Sunshine Week offers lessons in government transparency
| March 25, 2017 | 2:23 pm | Events, M.P.P., Tufts, UEP | Comments closed

Photo by Tom Nash
Sunshine Week is a time to highlight the importance of open government.

The following post was written by UEP student Tom Nash.

Sunshine Week, a nationally celebrated government transparency event held around James Madison’s birthday, usually serves as a chance for journalists to lecture and offer deserved scolding to local, state and national governments that make obtaining public records unnecessarily difficult.

As a journalist turned Tufts Master of Public Policy student, I wanted my peers to know why government records are important to policy makers. We wanted to look at how government records can be used to examine and evaluate policy at the ground level, as well as to peak at some of the more bizarre items in the filing cabinet. So we invited MuckRock, a local nonprofit that helps people file public records requests, to share the dirt.

Held at Canopy City, a nonprofit and startup workspace operating in Somerville, about three dozen people joined some of us MPP students to hear from Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism founder Chris Faraone and a public records overview from MuckRock co-founder Michael Morisy.*

Morisy began with the basics: Any government document is essentially the property of us taxpayers, per the Freedom of Information Act put into place by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, except for the ones that aren’t for a host of reasons ranging from national security to individual privacy.

The work of public records is in keeping governments, whether federal, state, or local, honest and efficient in releasing documents. MuckRock, founded in 2010* and at one point incubated at the Boston Globe, has now released more than a million pages of documents.

That’s not counting the millions that were just released following a CIA lawsuit, which has so far yielded dozens of factoids about a Cold War era agency obsessed with writing the perfect one liner and even the Soviet telepathy gap.  

What does that kind of Tom Clancy nightmare stuff have to do with UEP? A lot, actually. It may not be surprising that the CIA’s imagination ran wild, but at a local level we have police departments armed to the teeth with military equipment. And for every atomic bomb near-miss scenario, there’s the gas leaks that plague Massachusetts.

Photo by Tom Nash
Several MPP students and members of the public gathered for an event with MuckRock, a local nonprofit that helps people file public records requests.

Whether we’re talking about how police use taxpayer funds or whether local officials are turning a blind eye to public safety hazards, public records provide insight into the work government at all levels is, or isn’t, doing. As policy students, knowing how to file a public records request, and what to file for, is an essential skill to learn. Campaign finance records, traffic and parking studies, environmental impact reports — all of it is theoretically at our fingertips.

Because the laws around public records are so broad, government transparency policy has evolved into a world of shaming and advocating for those laws to be followed. Massachusetts, for example, has earned an “F” rating for dodging much of its responsibility to fulfill public records requests. It’s on us to hold officials accountable for following the law, which is one of the reasons MuckRock has become a mainstay in the realm media and transparency.

Our Sunshine Week session at Canopy City included more in-depth training from MuckRock staffers Beryl Lipton and JPat Brown, and finished with a FOIA Karaoke round of unsuspecting MPP students asked to give presentations based on government PowerPoint slides. Like public records in general, it was more fun that it might sound.

*I worked with Faraone on The Somerville Files, a series that ran in Dig Boston in 2013. I also became one of MuckRock’s first users in 2010, and served as its first news editor between 2012 and 2013. Writing about exploding toilets was among many highlights.
Uber drivers beware! How pay structure can be hazardous to your health
| March 15, 2017 | 7:33 am | Tufts, UEP | Comments closed

Photo by Tan Qiuyi
A garment worker sews at Ho Guom Garment factory in northern Vietnam.

Many an Uber driver may say she or he enjoys the flexibility and the freedom of not having to punch in hours.

They can work around their own schedules and make money whenever they like.

But could jobs that pay per-item or per-service be worse for workers’ emotional and physical wellbeing?

UEP Associate Professor and Chair Mary Davis recently received a $110,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate this very question — do U.S. workers paid based on level of service provided experience different health outcomes than salaried or hourly workers?

This grant comes on the heels of research Davis conducted at Vietnamese garment factories between 2010 and 2014. The study, which was recently published in the Annals of Global Health, found that garment workers paid per piece reported worse physical and emotional health than those paid hourly.

Wage incentives bore the most consistently significant evidence in all demographic and factory-level variables Davis used in her regression model, which included performance on occupational safety and health compliance measures.

Credit: Tufts Institute of the Environment
UEP Associate Professor Mary Davis

“Interestingly, the driving force behind the piece rate is not a full piece rate system; rather, it is those that pay some combination of by the piece and hourly. It is possible that increased wage uncertainty related to partial pay systems is driving this relationship, although the specific mechanism behind such an effect is unclear,” Davis wrote in her study. “One possible explanation is that a partial piece rate system sets the stage for other health-compromising conditions in these factories, such as worker abuse.”

One of those conditions includes sexual harassment, Davis wrote, which has been linked to per-piece pay structures. Researchers have posited this system could provide leverage to supervisors to extract sexual favors from workers.

