Originally posted: September 16, 2017
Updated: January 8, 2020
“… We need to hold the Lead industry accountable
for what has happened in Flint….”
If you don’t want to read my story about how this moment came about – but just want to get right to the video, please scroll down (and make sure to turn the volume up on your computer) to see a video clip – a one-minute snippet – edited from news footage from television coverage of my presentation with Bernie Sanders in Flint, Michigan in February of 2016 (just before the presidential primaries]. This clip is in the opening to my documentary feature film on childhood Lead poisoning in America today, MisLEAD: America’s Secret Epidemic.
… otherwise… read on…
The story of how this event happened is kind of a funny story…
I had been to Flint twice before, that winter (January / February 2016).
Visit #1 to Flint – January 2016:
During my first visit to Flint that winter I hosted a free, open-to-the-public preview screening of my film at the Flint Institute for Arts, which is where I first met several of the mama bear activists on the forefront of the advocacy in Flint. For me this was a poetic opportunity – as decades earlier my mother had had her artwork on display at the Flint Institute in 1969, around the time I was born [I was born in Saginaw, Michigan].
Visit #2 to Flint in 2016 – February 5-6-7, 2016
My second visit to Flint was a few weeks later (early February, 2016) — this time with a cameraman and funding for a few days of filming. We spent time interviewing families and testing water for people (and filming the water tests too!)
Later that evening…
My last night in Flint on this trip (February 7th)…my camera guy (“Taper”) and I had just wrapped filming for the day and were getting to the hotel. It was close to midnight – and if I recall correctly – it was very cold and had just started snowing a bit. We started chatting with the young man at the front desk of the hotel (about the film and Lead in the water, etc.) and he told us that Bernie Sanders had just (over the previous few hours) opened a “pop up” Flint HQ campaign office right down the street from the hotel. We decided to check it out.
We walked down to the new Flint HQ for Bernie (and remember – I think by this time it was *after* midnight!) and we peered into the window and knocked on the window to see if we could come in. There were just a few people in the office still (they were closing up) but they let us in (after all it was freezing outside!) and we chatted with the staff there for a bit.
A handsome young man named Ryan was there. He stood out from the others who were in the office as he was dressed very “Washington, D.C.” – in a long wool winter dress coat and fancy dress shoes, vs. how the others in the office were dressed (in what I will dub “Flint casual”.) I felt very at home in Flint -as “Flint casual” reminded me of Portland, San Francisco and New Orleans… relaxed funky hippie + tie dye!
Ryan happened to be “the guy in charge”. We chatted a bit (he was from Boston and my son was also in school in Boston). As it turned out Ryan was there – at midnight, in Flint of all places (!) – because he was the Michigan campaign manager for the Bernie Sanders 2016 Presidential campaign. I spoke with him briefly that night and told him about my documentary film and the fact that we were hoping to do another outreach event (or two) in Flint soon. I said that we would be happy for Bernie to be our guest at this event and I asked him to let Bernie know! He suggested we come back in the morning to talk some more. I gave him my card & “Taper” and I went back to the hotel.
February 8, 2016 I made an unexpected stop in Durham, New Hampshire on the way home from Flint…
Visit #3 to Flint – Thursday, February 25, 2016:
After meeting Bernie and Jane in New Hampshire on February 8th – I planned a third visit to Flint for February 25th (and also had a 4th in the works for April – for Earth Day). From February 8th to February 20th I worked with Heidi Zimmerman (my editor on the film), and we cut in the first cut of the Flint footage (from the filming done earlier in the month.)
The goal of the event for February 25th was to hold another preview screening of the film (with the Flint footage incorporated) to get the reaction of the people of Flint – to help make sure they felt accurately- and respectfully-represented by the section of the film that was about what was happening in Flint. We also intended for this event to be a comprehensive Lead poisoning prevention outreach event – and coordinated free Blood Lead Level testing (especially for people who might not otherwise qualify for testing – including adults and teenagers) and a giveaway of more than 1,000 free Lead paint test kits for anyone who attended.
The picture below was taken at the blood Lead testing part of the event,
after the presentation with Bernie.
How did Bernie get involved with this event?
Because of the timing of this event (right before the 2016 primaries), I had called all of the presidential candidates, and invited/urged them to participate in this town meeting if they were available that day. As with all of the outreach events and advocacy work I was doing at the time – the intention was not to promote a candidate or specific political agenda but to get answers, information and resources to parents of children who may have suffered chronic or acute exposure to Lead (from their water or from the paint on their homes.)
Given what had been happening in Flint to date at that time I noticed that the gap in information was specifically around what parents might expect in the future for their children and what they should do now to prepare. Parents were still (and to some degree are still) very much in crisis mode, not understanding the full implications of what had happened to their children and how that might impact them for the rest of their lives. As a result these events were focused on providing straight answers to concerned parents and others in the community about what they could expect, and what they could do for their children after chronic Lead exposure/Lead-poisoning — and educating them about the issue and the resources that were available to them (locally and federally.)
