went to meetings, lectures, forums, concerts, bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and stores. I tried to form ongoing relationships. I got to know a group of high school students and took them for the largest-sized meals we could find around Flint. Trust turned out to be a theme of the book.

Even in dark moments, people can find a way to rise above adversity. The people of Flint refused to stay silent; they made their voices heard. What were some specific moments that you witnessed or heard about that gave you a sense of hope?

CC: I find it hopeful when people tell the truth, even when it’s an awful truth. Flint residents kept reaching for that. How can anyone hope for change if we can’t name what is true? People in Flint trusted in their own experience and turned it into action.

When mothers, fathers, and grandparents went to city council meetings and testified that their water was making them ill, those to me were hopeful acts. The citizen press conference held in front of Flint City Hall in September of 2015 was a hopeful scene, with a cross-section of citizens who had conducted widespread testing and gathered nearly 300 viable water samples and arrived at their own scientifically sound analysis. I thought that was inspiring.

Readers learn about the inner lives of the city’s teens and young adults, such as Keishaun Wade. How can accounts from young people sometimes have a greater impact than reports from public figures, elected officials, and other adults in positions of power? How can youth activism inspire and motivate not only their peers but adults?

CC: Elected officials or government bureaucrats often speak in the jargon of their particular fields, or they deflect bad news with defensive cli​chés. Public relations is its own art form that way. Young people, on the other hand, are more likely to speak from the heart or their senses, and that is the better way to engage a reader when telling a story. Young people often have a refreshing way of cutting through layers of nonsense to see and say what is true.

In the book, one of the teens assigns a “D-plus” to the government’s handling of the water crisis. That sums things up fairly well. Also, Keishaun Wade. He might find this praise annoying or embarrassing, but I think he combines wisdom, intellect, heart, outrage, hope, and humanity in one 20-something person. I am very glad to feature him in the book.

What is a misconception about the Flint water crisis that you hope this book addresses and dismantles?

MA: That it is over and we can afford to be a nation that disdains and mistreats anyone. Flint was a portrait of our nation at its worst, and at its best. We should see the people of Flint as heroes, as models, not as victims.

CC: I’m not sure people understand how much accommodation people in Flint made to work around the poisoned water. Children sit in the tub and punch pinholes in a bottle of water and then squeeze it over their heads. That is a shower. Families went without hot water for years. Try rinsing shampoo out of your hair with bottled water. Or rinsing all of the parts of a Thanksgiving turkey in bottled water.

How do you buy cases of bottled water without a car? Or if you are disabled? We have a photo of one woman, a grandmother of five, pushing a grocery cart a half-mile down the road to the nearest water distribution pod. She has diabetes and a heart condition. Should that be happening in the U.S.? In the world? The accommodation that Flint residents have made every day and for years is as horrifying as the official neglect. Every bit of the Flint story shocks the conscience.

Candy J. Cooper is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting. She has been a staff writer for four newspapers, including the Detroit Free Press and the San Francisco Examiner. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among other publications.

Marc Aronson earned his PhD in American history while beginning his career as an editor and author of books for children and teenagers. The first winner of the Robert L. Sibert medal from the American Library Association and the editor of the tenth winner, he is now a full-time faculty member at Rutgers School of Communication and Information.

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