Professor Lead-Head: A Zealot? No Way!

ACORN Community Organizing Labor Organizing
Dr. Marc Edwards and doctoral student William Rhoads (left) examine pipes in a home in Flint, Michigan.
Dr. Marc Edwards and doctoral student William Rhoads (left) examine pipes in a home in Flint, Michigan.

Little Rock   I should just start with some disclosures. For years my ears have been inches away from a thousand conference calls, shouts of outrage at newspaper articles, and screams at television sets for the level of ignorance and ignoring of the dangers of lead pretty much on land, sea, and air all around us. Enough so that a favored Christmas gift to our family several years ago was a water filtration system for our house. We would constantly joke about “lead heads.” I hope I’m making myself clear.

Mostly, I learned to nod at the right times, slow down if we ever happened to drive by a home rehab site that was using open air sanding, and highlight any articles in the paper or elsewhere when I stumbled over them, but gradually like lead itself, all of this began to sink in more and more clearly. Recently, as I have reported on radio and in these reports, we have been pushing schools with ACORN’s affiliates and with Local 100 United Labor Unions to test for lead in water, using the crisis in Flint, Newark, and other cities to put wind in our sails so that victory has seemed both imminent and inevitable.

When I saw there was a feature in the Sunday New York Times Magazine involving one of the heroes of the lead-safe movement, Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, I put it on the stack to read in full, knowing it was important, and that I would probably be quizzed about it later. I asked my companera, “What does the title mean, ‘The Zealot? Are they knocking your guy?” She answered, she wasn’t sure, might be the other guy in the article?

Well, I got around to reading the piece finally, and, I’m sure, they were body slamming Professor Edwards with that headline, though I understand the confusion. The reporter, Donovan Hohn, casts these aspersions widely using more inference than evidence. We are sidetracked around the fact that he is a Republican and a libertarian. The reporter tries to introduce a false paradox about whether a scientist can also be an advocate, even a Cassandra. Those seemed like low-blows. Republicans can like drinking clean water, just as there were Republicans who were consumer advocates and who vote for environmental issues. Libertarians don’t trust government. On that there is almost universal consensus across the political spectrum, and, frankly, we need more scientists who are loud and clear advocates given the threats we face, especially ones that are willing to speak truth to power.

The reporter does score some points arguing that it would be nice if Edwards built more capacity for local fights and used himself more as a nail in these controversies and was less like a hammer. That’s a point a community and labor organizer like me would make. If reporters for the Times are going to start leveling the playing field and join those of us in the “let’s build power for the people” program, they are going to have to lobby to add a few more pages to every day’s paper, because they would have to rewrite half of their articles about politicians, artists, movie stars, and every story where they focus is on the individual, rather than the collective, the “hero,” rather than the community, the big “I’s” rather the huge “We’s.” I’m ready, but until they change their standard, it seems like they are rough handling Professor Edwards.

Our experience with Edwards has been the opposite of this story. In the fight in Houston, we have reached out to him several times. He knows we are union, it’s clear from the email address to the questions, and he has been immediately accessible, totally responsive, and completely helpful. In New Orleans when A Community Voice pushed the issue, he gave them instant credibility in moving school board members to contact him, and he has been totally responsive in that situation as well. He has asked for no credit, hogged no press, and been totally supportive in each and every instance.

I could call out people and name names of scores of similar professors and big whoops where you can’t even get a response to an email, much less real help of any kind.

Zealot? If fighting for clean water and justice makes you a zealot, well, we’re charter members of that group, and we’re recruiting every day for more folks to join our ranks. Welcome aboard, Professor Edwards! Hopefully in your lab you’ve learned the old truth that when you stir the water, you’re going to get wet, too!

Dr. Edwards addressing the water crisis in Flint.
Dr. Edwards with community members addressing the water crisis in Flint.