May 18, 2022
Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg
Photos: Courtesy of Mari Copeny and Ali Rose Van Overbeke
Video Intro and Edit: Emily Spiegelman-Noel
Music: Jesse Kennedy
Ali Rose Van Overbeke and Mari Copeny (aka Little Miss Flint) sit down to discuss why the water crisis is so bad in the U.S., and how activists and community groups have had to step in and do the work of governments and big corporations.
ALI ROSE: Mari, I'm so excited to chat with you today. On a personal level, you are one of the people who brought my attention to Flint. Back in like 2016, I was living in New York, I'm from Michigan originally, and was back visiting family for Christmas. I remember seeing you on Facebook!! You were a much smaller little girl back then, but it brought my attention to Flint. I started volunteering with the Red Cross and just absolutely fell in love with the Flint community.
I didn't grow up there but ... I ended up moving here three years ago and starting a business.
So I want to say thank you, first and foremost, you've made a difference in my life and I'm super inspired by what you're doing. If you want to introduce yourself, what you do, who you are, what you're passionate about, I would love to hear that!
MARI COPENY: My name is my Mari Copeny. I'm 13 years old. I live in Flint, Michigan, and you may know me as Little Miss Flint. I'm a clean water environmental activist. I have my very own water filter — that's pretty cool. The thing I'm most passionate about would be getting clean water to everybody who deserves it. That's the thing I'm most passionate about.
ALI ROSE: You're from Flint. How would you describe Flint to someone who's not been here?
Mari: Most people will look down because we have the water crisis and it's still happening. We have a water crisis and most people would think that “Oh they have dirty water, they have bad water, their city's bad, oh their city’s bad.” But like no! Once you actually get here and go downtown and explore everywhere, you realize that Flint is a very unique city with really pretty things! There is so much stuff to do here! We don't have the big fun stuff like California has or other states have, we have our unique things.
ALI ROSE: I could not agree more. I think everyone has like such a specific idea of Flint, but ... it is a unique town.
MARI COPENY: One of my favorite locations downtown would have to be the Brush Alley Skate Shop, because I got a new skateboard there and it rides pretty cool. It's a girl owned business too. She owns the skate shop and encourages girls to skate, because most girls get overlooked if they can or can't skate because people say, “Skating is a boy sport.” No! No, it's not!! Sports shouldn't have gender included into them like, they should just be for boys and girls, not just one gender!
ALI ROSE: Yup. I want to talk a little bit about the Flint water crisis. Can you tell people who might not have heard about the Flint water crisis what it is? How long it's been going on? How you became aware of it and got into activism?
MARI COPENY: Okay, so to start off, the Flint Water crisis is still going on and it's slowly getting fixed.
The Flint water crisis [started] in 2014. In 2015 everybody had got notified that “Hey, the water is bad.” And during 2014 nobody knew. We were just drinking the tap water, bathing in it, doing our normal things. And 2015 we get notice that the water is bad! And we're like, “Oh, why didn't y’all tell us this? We waited and y'all didn't tell us this?” Yeah, the government was pretty sucky back then.
In 2015 that's when everybody's start to realize that “Oh, there's something really wrong with the water!” My little sister was getting rashes so bad she had to cover them with plastic wrap ... her rashes resembled chemical burns. And the water was way more toxic than toxic waste.
"In 2015 that's when everybody's start to realize that “Oh, there's something really wrong with the water!” My little sister was getting rashes so bad she had to cover them with plastic wrap ... her rashes resembled chemical burns. And the water was way more toxic than toxic waste." - Mari Copeny
Kids were getting lead poisoning. Somebody died from legionnaires here. It was really bad. I used to go to these water drives and we would pass water bottles out. I got the title “Little Miss Flint” from a pageant, the whole thing, the whole title started from a pageant. I was like, you know what, I want to help! I’m going to take my itty-bitty following that I have, I'm just going to try to expand it! I would go to marches and protests. I would help water drives. I would do this; I would do that … And then I got to go to the Obama thingy! Because that’s a really big token in the story.