While this may not necessarily translate to all per-item and per-service paid work, the overall theory is simpler.

“The connection between piece rate and worker health makes intuitive sense, as financial incentives that speed the pace of work may also result in less worker investment in safety precautions, particularly those that slow the pace of work. Research suggests that the piece rate leads workers to shirk on health-promoting activities such as machine safety maintenance, work breaks, and medical visits that would otherwise reduce job injury and accident risks,” Davis wrote.

Studies indicate that while per-piece pay may boost worker performance, poor perceived and actual health outcomes could balance those gains and actually reduce profits for businesses employing these workers, Davis wrote.

With the DOL grant, Davis will conduct similar research in the context of U.S. paid-per-service workers from Uber drivers to freelance performers.

Davis’ published article on Vietnamese garment workers can be found here:

BARROS: As social safety nets erode, local entities need to step up
| March 11, 2017 | 3:54 pm | Colloquium, Events, M.P.P., Tufts, UEP | 2 Comments

Photo by Tom Nash
A panel, assembled by UEP student John Barros, chief of Boston’s Economic Development, discussed financial stabilization issues for area families in the first of a policy seminar series.

The federal government is failing the poor, said John Barros, and this is a time to rethink what is happening on the local level.

“We need to take a different role locally,” said Barros, chief of Economic Development in Boston. “Something is happening that allows us to rethink this country, reshape capitalism.”

Barros, a Master of Public Policy student at UEP, kicked off the first in a series of policy seminars at Tufts University with a panel on Financial Stabilization for Boston Families.

In Boston, 46 percent of households don’t have enough savings to remain above the poverty line for three months if they suffer a major disruption, Barros said. For African Americans, that number is 69 percent, and for Latina/o families 75 percent.

Boston is no different when it comes to the increasing inequality in America, Barros said, but the social safety nets for the poor are eroding. He added that the Trump administration has reignited conversations about the deserving and undeserving poor.

“What’s coming out of Washington D.C. is scary,” Barros said.

Credit: Boston Magazine
John Barros

To further exacerbate the inequalities, said panelist Margaret Miley, strategic advisor at The Midas Collaborative, there is inequality in expenses for the poor.

“Poor people pay so much more for everything,” Miley said, noting that 25 percent of Massachusetts adults with credit reports have debt in collections and have few consumer protections.

The panelists — which also included Constance Martin, deputy director at the Office of Financial Empowerment in Boston; Carlos Moreno, coordinator of the Mobility Mentoring Center at EMPath — discussed some of the local initiatives to mitigate inequality in the area, such as financial empowerment centers, LISC programs for entrepreneurs unable to get loans, the Midas Collaborative Matched Savings program, and Boston Saves.

Boston Saves was launched in January and the program supplied 250 kindergarteners with Children’s Savings Accounts (CSAs) to help families save for the child’s educational future, said Martin. Each child received $50 in a seed account, an online tracking system, and access to financial literacy events.

Savings are “matched by parents,” Martin said. “When you have savings, you’re four times more likely to go to college. It creates a mindset for families who didn’t necessarily think about higher education (as an option).”

Photo by Monique Ching
Panelists (from left) John Barros, Constance Martin, Margaret Miley, and Carlos Moreno take questions.

Responding to questions about transit, Barros noted that ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft have actually brought service to communities that were once invisible.

While working at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative “it was difficult to get a cab in Roxbury,” Barros said.

He added that spotty public transit service to low income areas is just another aspect adding to the cost of being poor.

“It takes certain parts of the city more than an hour to get to downtown,” Barros said.

The city will do better if it can maximize human production and the ability for all to participate in the economy, Barros said. Tying this back to the Trump administration, he noted that devaluing women,  people of color, or immigrants is bad for business.

“Doing good can be good for you,” Barros said. “The innovation economy cannot survive without difference.”

This was the first in a series of policy seminars hosted by the Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP) program. The schedule will be released once it is finalized. Check back for updates.

Climate change cannot be separated from social justice, panel says
| March 4, 2017 | 5:18 pm | Colloquium, M.P.P., Tufts, Tufts Environmental Studies Department, UEP | Comments closed

A panel of Boston-area practitioners speaks to Tufts University students about climate justice issues during a February 2017 UEP colloquium.

The following piece was submitted by Tufts undergraduate student Sika Gadzanku.

At its core, Climate Justice is a social justice and human rights issue.

Climate Justice is working to rectify economic, racial and social inequities that exist when discussing the benefits and burdens of climate change and environmental degradation. It is the conscious effort to be intersectional in any measure aimed at mitigating climate change and acknowledging that marginalized communities suffer the most from the effects of climate change.

Master’s in Public Policy students at Tufts University’s Environmental and Urban Planning (UEP) program organized a panel that discussed the importance and place of climate justice within the larger umbrella of combating climate change. The panelists were:

The discussion centered on how the communities of Chelsea, Roxbury, Worcester and, to an extent, the greater Boston area are making their communities more resilient in the face of social, economic, racial and health challenges.

