Flint crisis yields lessons in social justice, law, and policy

January 13, 2017Duke Law News

Illustration of skull on water tower that reads "Flint Water Plant"When Flint, Mich., changed the source of its municipal water in 2014, lead from corroded pipes began to contaminate the drinking water in the city, where a majority of residents are African American and an above-average percentage live in poverty. The slow response of local and state officials and ensuing public health crisis created a national controversy that is still being debated.

Recognizing the Flint tragedy as a perfect case study of failings in a range of areas, from human rights and environmental justice to government accountability, Duke Law’s clinical faculty designed an innovative new class this fall to help students to learn how lawyers and policymakers can address problems of social justice.

Readings in Social Justice: The Implications of the Water Crisis in Flint, Michigan analyzed the contamination of the city’s water supply from a variety of angles, including race, poverty, health care, and the environment. Nine students participated in the ungraded, one-credit course, including two international LLM candidates, while 11 members of the clinical faculty took turns leading the class from a different legal or policy perspective each week.

One of the lessons that resonated most with the class, said Clinical Professor Jane Wettach, was that Flint was not unique in failing its citizens. Rather, the water crisis reflected a range of systemic problems that have disproportionately affected poor and marginalized communities for  decades.

“In other law school classes, students don’t have as much opportunity to think about the effect of our laws on disenfranchised communities,” she said. “There are many Flints — Flint is not an isolated situation — and that was a powerful lesson for the students.”

Among the instructors were Wettach and Brenda Berlin of the Children’s Law Clinic; Carolyn McAllaster, of the HIV/AIDS Policy Clinic; Allison Rice and Hannah Demeritt ’04 of the Health Justice Clinic; Jayne Huckerby and Sarah Adamczyk of the International Human Rights Clinic; Ryke Longest of  the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic; Jamie Lau ’09 of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic; and Jeff Ward ’09 and Darrell Fruth of the Start-Up Ventures  Clinic.

Danielle Purifoy, a Duke PhD student in Environmental Policy, also co-led a class. The interdisciplinary approach “gave the students an opportunity to compare across lenses, to ask which is likely to have the most impact or how lawyers might combine these different approaches to a problem to make the most impact,” Wettach said.

Students in the class said they relished the chance to have an extended discussion about a current controversy from a range of perspectives, which can be difficult to do in broad doctrinal classes. “I had heard about the Flint crisis through the media and I was interested that such a hot-button issue was being taught,” said Nate Ingraham ’17, whose work prior to law school involved helping low-income communities access government benefits. “It was a 360-degree view, which you don’t usually get in a law school class.”

During the final class meeting, students proposed policy levers that could be “pulled” to prevent future crises, such as creating a citizen review board to oversee improvement of the water system and providing tax credits or housing vouchers to help residents whose communities have previously suffered from redlining.

The presence of LLM students and the involvement of Huckerby and Admaczyk enabled the class  to consider the crisis from an international human rights perspective. “I come from a country that has suffered for decades from occupation and the lack of application of human rights, which made me curious how other countries would deal with their national matters,” said Sima Aljallad LLM ’17, who is from Palestine. “I wanted to know more about the mechanisms to deal with such  dilemmas.”

The Flint crisis was especially relevant amid current debates about racial and economic disparities in other areas of law and policy, said Glenda Dieuveille ’17.

“I really liked when the class moved beyond just the water crisis and we started talking about different structural and systemic issues in America,” she said. “I just think a lot of these issues aren’t really isolated. They aren’t completely new things.”

Wettach said she expected the clinical faculty to offer a class looking at a single social justice issue from multiple perspectives again in future semesters.