To make sure the event was bi-partisan (and to comply with requirements for nonprofits when politics are involved) I invited everyone to attend — including Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton! Lead-poisoning does to discriminate; it is not a partisan issue and for me this was a no-brainer. If any one of them was willing and able to come to the event, they were welcome to be there and to participate in the conversation with the parents of Flint.
Not a single political candidate stepped up to accept my invitation.
Just about a week before the planned day of the event, [but after I had already secured two possible available locations for the event – The Flint Institute of Art and Woodside Church] we were starting to panic — we still hadn’t found a sponsor (primarily needed to cover the projection costs for the preview of the film – just about $1,500 – that was going to be a key part of the event) and I reluctantly realized I had to put the event on hold – essentially concluding I would have to cancel the event – just a few days before it was to happen [but I had not yet announced that it was going to be cancelled]…
…and then — literally moments before I was about to officially announce that, due to a lack of sponsorship (and political interest/courage), the event was going to be cancelled — on the afternoon of Friday, February 19, 2016, Bernie Sanders’ Michigan Campaign manager (Ryan Hughes, the well dressed young man from Boston who I had met 12 days earlier at midnight in Flint!) called me and asked “Hey Tamara, are you still going to hold that event in Flint? Does Thursday, February 25th still work?”(!)
Bernie wanted to accept our invitation and come speak at the event…the event I was about to cancel — the invitation to which no other presidential candidate had even bothered to respond!
And – of course (given the opportunity presented an unparalleled chance to get the issue of childhood Lead poisoning prominently front and center on the political stage and in national news), I responded, “Yes — it’s on; everything is a “go”; we’d love to have him there!”
…And then spent the next few days pulling a rabbit out of my a#@ – making an un-sponsored event happen that had been all-but-cancelled (coordinating the speakers, the projection, the refreshments, the flights, and other resources for the event – like free blood Lead testing and free Lead paint test kits for everyone there)…with almost no time left to “restart” the “stopped game clock” — and only “seconds left” on that “clock”!!
Luckily, prior to my new life as a Lead-poisoning prevention advocate/environmental activist/filmmaker, I had been a professional event coordinator for more than a decade (including a stint in 1997 holding a formal position with the fairly important title of “Event Coordinator for the County of Marin”!), so making this happen last minute was not quite as “impossible” as it might have been for someone else… except this time The Secret Service was involved!…
Part of my text thread with Ryan from Saturday, February 20th…
Part of my text thread with Ryan from Monday, February 22nd…
Let’s title this one “last minute changes”!!!
And then The Secret Service got involved…
Once The Secret Service got involved, they all-but 100% took over the event! They had to background check and approve all of my speakers and participants (other mothers of Lead-poisoned children who I flew in from all over the country to speak at the event). They also had to rearrange and approve the order of things for the day of the event.
Text message from Ryan – Wednesday, Feb 24, 2016
More last minute changes!
The event was originally going to be a preview screening of the film, followed by a post-screening discussion with Bernie Sanders and a panel of mothers of Lead poisoned children from around the country (offering advice and guidance to the parents of Flint – based on our experience treating and parenting Lead-poisoned kiddos.)
Instead, it unexpectedly truly became a “Bernie event”! [I bet Bernie may not even realize/remember it was originally my event — if he even remembers who I am, let alone the impact this event likely had on my advocacy!]
The newly-reorganized event opened with a community forum and panel discussion – with a handful of Michigan residents (and myself & Bernie), followed by a preview screening of my documentary film and post-screening discussion with mothers of Lead-poisoned children (from Texas, Massachusetts, Oregon and Minnesota)… with the film being more of an afterthought than central to the event — but at least Bernie’s team covered the cost of the top-quality projection equipment, so I no longer needed to worry that we didn’t have a sponsor to cover that! 😉
…And that’s how I ended up on stage, with Bernie Sanders by my side, in the middle of the winter, during a giant snow storm (it was such a bad snow storm that school had been cancelled!) in a church in Flint, Michigan, speaking to 500 people who braved a huge snow storm to come hear a discussion about childhood Lead-poisoning.
Bernie said later (in a T.V. interview done after the election), that it was “his favorite event of the campaign trail” that year (one of his two stated favorites, as I understand it!)
That’s me – always up for a last-minute challenge! Oy!
Here’s some links to news coverage and photos of the event:
A note to my detractors…
So I’ve been vetted by the Secret Service – have you? [and this was not even the first time in my life that I was vetted by the Secret Service! ;-)] Who’s legit now, Snopes? Lol!
As always, thank you for being here and for reading and sharing my posts.
As noted above, this scene (the one minute from that presentation below) is also the introduction to my documentary feature film on childhood Lead poisoning. If you have not yet seen the full preview screener of the film it is up on YouTube temporarily [extended to January 21st!]. The full film is 92 minutes long. Here’s the direct YouTube link to watch it: https://youtu.be/eRKlaC2EjL0 [Please leave a comment, and a “Thumbs up” if you are so inclined, and please also subscribe to my YouTube channel!]. The preview of the film has had nearly 15,000 views on YouTube as of 1/8/20 at about 1:00 a.m. (when I am updating this post!)