A panel, assembled by graduate students of the Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning program, takes questions from the audience.

The key takeaways were:

  • Climate justice for low-income communities must be prioritized

“Chelsea has 24 percent of its residents below the poverty line. The state average is 10 percent,” said Maria Belen Power, and added that low-income communities in Massachusetts, largely made up of people of color, will be the worst hit by climate change. It’s already happening and is projected to get worse. Thus, a big part of the work of organizations like GreenRoots, Inc. and ACE are partnering with the state government to outline resilience efforts and educate residents in these areas on the dangers of climate change and the benefits of green living.

  • Combating climate change must include obvious co-benefits  

Panelists stressed the need to be truly intersectional when dealing with climate justice since residents of low-income communities face additional economic, social and racial inequities. Kalila Barnett spoke on the importance of working better to connect environmental and economic issues such that addressing a problem provided a co-benefit. That is, solving an environmental issue also provides an economic benefit. In her view connecting these issues only serves to increase community engagement. Additionally, David McMahon of Dismas House highlighted how a homeless shelter invested in solar power – reducing its electric bill from $20,000 to $0 while enjoying a $2000 rebate incentive from MassCEC.

  • Community engagement and cross-party collaboration is critical

ACE is led by and composed of Roxbury residents which makes their mission and goals more personal. This community-based model has proved effective in building neighborhood support for their activities. ACE, in collaboration with GreenRoots, also community-based, successfully blocked the construction of a diesel-fired power plant planned to occupy the space opposite an elementary school complex in Chelsea.

  • Take advantage of Massachusetts’ leadership in green living

As mentioned, investing in green energy presents opportunities for individuals and organizations to reduce their carbon footprint and save money through reduced utility costs. David McMahon highlighted Massachusetts’ place as a leader in green living – it has the best energy efficiency program and fourth largest solar energy generation in the country. Yet, a third of homes are still heated using oil furnaces, which are only 50 percent efficient. With reduced funding sources available to low-income communities to switch out these furnaces drying up, organizations like the Worcester Green Low Income Housing Coalition are spearheading initiatives to reduce carbon footprint and reduce energy costs for their members.

  • Marginalized communities deserve a seat at the table

Low-income communities must be given decision making power and some form of equity during the development of resilience projects. Dr. Atyia Martin remarked that giving residents a seat at the table ensures that proposed resilience solutions are actually socially, economically and racially equitable. It ensures the struggles of low-income communities are heard.  

Overall, this panel created an avenue to learn more about the need for climate justice and the ongoing work of some climate justice organizations in Massachusetts.

Looking to get involved?

  1. Identify your skills to know where you will be most useful. Skilled in social media? Volunteer as a publicity intern. Knowledgeable about environmental engineering solutions? Volunteer your services to research and analyzing appropriate technologies for a community-specific issue. Here is a list of some climate justice organizations.
  2. Bear in mind that any meaningful engagement with residents of low-income communities is based on trust and trust only develops over time.
Boston is a place for everyone, says council president Michelle Wu
| February 12, 2017 | 5:25 pm | Uncategorized | Comments closed
Photo by Ryuji Suzuki. Courtesy of the Office of Michelle Wu.

Photo by Ryuji Suzuki. Courtesy of the Office of Michelle Wu.

It has been more urgent than ever for cities to step up and be a voice for its people in the face of the current political climate, said Michelle Wu, president of Boston’s City Council.

The recent executive order to ban immigrants traveling to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries is discriminatory, Wu said.

“We need to be a space for everybody,” she said. “When the community surrounds people with needs (by providing) health services, education services, and others, we can solve every urban problem and be a model for other cities. Other cities can be jealous.”

Wu, the first woman of color elected as council president, spoke at a recent Civic Life Lunch at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. She added that, by being a welcoming place, Boston is not only doing the right thing but it is also benefiting the city’s economy.

“Immigrants are the backbone of our growth,” Wu said, urging students, faculty, and staff in the room to run for office during these tumultuous times.

Since being elected to Boston City Council, Wu has been active in initiatives pertaining to access and equity. In one instance, Wu helped lead the effort for a Language and Communications Access ordinance to ensure residents have access to city services and resources regardless of English proficiency or disability.

One of the city’s biggest challenges currently is inequality, Wu said, and she sees transportation as the foremost way to tackle the problem.

“You can create housing and education but, unless people can get to those opportunities, they’re going to be stuck,” she said. “Transportation is where you see the first forms of segregation — (through) choice.”

Responding to a question about whether the city can pressure the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to improve service and reinstate late-night service, Wu said the MBTA’s governance structure is largely set up to insulate it from politics, but the city can make small changes to help its community.

“The vast majority of city residents are closer to a bus stop than a T stop. The T controls vehicles … the city controls how fast they go,” Wu said.

