“As terrible and tragic as what happened in Flint is, it’s also a very heartening story in that because of the action of residents and because of their determination; the truth eventually came out,”

Curt Guyette, investigative reporter for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, delivered the keynote speech at the “Sustainability Scholars Forum Research Showcase,” hosted by the forum on Sept. 9.

The showcase marks the second annual event for the forum which, according to its website, “is focused on investigating and promoting sustainability in the U.S. and beyond, noting the complex intersections of environmental, social, economic and cultural themes.”

This year’s event featured remarks from Guyette followed by several sustainability-related research presentations.

“Sustainability, when you get involved in conversations [about it], most often ends up digressing to a question of environmental sustainability,” said David Fasenfest, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and forum member.

“But, our focus, in the large extent, is on social sustainability, which is a little harder to identify, a little harder to measure.”

Fasenfest said he has also worked with the ACLU to study the effect of emergency management in Michigan, a phenomenon which Guyette was hired to investigate back in 2013.

Guyette said he was the first person to be hired as an investigative reporter by the ACLU, thanks to a grant from the Ford Foundation.

“The reason that was a focus for the ACLU is that [the emergency management] law takes away democracy in the cities, school districts and counties that the state takes over. It is really the most extreme receivership law of its kind in the country. It gives vast, unchecked power to these emergency managers,” Guyette said.

During his keynote speech, Guyette gave an overview of issues caused or impacted by the emergency manager law, including Detroit’s bankruptcy and various controversies concerning Detroit Public Schools, before detailing his investigation of Flint’s water crisis.

He said Flint began sourcing water from the Flint River in 2014 based on the debt reduction policy of an emergency manager, which ultimately resulted in water containing twice the amount of lead necessary to be considered hazardous waste flowing out of residential taps. Guyette said citizens mobilized, and he took notice and produced a short documentary with filmmaker Kate Levy, who is currently teaching a class on art and activism at WSU.

“As terrible and tragic as what happened in Flint is, it’s also a very heartening story in that because of the action of residents and because of their determination; the truth eventually came out,” Guyette said. “They had people that helped them, but [residents] were the driving force.”

He said despite resident mobilization and press coverage, city, state and county governments failed to effectively address the lead issue. Guyette said he discovered it was the city’s decision to use a discredited method known as “pre-flushing” in testing lead levels.

Guyette said WSU used the pre-flushing method in its recent lead tests, a method that involves letting water run for several minutes and then letting it sit for several hours before testing, and has been proven to produce artificially low results.  

Presenters at the Sustainability Scholars Forum included Michigan State University student Jackie Guzman, forum member and Assistant Professor of Public Administration Alisa Moldavanova, School of Social Work Assistant Professor and forum member Tam Perry and Daryl Pierson, coordinator at WSU’s Office of Campus Sustainability.

Pierson highlighted a number of campus sustainability efforts spanning energy conservation, waste reduction, alternative transportation and the creation of sustainable food systems. Those efforts are detailed on the office’s website.

Kristin Hurley, a WSU graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in social work, was among several students who attended the event.

“I do have a huge interest in sustainability, and this is kind of like a bridge of seeing how my academic work could also be connected,” Hurley said.

Guyette said making a difference is an important lesson for students to learn.

"They can take on incredibly powerful forces and by working in cooperation can create change," he said.

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