There is no such thing as down time in Melissa Mays’ world.
That happens when you’re an activist trying to shed light on a situation so horrendous that thousands of people in Michigan are still living day-to-day without clean drinking water. The Flint water crisis isn’t over. Far from it.
But some things have changed in the 1,290-something days since the crisis began. A Lifetime movie about the situation, “Flint,” premiered in late October on the network. And Mays was a panelist at the recent Women’s Convention in Detroit, talking about how lawsuits can be used as a tool in seeking environmental justice. Mays was one of several plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit settled in March, forcing the state to pay $97 million to replace lead pipes in Flint and provide free bottled water.
And in Lansing, Mays is pushing lawmakers to lower the acceptable levels for lead and copper in our drinking water.
But back at home, the reality of living with poisoned water weighs on the activist and her family.
“We are so tired of bottled water,” said Mays, who has three teenage sons. “We are so tired of it. But we also don’t want the alternative.”
And the alternative isn’t pretty. It’s swollen gums when Mays accidentally brushed her teeth with tap water for two days, fumes so potent your skin burns and filters that stop working in a matter of months and have to be replaced. Mays also was diagnosed with a bacteria in her lungs, which is linked to the water.
“You can smell the chemicals in the water,” says Mays. “It burns your skin. And it changes. It fluctuates with the weather and whatever chemicals they’re dumping in... We are still in crisis mode and it’s exhausting. It wears on you.”
Oakland County residents got a brief glimpse of what it’s like to live without accessible drinking water for approximately six days after a water main broke in Farmington Hills late last month. Multiply that time period by 166 and that’s what life is like for Mays and the rest of Flint.
But Mays’ advocacy is an example of the power of someone who won’t sit down or go away. She says women are often dismissed, but female activists “are in the fight for the long haul,” she said.
“It’s women that are leading the fight,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s because we are mothers or whatever it is. We have the patience.”
In the “Flint” movie, Mays was portrayed by actress Marin Ireland. Ireland stayed with Mays and her family for several days to get a sense of their lives. She even went to one of Mays’ doctor’s appointments with her to meet her infectious disease doctor.
“She did an amazing job,” said Mays. “She had my mannerism downs. Michael Moore said she even got my eye makeup down.”
Mays says some things were dramatized in the movie and the timeline was condensed but it showed the power of ordinary people.
“The overall story of what we wanted to tell is you can’t just sit around and wait for someone to save you,” said Mays. “You have to save yourself. And you are the expert you are waiting for.”
Her advice to any aspiring activists? Jump in, learn and speak up.
“Don’t wait for somebody to give you the OK,” Mays said. “... We all have to fight back, especially with this administration cutting back on environmental regulations.”
Walking out of the movie’s premiere at the Whiting in Flint, where 1,800 people attended, Mays says it was a reminder for many – ordinary folks just living their lives – that “we did this.”
“Regular people did this,” Mays said. “... People need to be reminded of that. Every single voice matters.”