For instance, the city could add dedicated bus lanes, add systems to change the lights when buses are approaching, place bus stops after traffic lights rather than before, and other similar tweaks.

Towards the end of her conversation, Wu again encouraged attendees to run for office and recommended the Emerge Massachusetts program, which prepares women for running for public office.

“The big picture answer is that government has to start being more reflective and responsive to people,” Wu said. “How do we get there? Get people who are different, who don’t fit the traditional molds (elected). … If we can make government seem like an attractive place for young people, I think we’ll be fine.”

Photo by Pat Greenhouse/Boston Globe Staff. Michelle Wu speaks with community members during a campaign event at Victoria's Diner November 2015.

Photo by Pat Greenhouse/Boston Globe Staff.
Michelle Wu speaks with community members during a campaign event at Victoria’s Diner November 2015.

From cynic to champion

A daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, Wu never intended to serve in the government.

Having arrived in the U.S. from Communist China, Wu’s parents associated government with famine, poverty, martial law, and other aspects of that totalitarian regime. The extent of their political involvement was abiding by the law and staying out of trouble.

About a decade ago, the discovery that Wu’s mother was struggling with mental illness tore the family apart and Wu left her beloved Boston to support her mother and two younger sisters in Chicago.

As a 23-year-old, Wu was running a family business while trying to find good education for her sisters and culturally appropriate health care for her mother with limited English.

“It felt like everything was spiraling out of control,” Wu said. “I became completely fed up with government. They were always trying to shut us down when I was just trying to help my family, trying to make my community better.”

Eventually Wu moved her family to Boston and, after working with then Mayor Tom Menino, she realized it is possible to solve problems from within government. Working on the campaign for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who was Wu’s professor, also gave Wu a glimpse of how to build a campaign from the ground up and how to connect with different communities both before and after an election.

Wu spoke candidly about dealing with her mother’s mental illness.

“When Mom first got sick, I never thought it could happen to us. I felt ton of guilt — there were times I reacted to her (in ways) that I am not proud of today,” she said.

The first time her mother had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance in the midst of crisis, Wu said she drove separately. By the time she arrived and filled out all the paperwork, Wu said her mother was in bed with a hospital robe on. The nurse handed Wu a bag of her mother’s clothes and she discovered they had been cut off her body and her mother had been sedated.

“I asked her what happened,” Wu said, tears coming to her eyes, “They had a male attendant in the room and she felt very uncomfortable, but she couldn’t communicate that to them. In that moment I felt I hadn’t been there for her. Leaving the hospital, I didn’t mention it to anyone.”

Things have since become more stable, Wu said, and had that happened today she would handle it very differently.

Wu said there have been many occasions where members of her family have felt helpless and that the power dynamics were stacked against them.

“There were times I haven’t spoken up,” she said. “It drives me to fight for what I believe in and what I am working to change.”

For upcoming Tisch College events, including a conversation with Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker Feb. 23, visit:

Mid-career program celebrates 15th anniversary
| February 6, 2017 | 12:21 am | M.P.P., Tufts, UEP | Comments closed
Bob Terrell, 2010-2012 MPP alumnus and executive director of Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston.

Bob Terrell, 2010-2012 MPP alumnus and executive director of Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston.

One of the region’s most diverse graduate programs is celebrating 15 years of educating mid-career professionals in urban, social, and environmental policy.

The Master of Public Policy program at UEP has seen almost 130 “practical visionaries” enter its classrooms since 2002. The MPP program, which can be completed in 1-3 years, was created for students returning to school to enhance their professional practice, pursue a shift in career, or looking to create a space for reflection and rejuvenation.

MPP students bring at least seven years of professional experience on issues from affordable housing to environmental management. About 26% of MPP students are older than 45 years old when they begin the program and half are people of color.

While the requirements of the MPP program are slightly different from UEP’s MA program, both programs share classes and MPP students are often viewed as resources for their experience in the field.

“Most MPPers like myself… brought a lot of real life experience to the class,” said Bob Terrell, executive director at the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston, in a 2016 MPP report. “Faculty really saw us as resources and not as competition and threat to their authority, and [had an attitude of] ‘hey, we have some really talented people in the class, speak up!’”

UEP students participate in an orientation activity.

UEP students participate in an orientation activity.

Other MPP graduates include Lilly Marcelin, founder and director of the Resilient Sisterhood Project; Elaine Ng, strategic planning director of special education for Boston Public Schools; and John Barros, chief of economic development for the City of Boston.
Read the 2016 report about the program and its accomplishments: 2016 MPP report.

UEP Colloquium: Speaker asks, who shapes the city and how?
| January 29, 2017 | 10:53 pm | Colloquium, UEP | Comments closed
Credit: Office de Consultation Publique de Montréal, Au-delà des chantiers, pensons les quartiers.

Credit: Office de Consultation Publique de Montréal, Au-delà des chantiers, pensons les quartiers.

