Science to Solutions: Students Pitch Strategies to Prevent ‘The Next Flint’
By Kevin Dennehy
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
Earlier this semester, eight F&ES students traveled to Flint, Mich. for a conference on the devastating water crisis still unfolding in that Midwestern community, where lead was discovered in the public water supply.
While many conference participants were talking about specific infrastructure and economic actions needed to address the problem — such as engineering challenges and the urgency of replacing the city’s water pipes — the Yale students were there to talk about systems thinking, an approach to problem-solving that explicitly examines interactions between various components of a system.
The group, which during the fall took the course “Science to Solutions” with Profs. Paul Anastas and Julie Zimmerman, made the case in a pair of presentations for how utilizing a more complex systems approach can solve society’s “wicked” problems — and might help prevent the next Flint.
During a recent discussion, three of those students — Santiago Zindel Mundet Cruz, Rebecca Lehman, and Alexandra Vecchio— described how their visit deepened their understanding of the community’s fight and what it revealed about the challenge of battling future environmental and social challenges.
F&ES: Your work on Flint grew out your experience in the course, “Science to Solutions,” last fall. How did that course prepare you for being on the ground in Flint?
Santi: The course was described as offering a framework for thinking about how to fix large problems. What attracted me to the class was the opportunity to learn how to address these larger problems. I spoke with some people who had taken the course the year before, when it addressed the New York sewage system, and it sounded really interesting; rather than just address something abstract and theoretical, there was more an actual framework and way of thinking.
Alexandra: I thought the framework for the class was very practical and applicable for problem solving in the real world. It allowed us to see what that looks like in terms of taking in multiple perspectives on any issue: looking at it as a technology piece, a science piece, a policy piece, environmental justice, communications and economics. So those were the lenses the class was crafted around. We looked at the Flint case and were able to hear from guest speakers on each one of those topic areas.
It was our job to take that information and then, in small groups, turn that into a white paper that examined drinking water infrastructure at large in the United States. But we also looked specifically at what occurred in Flint and what recommendations we would make moving forward to change that situation and how we could best solve it. For me, it was a great way to integrate all the pieces that have to be considered and then how do we solve these complex or, as we call them in class, “wicked” problems.
Santi: I’m kind of ashamed to admit this, but I didn’t know that much about Flint when I signed up for the class.
Rebecca: I didn’t know that much about it either. But after we did all this schoolwork we were all left saying, “Okay, now what?” This is a real problem happening and we had this opportunity to meet these people who are actively involved or affected by this issue. So, were we just going to study this in the classroom? Or was there a way to be really actively engaged? So the conference was a nice opportunity to become more engaged. And that’s the main reason all of us went. We cared a lot about the people there and about the issue and we just wanted to see it for ourselves, as well as to contribute to the conversation.
F&ES: I imagine having people from the Flint community come into your classroom made this crisis more tangible. Did it also give you confidence that you could contribute something to the conversation?
Rebecca: We definitely felt valued, and I think the Yale name helped, as well. But when we got to the conference the mayor of Flint, who had talked with the class via Skype, came up to us and said, “You guys are here! We’re so happy to see you.” Which was really neat.
Alexandra: Yeah, it was so genuine. She was so excited to see that her conversation with us had an impact, as if she was saying, “Let’s keep it going, let’s keep the conversation going.”
F&ES: Were you worried about how you might be received?
Alexandra: Sure, because I think we all knew that we needed to be conscious of where we’re coming from. We haven’t lived through this crisis. We are coming from a place of privilege here at graduate school, at Yale. We’re looking at this from an “academic perspective.” But going to Flint and meeting the people who are really on the ground dealing with this, that’s a whole other thing.
But we did think we had a value to add. Much of the conversation during the conference this was very infrastructure-driven. You know: “We need to replace the pipes, replace the pipes, replace the pipes.” And we were asking, “Are you bringing in all the voices necessary to come up with real solutions that are going to address this problem?”
Santi: We were definitely looking at the problem less as a question of “how do you fix Flint right now?” That question certainly was a focus during our presentation at the conference. But during class we were more focused on how you keep this from happening in other places in the future. I do feel like the “replace the pipes” idea being sold in Flint is important. But if you’re looking at it in the longer term, is replacing the pipes going to keep it from happening again?
We tried to look at it through different lenses. We looked at it from the economic perspective, the communications perspective, the scientific perspective. We pulled out what went wrong in different areas and asked why. What went wrong when? And what could have been changed in order for that not to go wrong?
F&ES: What did go wrong?
Alexandra: Well, there were six groups from the class that submitted papers, and they all came up with different responses. But at a basic level everyone said that you had to look at the environmental justice perspective if you want to understand what went wrong and how to prevent it in the future. So, like Santi was saying, fixing the pipes will help in the short term. But over the long term if you still have these disparities in the community, and people are not being valued, and voices aren’t being heard, well, that’s a real problem.
For my group, transparency of information was a really big takeaway piece. We looked at not just what you want to do to fix the problem, but what realistically is going to happen taking into account politics, money, and resources. With those limitations, what’s going to really happen? And we felt that transparency of information was critical to not only solving Flint’s problems but preventing what we called “future Flints.”
F&ES: What was your message during the conference?
Alexandra: We made two separate presentations. The group I was part of made a typical 30-minute conference presentation that was mostly focused on systems thinking and how it could be applied to Flint. There was a pretty broad range of people in the audience, but the majority were infrastructure people.So we gave some background on the class and how we went about coming up with some of the solutions we did.
We were very purposeful in not laying out specific recommendations. That was a very conscious decision we made, because we really didn’t feel like we had the authority to do that. Julie and Paul would tell us, “No, you know a lot. You spent this whole semester on this!” But I think we were all just a little gun-shy. So we focused more on the process and what we think would be useful for any of these people who were in positions of decision-making.
