You’ll never know who you’ll run into in a bar. You might just run into someone who has met the president.
That’s what happened at The Torch Bar & Grill on 522 Buckham Alley for a story on the restaurants around Flint and how they were coping with the water crisis. The manager wasn’t available to talk, but one of the guests was more than happy to do so.
Nic Custer is a program assistant for the University of Michigan – Flint EDA University Center for Community and Economic Development and reporter for East Village Magazine, a non-profit, volunteer-driven community news magazine in Flint. He’s in the outreach department at UM-Flint and helps run the business incubator that creates small businesses in the community. He just recently stepped down from managing editor at East Village Magazine. He’s also a playwright who created eight works based on historical events involving Flint. He said that he likes working in the realm of fact rather than fiction.
He’s also been a part of a neighborhood roundtable with former President Barack Obama.
Custer must drink bottled water and brush his teeth with it, acquiring stockpiles of water every week or so. He has shower filters and had the lead pipes in his house replaced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He’s also had his dog’s blood tested by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services because she was exposed to lead. He doesn’t go out to eat because he can’t afford it. He works multiple jobs so he can pay all the bills he has.
“We all pay the highest water bills in the country based on a system designed to disenfranchise us,” Custer said, citing his research as a journalist.
He eventually sent an email to the White House in January of last year. He told the White House that Flint has a history going as far back as 2010 of elected officials making financial decisions to balance the budget without taking quality of life into consideration. He felt that the state was treating the water crisis more like a PR disaster than a human disaster and asked for the federal intervention they needed. He didn’t expect any kind of response whatsoever.
That following April, the White House gave him a call. He was driving to Detroit at the time so he can celebrate his birthday in a city with clean water. They told him that they really enjoyed his letter and invited him to Northwestern High School for an assembly lead by Obama as part of his visit to Flint in May of last year. They called back a week later to ask some more questions. A day before the assembly, they asked him if he would like to meet Obama as part of a nine person roundtable to discuss the water crisis directly with him. Out of about 98,000 residents in Flint, he was one of the nine invited to the discussion.
The roundtable included a student from UW-Flint, a person who runs a water distribution center at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic church, a plumber’s union official, and a Catholic nun from St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center. During the roundtable, Custer brought up that there have been more breaks in Flint’s water main, which means they’re losing 40 percent of their water before it even gets to them. He also mentioned that people are having issues showering even though the EPA says it’s not a problem.
Custer said that it was inspiring to be surrounded by people making a difference in the community on a daily basis. He feels that in many ways he was the odd man out at the roundtable because he’s not directly involved with solving the crisis and doesn’t have any children affected like some of the people there. He’s just a citizen affected by the crisis who greased the squeaky wheel, which just so happened to give him audience with the president.
It was an incredible experience for Custer to meet Obama and drink water with him. Obama was a very cool and friendly guy who genuinely cared about the situation at Flint and understood the racial, class, and other components that exacerbated the problem. “Gave everybody a nice, big hug,” Custer said.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t see much change coming out from the meeting.
“You can’t see these effects in the ground, you don’t see changes despite what you might read the official statistics to be, and there’s no trust,” Custer said. “People don’t trust government, and they don’t trust the water.”
He said that they’re still millions of dollars away from having a safe water treatment plant and still probably over $1 billion from having the pipes replaced. He said that getting Flint back on track requires money, bipartisan support, and people nationwide to really feel that it’s a huge problem.
Even though Custer can’t do anything about the situation and has to hope that the state or federal government does something, he said that he’s just going to keep moving forward.
“Life doesn’t stop just because you’re in the middle of a disaster,” he said.