Public participation in planning cities is often a messy and imperfect process.

But when conflict and consensus are allowed in this process it is exciting and often produces interesting ideas, said Lisa Bornstein, associate professor at McGill University’s School of Urban Planning.

In one example, Bornstein said the City of Montréal, Canada, wanted to redo its underpasses and were exploring ways to do this. A woman from the community came forward with photos of different underpasses she had taken in her travels. In these underpasses, artists used creative ways to humanize and enliven these spaces.

“Here was a non-planner feeding them ideas,” Bornstein said at a recent UEP colloquium, and city officials decided to change their approach based on the ideas this woman brought to them.

This was just one of many situations Bornstein has examined to try to answer what has been her central question for a decade of research — who shapes the city and how?

Bornstein hopes to synthesize all her findings in a couple of books eventually, but shared some of her ideas at the colloquium Wednesday.

Typically urban development is initiated by three types of actors, Bornstein said. One stems from urban “boosterism” and major pushes for government involvement in city building. Another is initiated by grassroots and other bottom-up efforts. A third is government initiated actions.

Having looked primarily at Montréal, Bornstein said there is a strong tradition of protest in the city, where residents will mobilize for any issue and in any weather. It is here that initiatives from the bottom have worked their way up into the institutional fabric of municipal government. For instance, there are annual summits known as “Choisissons la ville que nous voulons” or “Choose the city we want” and others indicating the city recognizes the value of participatory processes.

The Office de consultation publique de Montréal (OCPM) was one example that Bornstein examined. The OCPM is responsible for holding public meetings and public consultations for city projects from master plans to transit densification plans. The format begins much like a traditional public meeting, Bornstein said, where a group of commissioners presides over the meeting and developers present information, take questions, and give groups and organizations a chance to submit grievances. The commissioners then make their assessments and put together a series of recommendations for the city.

“This process have been accompanied with quite a bit of innovation. You see the standard public meeting, but they’re moving towards all sorts of digital means,” Bornstein said. “They’re reaching the people, displaying different types of designs. There’s use of Facebook, 3D modeling. In one, they had a ‘Chocolate Cake Day’ outside a Metro station. They had sheets of chocolate cake; they blocked out the buildings that are unlikely to change, then they asked people to play, then eat.”

Credit: Office de Consultation Publique de Montréal, Au-delà des chantiers, pensons les quartiers.

Credit: Office de Consultation Publique de Montréal, Au-delà des chantiers, pensons les quartiers.

Despite the OCPM’s innovation, however, Bornstein noted that the process is not perfect and that her team made critiques on three different levels.

The government decides which projects go for consultation, which is highly problematic, Bornstein says, because of its ability to direct projects the way it wants. Further, the project is largely designed before it even goes for consultation.

“If (the public) says, ‘No way, we hate it,’ they have to go back to the drawing board,” Bornstein said, adding that the design process can encourage conflict and distrust.

To add to the feelings of distrust, Bornstein noted the OCPM uses a lot of intimidating language, does not give residents enough time to express themselves, and conducts a lot of deals behind the scenes

Finally, Bornstein noted, there is no requirement for follow-up after these consultations. The city council also has the latitude to strike down the recommendations or to adopt some and not others without any requirements for explanation.

“There’s no mechanism for people to engage subsequently,” she said.

Bornstein described several other participatory initiatives, particularly for mega projects, in the area with mixed success.

Some enlightening moments came, she said, when residents were gaining access to public officials for the first time and when these participatory processes embraced conflict and diverse viewpoints. By contrast, Bornstein described some “oh no” moments when there was a reliance on expertise and technical knowledge that could not be questioned, as well as derailment of longstanding plans, and projects that made communities invisible.

Flint crisis a tale of democracy hijacked
| January 10, 2017 | 5:38 pm | student papers, Tufts, Tufts Environmental Studies Department, UEP | Comments closed

This post was adapted from an assignment UEP student Elijah Romulus wrote for the Cities in Space, Place, and Time class. The assignment was an analysis of a policy created after 1950.

Flint Water Advisory Task Force Final Report

Credit: Jake May/AP Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards shows the difference in quality between Detroit and Flint water after testing.

Credit: Jake May/AP
Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards shows the difference in quality between Detroit and Flint water after testing.


Close to a century after the first city plan of Flint, Michigan was released, the city went from a growing metropolis to a declining city facing disaster. On December 14, 2015, Mayor Karen Weaver declared the city of Flint in a State of Emergency. An environmental and public health disaster that was traced to the city switching its water source to the Flint River in 2014, a manmade disaster. Flint, once a bustling satellite of the Motor City, Detroit, was now in the headlines for municipal water contamination and lead poisoning in its community. To this date there is still lead in the Flint water despite efforts to fix the problem. The governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder appointed a Flint Water Advisory Task Force to report on the situation. This paper will analyze the Task Force’s 116-page report, which proposed reforms and policies through 44 recommendations that stretch across 10 different local, state, and federal institutions and agencies. The paper focuses on five recommendations in particular.


1) Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS): Ensure that MDHHS is transparent and timely in reporting and analysis of aggregate data regarding children’s blood lead levels. MDHHS data regarding lead levels shall be provided to individuals and organizations, based on their expertise, upon request and in cases when the interpretation of data by MDHHS is questioned.

The MDHHS recommendation stated above follows one finding by the taskforce that the department was slow to analyze the data it had on children’s blood lead levels. Furthermore, there was reluctance to share the data it had with Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who was investigating lead poisoning among her patients. Likewise, MDHHS did not cooperate with Professor Marc Edwards, who was helping residents test the city’s water. Based on the Task Force’s introduction as well as the remainder of the executive summary, they found failure of state government at all departments and this recommendation reflects that. The MDHHS was found to be non-transparent and even defensive in its handling of the water crisis.

2) State-Appointed Emergency Managers: Review Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law (PA 436) and its implementation, and identify measures to compensate for the loss of the checks and balances that are provided by representative government.

On December 26th 2012 Michigan Governor Rick Snyder approved senate Bill No. 865,  introduced by state senator Phil Pavlov. This bill was later named the Local Financial Stability and Choice Act, Act 436 of 2012. This bill in essence installs emergency managers, EMs, in cities, municipalities, and school districts deemed in a financial crises by the state, in lieu of the elected governance, granting the EM full executive power. The topic of emergency management was one of great tension before and after the Flint Water Crisis. Act 436, though passed in 2012, comes from a long line of similar acts dating back to 1990. The Task Force found in that the state’s EM law could improve to ensure protection of public health and safety not be lost in the name of financial urgency.

3) United States Environmental Protection Agency: Exercise more vigor, and act more promptly, in addressing compliance violations that endanger public health.

In another case of an agency waiting too long to take action, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was also responsible in the Flint Water Crisis. As early as June 2015, EPA officials were relaying concerns for the drinking water in Flint but upper management was hesitant to take action.

4) Environmental Injustice: Issue an Executive Order mandating guidance and training on Environmental Justice across all state agencies in Michigan, highlighting the Flint water crisis as an example of environmental injustice. The state should reinvigorate and update implementation of an Environmental Justice Plan for the State of Michigan.

Since the environmental disaster occurred, many journalists, academics, and citizens alike have equated this to an issue of environmental racism. The city of Flint is a majority-minority city with 57% of the population reported to be African American according to the 2010 census. While there is nothing that points directly to environmental racism, there is a lack of environmental justice laws to protect citizens as noted by the Task Force. It urged the governor to pass an executive order to be proactive in the face of environmental injustices and not be reactive in the event of another crisis.

Credit: Jake May/AP Gov. Snyder apologized, promising to fix the problem, but critics call the effort "too little, too late."

Credit: Jake May/AP
Gov. Snyder apologized, promising to fix the problem, but critics call the effort “too little, too late.”

5) State-wide: Use the occasion of the Flint water crisis to prompt local and state re-investment in critical water infrastructure, while providing mechanisms to advance affordability and universal access to water services.

According to the Detroit news: Elevated blood-lead levels are seen in a higher percentage of children in parts of Grand Rapids, Jackson, Detroit, Saginaw, Muskegon, Holland and several other cities, this plays right into the Task Force’s recommendation to update all of Michigan’s water infrastructure. It was not only that the city of Flint switched to a corrosive water source, but the pipes were filled with lead and city employees were not properly equipped or trained to deal with the conversion of water sources. All these factor into the inadequate water infrastructure that the Task Force described in its report.  

The five recommendations above best speak to how the state and federal governments failed the city of Flint according the Task Force’s report. The Task Force did a good job of putting the state and federal governments’ front and center of who is to blame for this environmental disaster. The authors interviewed 63 people from the governor, to doctors, to the ACLU, to citizens of Flint. Notably, they concluded in one finding that ultimate accountability for Michigan executive branch decisions rests with the Governor.  

In context

The events that followed the report’s early-2016 release suggest it was indeed influential. In the months following the release of the report, six state employees were charged with criminal offenses from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The employees were originally suspended without pay during the process but a few months later the state reversed its decision and resumed their pay, costing taxpayers up to $500,000 in addition to granting them legal defense by the state’s attorney general. While the report holds the state responsible for the crisis, and likely catalyzed legal action against the state employees, it appears to the writer that government officials and state employees are above the law and rarely if ever face prison sentences.  

One issue that seems to be lacking in the conversation of the Flint Water Crisis, however, is the Flint river itself. While there are many calls for environmental justice, it is the writer’s opinion that there should be space for environmentalism as well. The Flint River became so corrosive that it was able to eat through pipes. But without the Flint River, the city would not have experienced its boom in the early 20th century, much like Los Angeles’ dependence on the LA River for its success that Jenny Price described in her essay. Currently, the Flint River is in bad shape and needs attention. Some argue environmentalism is a “white cause” while environmental justice is a so-called “minority cause.” This may factor into the lack of environmentalism work  in the majority-minority city of Flint.