Generally speaking, our presentation was pretty well received. People were excited that we cared. The response was really positive and forward-looking. What are you going to do now? What’s next? Is Yale done with this? Are you going to keep coming up with solutions or ideas?
Santi: Rebecca and I, along with two other classmates, organized a workshop in which we had participants split up into two groups. Then, after a 15-minute presentation on the general ideas of systems thinking, we asked the groups to use systems thinking in order to come up with possible solutions to Flint. We also asked them to think about potential unintended consequences those solutions might have and then to rework the solutions to minimize those consequences by looking at the bigger picture.
We were really just trying to impart the ideas of system thinking onto the audience, and to get people thinking about these approaches. And there were a lot of high-level people there from the government, a lot of people working on infrastructure issues. If they all worked together they could come up with some really good solutions, but they were not talking to each other. So I actually think our workshop was very different from any other presentations that happened at the conference.
Going into it, I was a little bit iffy. I wondered, do we really have the authority to be here? Can we really contribute that much? After being there and leading our workshop, I thought, “Well, that was very necessary.” I can’t believe there are not more of those opportunities, because it was the only time when people actually spoke to each other. Our workshop created a space for those people to be able to talk to each other.
Rebecca: Much of the rest of the conference was about moving forward; how can we put in better pipes? So it wasn’t talking about the issues that caused Flint. And I think that that was a really nice element that we added. We contributed an important discussion on the value of looking at these issues in a systematic and holistic way instead of just talking about the next grant that you can use to put in new pipes. Especially because a lot of people at the conference were engineers or work in government. For the most part, they were focused on finding the next quickest solution or getting the largest government grant.
F&ES: So they were more concerned about their own piece of the problem. They weren’t thinking much about environmental justice.
Alexandra: We didn’t realize until we got there, but there was an environmental justice conference that was taking place the next day. Which was really interesting. And as they pointed out during the environmental justice panel, it was free to attend that event while the infrastructure conference that decision makers were at the past several days cost money. So this divisiveness was very apparent in a lot of the conversations that we had.
Santi: Yes, there was this gap between the community and all these decision-makers… I mean, there was this conference, but why was the community not involved? You’re trying to come up with solutions to fix this city where all these people live, but they had to pay all this money to go to the conference. So they kind of had these two separate events.
Rebecca: Outside of the conference we met with some of the community members who’d come to our class, and they were saying, “This conference didn’t include us.” There wasn’t a space for community engagement. So many people flew in and stayed in this hotel but they didn’t interact with the public.
Alexandra: Having the chance to interact with the community, I think, made the trip worth it for people in our group. One of the community members brought her daughter to dinner with us, and to hear their stories and get their perspective on everything was powerful.
Rebecca: And her daughter still has a lot of health problems as a result of the water. She was like, “Yeah, I have in my freezer like two gallon-sized bags of our hair.” And her teeth are falling out, too. I mean, you hear about these impacts in the news, but then to meet somebody who’s saying, “Look at my skin. Look at what’s happened to me because of the water here!” That was really intense for me.
Alexandra: And to a certain extent those voices are definitely missing in the greater discussion. In fact, the timing of the environmental justice panel was sadly appropriate. The director of EPA’s Environmental Justice program, who sat on the panel, had announced that morning that he was leaving the position because the program wasn’t going to exist anymore…What interesting timing to have a conversation about environmental justice — and in the place where the perfect case study was unfolding — and we’re already missing the community voices, showing how much more work needs to be done in this arena. And then to have someone who’s a federal leader come in and say, well, I’m no longer doing that for the federal government because the federal government doesn’t believe in that program.
F&ES: It sounds like a perfect illustration of the challenges you’d already discovered in your research.
Santi: At least we saw that what we were studying did match the reality. It’s not like anyone got there and said, “Wait, there’s no problem here.” Everybody’s super conscious of these issues.
Rebecca: Even still, I think it was a big step. We can say that the justice panel was on the last day and apparently a last-minute addition. But the fact that it happened, and that it was part of the larger conference, is some forward movement, I think.
F&ES: Others who took the course in the fall described how infuriating the work was at times, learning about how so many systems let this community down. Did going to Flint help close that circle for you at all or offer any new insights?
Santi: Actually, going to the conference helped me feel like we were doing something to at least contribute in some small way. During the course we were learning all these things, finding out how awful the situation is. But at the end of the day we weren’t helping in any way to fix it. We just kind of talked about it.
Still, I definitely don’t feel like going there was nearly enough. Especially after all the community members were asking us, “Okay like this is great that you’re studying this. But what are you doing next?” I did feel a little bit guilty that that was all we were doing, because there is so much more to do.
Alexandra: On that note, though, there are the beginnings of something here. F&ES is developing different academic case studies — and Flint is just one of the case studies — with the idea that different professors from all subjects areas will take this and other cases and integrate them into their classes for interdisciplinary learning. So it won’t just be like, “Oh, we were in the Flint class this one semester.” It’ll be more like, “Oh, I took an environmental contamination class and we talked about the science behind the the crisis in Flint.” Or, “I took an environmental justice clinic, and Flint was a big piece of what we did.” So I think the ability to integrate it is certainly impactful.
Also, everybody might not agree with me, but I do think that there is some value in the work we’ve done. The whole point of us being here as students is that we’re going to learn to be future change-makers and future leaders in these issue areas. I think the more people that we can get exposed to this here [at F&ES] and the systems thinking approach, and the case study of Flint itself, all of these things could have a real impact on the future of environmental policy and environmental management. I certainly understand the frustrations: we go to class, we write the papers, we do the projects, but are we really making an impact? But in the future, if we can influence enough people and help them connect these ideas and do something with them, then that leaves me hopeful, if nothing else.