Books Interview: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

Global Citizenship Review (GCR): Congratulations on your first book, What the Eyes Don’t See. Can you share with our readers what the book is about?

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha: What the Eyes Don’t See is a fast-paced account of my role in exposing the Flint (Michigan, US) water crisis, which I describe as the most emblematic environmental disaster of this young century. But it is more than that. It is my personal story of how I found myself in Flint taking care of kids; so, it is a bit of a memoir. In addition, it also has a good dose of environmental science and public health history. The intersection of the Flint water crisis story, my personal narrative, and the science and history makes this a unique book. But more holistically, the book is about how, in this unique time, citizens must confront injustice wherever it rears its ugly head.

GCR: What inspired your courage and determination to ‘speak truth to power’ and take on politicians to address Flint’s water crisis?

Dr. H-A: I am an immigrant. My parents were secular progressives who basically became refugees when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime rose to power. They saw and confronted injustice as dissidents. This was only part of a tradition of social justice activism ingrained in my family. We were taught early on that the privilege of our education and professions is that we must speak up for what is right.

GCR: What the Eyes Don’t See has been highly praised and is enjoying great success and publicity. Why do you believe the story finds resonance with readers and how do you define its global significance?

Dr. H-A: The Flint water crisis story is at the intersection of so many issues that we are confronting as world citizens. Clean water is the most fundamental of necessities. Austerity is poisoning more than just the people of Flint. The Flint crisis happened while the city was under the heels of emergency management by the state — democracy had been usurped — and that too is a pressing question of the time. The racism that contributed to the crisis and allowed it to continue is a global epidemic. The science denial in Flint is also a global phenomenon, seen in the global warming issue and vaccines. But in the uncovering of the crisis by a team of activists, parents, scientists, moms, doctors, and journalists, there is an inspiring story, and inspiring stories are especially important in these strange and depressing times.

GCR: How can we encourage a more socially conscious global community that is actively engaged in community advocacy?

Dr. H-A: I hope that one of the lessons of the Flint water crisis story is that community engagement and social justice are intertwined. Government regulations and programs, especially in the environment and public health areas, simply don’t work without community engagement. In Flint, that was one of the breakdowns: the citizens complained about the water quality for eighteen months while the government did nothing but falsely assure them it was safe to drink. It took a diverse set of people in many different positions to get out of their professional boxes and take risks and work directly and cooperatively with community members to expose the crisis. It is especially important for scientists and academics to get out of their labs and ivory towers and rethink how their work helps communities and advances justice.

GCR: Have the last few years sparked any ambitions for a position in public office?

Dr. H-A: No. I have lots of work to do in Flint to help kids overcome the effects of the crisis.

GCR: What were some of the highlights in the process of publishing What the Eyes Don’t See? Dr. H-A: The whole process was surreal. The publishing world is fascinating and strange. I am lucky and blessed to have an incredible editor, Chris Jackson, who also edits Ta-Nehisi Coates, Trevor Noah, and Bryan Stevenson. Chris embraced the risks I took in telling this story but he also guided me and pushed me to always connect the story to the bigger and broader issues.

GCR: Please tell us about your upbringing and your family’s quest to attain ‘the American dream’

Dr. H-A: In many ways I had the typical experiences and issues of an immigrant integrating into American society. But in my time growing up, there wasn’t the animus to immigrants we are seeing today. I so worry about the brown kids growing up in Trump’s America and how the undisguised hate is harming them. My parents both had great jobs. My mom was a teacher and my dad worked for General Motors, so we were privileged to take advantage of the American dream. Their good-paying middle-class jobs allowed us to have a comfortable home and great health care. My parents even have pensions, something workers my age rarely have. Most importantly, this privilege allowed us to attend the great public schools and universities in Michigan. One of the takeaways in my book is that this American dream is no longer in reach for many Americans, much less for my patients and their families in Flint. In some ways, the dream has always been out of reach for them because of the history and present reality of racism in the US.

GCR: What are your hopes and wishes for Iraq?

Dr. H-A: Initially, stability and peace. But more long-term, I hope for the return of the promise of a non-sectarian and progressive country leading the Arab world in science, industry, justice, conservation, and freedom.

GCR: In 2016, Time magazine listed you as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. How do you reconcile this achievement with your simple, yet profound, desire to help people? Dr. H-A: This recognition was a great honor! I hope it serves as an inspiration to young people, especially to women, that these recognitions are not just for celebrities, entrepreneurs, and politicians but also for scientists, activists, and others who work to make the world a little bit better.

GCR: Can you share with us your plans for the future? What do you hope to be remembered for?

Dr. H-A: We are developing a public health model for overcoming the water crisis based on the latest in brain science. We are using early education, nutrition programs, literacy programs, and medical and mental health interventions to wrap our Flint kids with everything that they need to overcome the effects of the crisis. We hope this becomes a national model of recovery, as there are places like Flint everywhere recovering from all kinds of toxic stresses. I hope to be remembered for my role in this.

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