The cheers of the Women's March in Washington, DC on Jan. 21 were deafening, but Mari Copeny cheered along in the loudest tone her 9-year-old voice could manage. She also spent the day telling other fervent protestors about her hometown: Have you heard about Flint? Did you know my family has had to cook with bottled water for three years? Do you know what drinking lead does to a kid's brain?
Then Copeny returned home to Flint, Michigan, and turned back into a fourth grader. She packed her backpack to be ready for class the next day and played around with her little brother and sister. It barely fazed her that when she met celebrities like Katy Perry and the cast of Netflix's Orange is the New Black, they already knew her as the face of Flint's water crisis—the littlest water warrior.
Copeny has met President Donald Trump, former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, celebrities, governors and members of Congress, her mom Lulu Brezzell told Motherboard. She asks them what they're going to do to help the kids of Flint.
"She always wants to know: What about the kids?" Brezzell said. "She doesn't realize the historical significance. I don't think she realizes she's writing history. I think she'll be able to look back on all that and say, 'I did all that before I was 10.'"
"People listen to me and it shows me that people didn't forget about Flint."
Flint, Michigan, has been without clean tap water for three years after lead seeped into the public water supply—a crisis large enough to warrant a federal state of emergency. The problem began when Flint switched its water supply to the Flint River, and its water composition corroded some of Flint's old lead pipes. Lead is particularly dangerous as it can cause learning developments in children.
Copeny's activism started when saw children in her town test positive for lead poisoning. Her neighbors stopped using their tap water and stood in long lines for bottled water. Her family was struggling with the news, too, but she told her mom they needed to do something to help the other kids in town.
"It can happen anywhere," Copeny said. "People listen to me and it shows me that people didn't forget about Flint."
About a year ago, Copeny and her mom attended a rally for Flint. An organizer pulled her out of the crowd and put her on stage with Stevie Wonder and Janelle Monae. Her mom said she faced the crowd, bouncing curls framing her smiling face, and screamed "Fix the pipe!" along with the celebrities.
"She's seen her sister covered in rashes (from the water). She saw people getting sick and dying, and she said, 'What can I do to help?'" Brezzell said. "And she's had that fire ever since."
Copeny organized bottled water drives and handed out water in Flint. She organized efforts to pack 100 backpacks for Flint children whose parents had to choose between paying for school supplies or buying expensive water filters for their showers. She wrote then-President Obama and received a visit from the president.
Her mom recalled when her daughter begged her to take her to Washington, DC, for the Congressional hearings on the Flint water crisis. The bus ride took 12 hours.
Life had been tough for kids in Flint since the water crisis began. While lead levels across the city are now low enough to fall within federal standards, Brezzell said the water still smells like chlorine, gives them headaches and makes their skin break out in rashes.
"Do you remember when you could make bubblebaths?" Brezzell asked her daughter.
She said her daughter doesn't let those challenges get to her. She still considers her life normal. Copeny goes to a public school and tells her friends about her adventures meeting heads of state and singers. She competes in beauty pageants and was named "Little Miss Flint," a title she uses in her activism work. She tweets about Flint when her homework is done, but her mom tries to shield her from trolls and vitriol.
Copeny said she just wants to help Flint because it's her home. "I never want to leave Flint."
"Flint is a place where people are giving up," Brezzell said. "You have this little girl who's taken this thing and tried to spread some hope. There's still hope."
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