While the story of Flint is one of tragedy, there is a positive aspect and it is the citizens of Flint. The citizens took matters into their own hands when the government failed them. While children and adults alike were falling victim to lead poisoning at the hands of state sponsored austerity measures, citizens fought for justice. This was with the help of organizations like the ACLU, doctors and professors, and select state and federal employees with righteous indignation to speak up against injustice. Most recently the fight for justice continued as the groups such as Concerned Pastors for Social Change, Flint Activist Melissa Mays, the ACLU, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a lawsuit against the state of Michigan to deliver clean water to households in the city of Flint that don’t have access. Even after the state was found responsible for the crisis, it is still fighting against the suit.

Lessons Learned

Flint, Michigan is a wakeup call for various reasons whether it be environmental justice issues, environmentalism, human rights issues, the harmful effects of austerity, and more. There are citizens in the city of Flint still without reliable drinking water. People will be dealing with the lead poisoning for the rest of their lives and there are more public health issues that have arisen in the midst of the crisis. Flint is an example of what happens when democracy is snatched and technocrats and bureaucrats take control. Flint is an example of big business and profits over people. Flint is an example of what happens to cities that are either poor or poor and majority-minority. As planners, policy makers, and change agents it is important to see what went wrong and what went right with Flint. The question that must be asked is: How can one use his or her position to make positive change even if a particular department or agency moves in a negative direction? Flint cannot be forgotten and the citizens of Flint deserve justice because water is life.  

Read the full paper here: Elijah Romulus – Analysis of Flint Water Advisory Task Force Final Report


Works Cited

“Flint Doctor Mona Hanna-Attisha on How She Fought Gov’t Denials to Expose Poisoning of City’s Kids.” Democracy Now! January 15, 2016. Accessed November 27, 2016.

“What Did GM & the Governor Know? GM Stopped Using Flint Water Over a Year Before Emergency Declared.” Democracy Now! February 17, 2016. Accessed November 27, 2016.

Aldridge, Chris. “Pavlov Named Most Conservative, Nominated Michigan Senator of the Year.” Huron Daily Tribune. April 20, 2016. Accessed November 19, 2016.

Allen, Robert. “6 state employees criminally charged in Flint water crisis” Detroit Free Press. July 30, 2016. Accessed November 28, 2016.

Bosman, Julie. “E.P.A. Waited Too Long to Warn of Flint Water Danger, Report Says.” The New York Times. October 20, 2016. Accessed November 28, 2016.

Carmody, Steve. “State of Michigan Fighting Federal Court Order to Deliver Water to Flint Homes.” Michigan Radio. November 17, 2016. Accessed November 28, 2016.

Davis, Matthew, Chris Kolb, Lawrence Reynolds, Eric Rothstein, and Ken Sikkema. Flint Water Advisory Task Force – Final Report. Report. Office of Governor Rick Snyder, State of Michigan. 2016.

Egan, Paul. “Federal Judge Orders Delivery of Bottled Water in Flint.” Detroit Free Press. November 10, 2016. Accessed November 28, 2016.

Eligon, John. “A Question of Environmental Racism in Flint.” The New York Times. January 21, 2016. Accessed November 28, 2016.

Emery, Amanda. “Police confirm body inside vehicle submerged in Flint River.” April 1, 2016. Accessed November 28, 2016.   

Fonger, Ron. “Flint water crisis prosecutors tell Appeals Court more criminal charges expected.” September 6, 2016. Accessed November 28, 2016.

Fonger, Ron. “State reinstates pay for employees charged with crimes in Flint water crisis.” August 18, 2016. Accessed November 28, 2016.

Graham, David. “Who is to Blame for Flint’s Lead Crisis?” The Atlantic. March 24, 2016. Accessed November 27, 2016.

Helms, Matt. “Canadians Deliver Water to Protest Detroit Shutoffs.” USA Today. July 24, 2014. Accessed November 28, 2016.

Hohn, Donovan. “Flint’s Water Crisis and the ‘Troublemaker’ Scientist.” The New York Times. August 21, 2016. Accessed November 27, 2016.

Johnson, Jiquanda. “State Oversight Board Restores Power to Flint City Council despite Concerns.” May 26, 2016. Accessed November 28, 2016.

Lewis, Chris. “Does Michigan’s Emergency-Manager Law Disenfranchise Black Citizens?” The Atlantic. May 09, 2013. Accessed November 19, 2016.

Mock, Brentin. “Are There Two Different Versions of Environmentalism, One ‘white,’ One ‘black’?” Mother Jones. July 31, 2014. Accessed November 28, 2016.

