Mari Copeny, best known as “Little Miss Flint Michigan,” has spent her entire life fighting the water crisis.
No, that isn't an exaggeration: since she was 12-years-old, the Flint native has been the face of Flint's water crisis — one that's still very much active today.
Starting in 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan made national headlines over its public health crisis when the drinking water became contaminated with lead.
As the story goes, during a budget crisis, Flint changed its water source and failed to apply the correct protection that would prevent lead from pipes from bleeding into the water supply. Experts estimate that approximately 100,000 residents were exposed to the polluted water.
According to WNEM-TV, between “6,000 and 12,000 children were exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead.” Children, not having fully developed immune systems, are particularly at risk for the dangers of lead poisoning. Damages can include a “reduction in intellectual functioning and IQ, an increased chance of Alzheimer's disease, and Legionnaires' disease.”
The crisis grew so great that then-President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency for Flint. But in the years that followed, the crisis would continue, prompting its citizens into pushing for legislative change that would bring clean water to the city.
As a result of a situation with life-or-death implications, Mari Copeny’s childhood became one of necessary advocacy. And from there, Little Miss Flint Michigan was born.
“Our schools need upgrades. We need roads fixed, we need jobs, we need change,” she said in an interview with Do Something. “We need leaders that have a heart and care about everyone and not just the interests of big business and the top 10 percent. We need to protect dreamers, we need to protect kids in the most vulnerable areas, we need love and for people to care about their communities.”
Needless to say, Little Miss Flint Michigan touched the hearts of Americans by appearances on talk shows, interviews with media outlets, and even notably writing to President Obama — who then accepted Mari's invitation to meet with her to discuss the crisis at hand.
But even as the nation moved on, Mari didn't. To this day, she is still raising awareness for Flint and other towns affected by similar water crises.
“My community is still very much in crisis, and every day I learn of other communities dealing with the same issues. I want to be able to look back and say, ‘Yes, I did my part to fix this,’” Copeny told Nylon.
“Being an activist has given me a chance to have friends from all around the world. I love being able to support other activists and to keep on speaking up on issues that matter the most to me. We are all one big family. I could never just walk away from that.”
But as public as her activism has been, Mari has also stressed the importance of how her childhood has been dedicated to a cause — a cause that, at times, it seems like lawmakers have forgotten about.
Even though the public has been overwhelmingly supportive of the idea of a young child getting involved, it’s important to remember that the water crisis is not her fault, nor her responsibility to fix — something that she has been more and more vocal about.
“It is our responsibility to go to school, do our homework, keep our chores done, and worry about sports and other hobbies,” Copeny told Nylon. “But the fact is, we are being directly affected by so many life-altering issues that, if we don't step up and take the lead now, we may not get a future where we do get to grow up.”
While her advocacy has been invaluable in getting Flint the support it desperately needs (and deserves), it’s also inspired other activists to never stop fighting for their communities.
Copeny’s impact goes beyond just Flint; she’s also a Youth Ambassador for the Women's March on Washington, Equality for HER, and the People's Climate March.
As she grows up, she represents a generation of young people who are no longer waiting around for things to change; instead, they’re taking matters into their own hands and knocking on lawmakers' doors to advocate for their communities.
“Stop acting like you support us when you know that you are going to keep supporting policies that hurt us and put our lives and futures in danger. Start listening to us and make sure that the laws and policies you pass actually prove that you are listening,” she implored to politicians in an interview with Nylon.
“Stop using us kids as photo props because we are fed up with the empty promises and lack of urgency to support us.”
While Little Miss Flint Michigan is iconic in her own right, Mari Copeny is an important voice in how to make a real impact while staying true to herself and her community.
A version of this article was originally published in The Water Edition of the Goodnewspaper.