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Mari Copeny, also known as “Little Miss Flint,” wanted to help her city get clean water. At just 8 years old, she wrote a letter to President Obama to tell him about the water crisis in her city. Then, her brave voice made a big impact.
You can find Mari in the new book Rebel Girls: 100 Inspiring Young Changemakers! We’re celebrating all September long with two special Changemakers podcast episodes each week. Preorder Rebel Girls: 100 Inspiring Young Changemakers wherever books are sold to learn about how girls just like you are changing the world.
This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Apryl Lee and edited by Abby Sher. Narration by LaKira Porter. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who makes this podcast possible. Stay rebel!
|Once upon a time there was a little girl who loved eating pizza with her friends, practicing her round-off-back-handsprings for cheerleading, and joking around. Her name was Amariyanna Copeny, but everyone called her Mari.
Mari was born on July 6th, 2007. She and her family lived in Flint, Michigan. Mari loved living in Flint. There was always so much to do, like exploring the planetarium or shopping at the mall. The Flint River ran through Riverbank Park and at the Stepping Stone Falls, Mari could ride her bike or have a picnic next to the water. In fact, Mari was so proud of living in Flint, that she appeared in hometown pageants and people called her “Little Miss Flint!”
This is a story about Mari and her connection to Flint. It’s also a story about something we all need in order to survive — water. When Mari was little, she didn’t think much about water. But one day in 2015, Mari noticed that the water running from the faucet in her kitchen looked… weird. It was brown and rusty. And it smelled terrible!
When she tried drinking it, it tasted even worse.
Soon, Mari’s family started getting rashes on their skin. Their neighbors began reporting headaches, hair loss, and a burning sensation in their eyes.
Even though the local authorities knew about this crisis, at first nobody stepped in to help. Like Mari and her family, the majority of Flint residents were Black, and many Flintonians were living below the poverty line. Would this kind of catastrophe be addressed faster if it happened in a wealthier white neighborhood?
It took a whole year before scientists began testing the water. When they finally did, they discovered the water was contaminated with bacteria and a dangerous metal called lead. Lead is especially bad for children. It can stunt growth and even change brain behavior.
The government declared a state of emergency. It wasn’t safe to use the water coming out of their faucets any more. Flint residents had to use bottled water for everything — not just to drink, but to boil spaghetti, rinse strawberries, wash their bodies, or even just brush their teeth! All of their daily tasks became so much harder than they used to be.
Every week, the people of Flint had to wait in long lines at government distribution centers to get cases of water for their families. Mari was worried and exhausted. She knew that having clean water was a basic human right. How had Flint’s water become contaminated and why was it taking so long to fix it?
|One day, Mari and her mother went to the University of Michigan’s Flint campus where they joined a group of people protesting and demanding clean water.
Winter in Michigan is tough and that day it was bitterly cold with thick snow crunching underfoot. Mari was bundled up in her heavy winter coat, mittens, and a warm hat with a tiara on top. She proudly held up her sign that read #JUSTICE4FLINT and fell in line with the rest of the protesters. They marched across a bridge above the Flint River, chanting.
What do we want?
When do we want it?
One woman held up a copy of her water bill. Someone else carried photographs of kids who’d been affected by lead contamination.
As Mari lifted her fist and raised her voice, she felt the resiliency of her community coursing through her veins. They were speaking up for their rights, and she. felt. powerful.
After that, Mari kept on going to protests, rallying with and for the people of Flint. She even wore her white and purple “Little Miss Flint” pageant sash to show people that she was grateful to represent such a special place.
But, the water crisis dragged on. For two years the people of Flint couldn’t use the water from their own faucets. In their investigation, the Environmental Protection Agency discovered that the water supply system had been altered to save money, and now thousands of pipes throughout the city were corroded. They now knew the cause of the problem, but still there was no solution. Mari was desperate to find some way to help the people of Flint!
|Then, one day in March of 2016, she had an idea that would take this issue all the way to the top.
“I’m going to write a letter to the President,” she told her mom.
“He gets millions of letters every day,” her mom warned her. She didn’t want Mari to be disappointed.
But Mari was unstoppable. “I have to try.”
Hello my name is Mari Copeny and I’m 8 years old, I live in Flint, Michigan and I’m more commonly known around town as “Little Miss Flint”. I am one of the children that is effected by this water, and I’ve been doing my best to march in protest and to speak out for all the kids that live here in Flint.”
She sent her letter off in the mail and tried not to get her hopes up too high.
But then, a month later, there was a letter in her mailbox from the White House!
Dear Mari, President Obama wrote back. Thank you for writing to me. You’re right that Presidents are often busy, but the truth is, in America there is no more important title than citizen. And I am so proud of you for using your voice to speak out on behalf of the children of Flint.
He told Mari that he was coming to Flint to see the situation for himself. He wanted to make sure Flint was getting all the help it needed.
Mari couldn’t wait. She was going to meet the first Black President of the United States, Barack Obama!
|When the day of President Obama’s visit arrived, Mari was a bundle of nervous energy but she put on her official “Little Miss Flint” sash and big brave smile.
Mari and her mother went to the local high school, and into a long brick building with a green roof. When they arrived, there was a long blue curtain with an American flag and the Flag of the President. And there, standing in front of them, waiting for Mari, was President Barack Obama! Mari ran right to him and gave him a huge hug! He was so tall! He picked her up so he could hug her back.
“I wrote to you!” Mari exclaimed.
“I know! That’s why I decided to come! I’m gonna talk about you in my speech and all the good work you’re doing!” the President said.
There must have been a thousand people crowded into the school gym. The crowd roared and as President Obama walked on stage to give his speech. Mari sat in a special section, right beside the President. She listened closely to every word he said.
He told the crowd that he recognized the need for change. And he promised he would make sure the drinking water was safe again.
Then, he told the audience about Mari and her letter. About her courage and conviction. Mari stood up and waved, and as the people cheered, she smiled wider, lifting both of her hands over her head. Finally, help was on the way. Her words were making a real change.
|After that visit, President Obama made sure Flint received $100 million dollars to replace all the pipes that were corroded. It took years and years to make the fixes though. And even then, people found it hard to trust that their water was actually clean, as no one was willing to take responsibility for the disaster in the first place.
So, Mari teamed up with a company that makes water filters. Together, they worked hard to get the filters donated to American families in need.
As Mari has gotten older, she’s found many other causes she feels passionate about, like the climate, racial justice, gender equality, and anti-bullying. She’s given out more than 17,000 backpacks stuffed with school supplies so kids have what they need to succeed in school. And she organizes toy drives to make sure everyone has a treat around the holidays.
Mari knows that making change is hard work. Sometimes, grown-ups talk down to her, or don’t listen at all. Some people even call her names. But Mari doesn’t give up. She knows her words have power and she makes sure she’s heard.
As Mari says, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, stand on it with a megaphone!”
So listen up, world. Little Miss Flint has a big voice, big dreams, and a big rebel spirit.