Growing Leaders and Facilitating Community Change: The Flint Water Crisis

Monica Villarreal with Flint children picking up water

Let’s begin by saying, the Flint Water Crisis is not over. There has been progress, but the tap water is still not safe to drink and it is estimated to take at least three years before all lead service lines will be replaced. Until then, residents rely on water filtration systems and bottled water for cooking, drinking and other basic needs. For the past year, Monica Villarreal (2017 MSW graduate) has been intimately weaving together clinical and macro social work perspectives to address the needs of Flint residents and to facilitate community change.

Addressing the challenges of the Flint Water Crisis is no small task. The Organization and Community Leadership (OCL) program has afforded Villarreal the education and tools necessary to engage in skilled social work practice as a community leader striving for social justice. The project-based internship placement made it possible for her to integrate the curriculum into her work and develop new programs to address community needs created by the Flint Water Crisis. Completing the OCL program has increased confidence in her voice for justice, challenged her to grow as a leader and in her identity as a social work professional, and provided her with tools to facilitate change in social service delivery models responsive to the ever-changing context of crisis and recovery work.

Flint residents picking up water donated by PepsiCo

One of the most exciting projects that Villarreal is involved with is the Flint Community Help Centers. The uniqueness of this project is the collaborative approach and holistic framework used to deliver social services. It’s an experimental model based on other approaches developed in communities that have experienced crisis. Located at three churches, the Help Centers serve nearly 500 families daily and are open four days per week. The Help Centers offer lead-mitigating foods and produce, physical health services, mental health services, personal care items and bottled water. With no income limitations, the Help Centers are mobile “one stop shops” for residents to receive assistance and referrals for additional support. Many local and national organizations were involved in planning the Help Centers. The Food Bank of Eastern Michigan serves as fiduciary for the $2.2M project. Villarreal is privileged to serve as chair of the Advisory Board which oversees the project. The Help Centers are a testament to the strength and resilience of the Flint Community, which has pulled together to develop collaborative solutions to a problem that no one organization can solve alone.

This crisis is an opportunity to improve the lives of Flint residents and change systems of injustice that led to the contamination of Flint’s water. What is learned from Flint and how Flint recovers will tell a story about the role and impact of the social work profession. Villarreal stated, “Flint is a resilient city with resilient people. With crisis, there is opportunity. Seeing people in Flint civically engaged gives me hope."

Upper right photo courtesy of Kathy Weinberg. Lower left photo courtesy of PepsiCo Foundation.