Mostafavi, Beata. “What Happened Last Time? A Look Back at Flint’s 2002 State Takeover.” November 10, 2011. Accessed November 19, 2016.

Oosting, Jonathan. “Michigan Proposal 1: Voters Reject Measure, Repeal Controversial Emergency Manager Law.” November 07, 2012. Accessed November 19, 2016.

Oosting, Jonathan. “Snyder Signs Replacement Emergency Manager Law: We ‘heard, Recognized and Respected’ Will of Voters.” December 27, 2012. Accessed November 19, 2016.

Patrick, Deval. 2014. Executive Order 552. Massachusetts: Office of the Governor.

Price, Jenny. “Remaking American Environmentalism: On the Banks of the L.A. River.” Environmental History, November 12, 2007, 536-55.

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U.S. Census Bureau, “Quick Facts. Flint city, Michigan” People. Accessed November 28, 2016.

Vasilogambros, Matt. “Upholding Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law.” The Atlantic. September 12, 2016. Accessed November 27, 2016.  

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Rhyme and Reason: class gets poetic about economics
| November 21, 2016 | 2:30 pm | UEP | Comments closed
UEP Chair Mary Davis put together an anthology of poems from last Spring's economics class.

UEP Chair Mary Davis put together an anthology of poems from last Spring’s economics class.

Poetry may not improve everyone’s ability to learn economics, but it made class more enjoyable for some, according to findings from a recent UEP course.

Mary Davis, chair of UEP, injected rhyme and meter into the required Economics for Planning and Policy Analysis class as part of an experiment on the effects of poetry versus expository writing for learning economics.

“When you generate an idea by yourself, you’re going to be more likely to remember it,” Davis said, citing psychological research at a recent presentation of her findings.

From a group of almost 40 students, 45 percent said poetry improved their depth of understanding in economics, while 34 percent said essays would have helped them better understand economics. However, 70 percent said they would choose poetry over essay, 22.5 percent said they would choose essay, and 7.5 percent said they were indifferent.

The findings also were inconclusive on whether poetry improved students’ performance during tests because one of two randomized groups always scored higher whether it did exercises in poetry or prose.

While this learning style, using poems to express economic theories, may not be effective for all types of students, Davis noted that it is a contrast to the typical “chalk and talk” style used by economics instructors.

The traditional teaching style produces “economists that act and behave the same way. It excludes people who don’t learn that way,” she said. “If, after the semester, you liquidate your brain it doesn’t serve (its purpose).”

The goal was to boost economic literacy. The tool was the written word. The data were inconclusive but the results were lyrical and, at the very least, an update from the trite economic metaphor of guns and butter.

The anthology of poems and results from last semester’s study will be published on a future blog post. Please check back.

2016 Economics for Policy and Planning Analysis class

2016 Economics for Policy and Planning Analysis class

Panel speaks on how planners can make black lives matter
| October 26, 2016 | 11:34 am | Tufts, UEP | Comments closed

Planning processes are not democratic, said Bob Terrell, executive director at the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston.

“If you’re serious about real political empowerment and economic empowerment, why aren’t you hiring people from this community who have the skills and the background to do any and all research?” said Terrell. “I have yet to see a municipality that will turn over real decision-making power to its citizens and residents.”

To make black lives matter, Terrell said, planners need to look to the community rather than seeking outside consultants.

“There is no such thing as value-free social science,” Terrell said during a UEP colloquium about Making Black Lives Matter through Policy and Planning on October 19.

Policy work and activism are not mutually exclusive, said Melissa Colón, a doctoral student at the Tufts Child Studies and Human Development department, and former executive director of Massachusetts Education Initiative for Latino Students. She added that leaders need to disrupt education systems that continue to oppress some of its students. School is supposed to be an equalizer, she said.

Drawing on his own life, panelist Abrigal Forrester illustrated how the education system devalued him and his peers.

Forrester, who is now the director of Community Action at Madison Park Community Development Corporation, said he always performed well academically, but was never vetted for opportunities to attend technical schools.

“It really made me feel like, why am I doing all this when I’m not getting the recognition?” Forrester said. He added that many like him engaged in a “devaluing of self through the system.”

Forrester recalled his friend Walter, who frequently stole cars and was eventually killed by law enforcement. The next day, Walter was not at school and everyone knew why.

“There was no discussion about what we all knew about losing Walter. We just said, ‘Wow, Walter’s gone.’ Is anybody going to talk to us?” Forrester said. “We’re losing children every day and no one’s saying, ‘Let’s stop your academics for a minute and allow this process to heal. Do we really matter when you don’t give our children a chance to stop and allow them to grieve?”

Offering some advice, Colón asserted that students of urban planning and policy should not accept theory or facts as a given.

“I don’t believe in neutrality — you can either stand up for racial justice or you’re complicit to the oppression of others,” Colón said.

Tufts UEP students can access a video of the full colloquium session on Trunk, in the UEP students site, under Media Gallery.