Hanna-Attisha tells MSU grads to stand up, speak out

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Raise your hand.

"I raise this hand," Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha said, "Spartans raise your hands! Now and forever!"

That was the message that Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha delivered Friday to the Class of 2016 during commencement ceremonies at Michigan State University.

The MSU assistant professor of pediatrics — who found elevated levels of lead in Flint children last summer, and changed the trajectory of the water crisis — said there were many people who raised their hand long before officials started listening.

Residents raised their hands in Flint and said their water tasted funny, but no one called on them, Hanna-Attisha said. But they didn’t stop raising their hands, prompting an Environmental Protection Agency investigator to raise his hand, along with a scientist from another land grant university. They were silenced and ridiculed, Hanna-Attisha said.

When her team members raised their hands with research showing increased lead levels, they were dismissed too.

“We didn’t hope for the best,” Hanna-Attisha said. “We didn’t wait our turn. We didn’t wait to be called on. We kept talking. We kept our hands up. We put them in the faces of those who refused to see, who refused to hear. And at times, it was not easy to raise my hand. I was scared and I felt sick. But when you are fighting for your community, fighting for the future of your children, you do not put your hand down.”

Hanna-Attisha said she and her colleagues had science on their side and kept their voices loud.

“Finally, there was no way to ignore us,” said Hanna-Attisha, director of the Hurley Medical Center Pediatric Residency Program in Flint. “Finally, things started to change.”

One day, she told the nearly 8,000 students in the Jack Breslin Student Event Center, you will face an important decision too.

“You can choose to stay silent and keep your hand by your side, or you can go with the flow,” Hanna-Attisha said. “The issue may not be as momentous as the poisoning of a town, but there are Flints everywhere, there are injustices everywhere. There are places and people that will need you to raise your hand.”

Spartans raise their hands, Hanna-Attisha said.

“I am telling you not to fear being the dissenter, whether you are fighting big or small injustices,” she said. “Stand up. Be the devil’s advocate. Tell the other side of the story. Every time you do, you will grow as a person.”

MSU officials are creating a public health initiative to lead and inspire, she said.

“Now, today things are starting to get better in Flint,” Hanna-Attisha said. “Yes, ‘Spartans Will.’ Spartans will be the shining light of hope in places that have been dark for so long. We will bring what we know and we will make this world a better place.”

Hanna-Attisha concluded her speech by encouraging graduates to achieve greatness, change minds and bring hope by raising their hands and stepping out of line.

“Years from now, in a retirement home, old and infirm, you aren’t going to think back and say, ‘I wish I had stayed silent,’ ” Hanna-Attisha said. “No, you will say, ‘I am proud that I raised my hand and stood up for what was right.’ ”

MSU President Lou Anna Simon opened the ceremonies and welcomed the graduates, who this year included 5,414 undergraduates and 2,448 advanced degree candidates.

“We, along with our students, are committed to meeting new challenges and continue to innovate our future,” Simon said.

The MSU president, along with Stephen H. Hsu, vice president for research and graduate students, presented four honorary degrees, including an honorary doctorate of science to Hanna-Attisha.

“You have become a living role model,” Simon told her.

After the ceremonies, several graduates said they were inspired by Hanna-Attisha’s speech and looking forward to their next chapter. Many, though, have not found jobs yet.

Simone Merendi, a graduate from Italy, had his first job interview hours before commencement, with a local company in data analytics. He hopes to use his degree in statistics and stay in the U.S.

“I lived here for five years,” Merendi, 22, said, “so my life is here now.”

Jake Summers, who earned an arts and humanities degree, plans to look for work in Detroit at a nonprofit and stay here, though he is from Rockville, Maryland.

“The only way to change things is to go to the place where there’s a need,” said Summers, 22. “Detroit is a struggling city. So I want go there and help make the city a better place.”

Alexandra Moore, who graduated with a degree in psychology, is optimistic about the future, even as she waits to get hired.

“It’s exciting, but nerve-wracking,” said Moore, 23. “I’m a real adult, with so many responsibilities. I’m a little worried about the job market, but excited to see what the world can offer me and I can offer the world.”

Lexie Lynn, who’s originally from Grand Rapids, found a job there in accounting, her field of study. She expressed bittersweet feelings about the end of college.

“It’s very exciting,” Lynn said. “It’s also sad that my friends are moving out and moving on ... But we are family here at MSU, and I am excited about the future.”