Third grade year old Mari decided that she wanted to write a letter to President Obama, because what better way than to write a letter to President Obama to see if he will respond? So I wrote to him about the water crisis and what's going on here.
I think it was few months later, my mom got a call and they were like, “President Obama wants to not only write Mari back, but he wants to meet her!” I was in school, in the third grade, doing my math homework when all of a sudden, I see my mom walk down to my classroom and she tells me that President Obama wants to also meet me. I was shocked at the time and all my classmates were like, “Oh my God! Oh, my God, Mari!”
And then I got a whole bunch of interviews and calls and stuff like that. It was a little bit overwhelming because I was little at the time. I didn't really know [how to do] interviews and stuff like that. And then he [Obama] came and I ran up to him and he gave me the most biggest hug yet. I talked about the water crisis in one of his speeches he gave to everybody, because people came and wanted to hear. Then he waved to me, then I got another hug from him. People started following me on my social media; people wanted to listen to what I had to say about the water crisis and people got more informed and wanted to donate and help.
ALI ROSE: That's a pretty iconic picture of you and Obama, and then it was also a mural in Flint for a while which was so iconic. What's it like — because when all of this really started for you, you were so young right, you were in third grade — what has it been like growing up as a girl into a teenager and having kind of like the spotlight on you and being an activist? What is that like?
MARI COPENY: It’s okay ... I'm not 14 yet, I'm 13. It's gotten a little bit strange because I used to be super-duper fearless, wanting to do anything, and now I'm like, “Oh, I can't walk into the store alone!” But I have been slowly trying to get out of my shell, because I used to be so out of my shell, and I crawled back in. I'm trying to get way more out of my shell and be more fearless, and more thoughtful and to do more things.
"Third grade year old Mari decided that she wanted to write a letter to President Obama because what better way than to write a letter to President Obama to see if he will respond? So I wrote to him about the water crisis and what's going on here. " - Mari Copeny
Ali Rose: Let's talk about TikTok. I'm obviously much older and I'm trying to get into TikTok. I feel like I've been learning so much, but how are you using TikTok with your activism now? Has that been a great platform for you to build more community?
Mari: I do have a TikTok, Little Miss Flint, and it has 47,600 followers on it. I post videos of me doing activism and stuff like that, there's little bit of wacky interviews. But most of it’s just my activism and stuff like that. I use it to get kids more aware of what's going on in the world, because kids need to be aware of that.
Ali Rose: You are such a role model; I'm looking at your TikTok right now. You have videos that are focused around activism and more professional stuff that you're doing, but also showing your personality. You're showing kids that your voice does matter. You've been doing this since you were in third grade. That's paving a way for a whole new generation of kids that hopefully can be speaking up. And, you know, it's like, we all have to collectively be speaking up to get these large corporations and to get our government on board with and building a future and systems that are inclusive, that are sustainable, because right now the world we're living in is not fair for everyone.
That was one of the reasons why I started my company in Flint. I've been to a couple of your water drives and you see semi-trucks full of water that the community needs. People are always like, you know, “no plastic, no plastic,” which is true, but there are certain communities that actually are in need of it.
And I remember at those drives just being shocked...people would be walking to pick up water...it was a NEED. It's such proof of how our government and our systems have failed people, like terribly failed. But it's also inspiring in the sense where it was like such grassroots activism on your part and to see the impact that you were able to make. For me, that was inspiring.
That was one of the reasons why I started my company in Flint. As a designer just like seeing that surplus of plastic, it's like "Okay, Flint is facing a manmade water crisis. But now on top of it, this is also a form of environmental racism, because all these plastics being brought into the community and polluting the community on top of the water crisis that's happening. So what can we do with this plastic that could then in turn benefit the community?”
"That was one of the reasons why I started my company in Flint. As a designer just like seeing that surplus of plastic, it's like "Okay, Flint is facing a manmade water crisis. But now on top of it, this is also a form of environmental racism, because all these plastics being brought into the community and polluting the community on top of the water crisis that's happening. So what can we do with this plastic that could then in turn benefit the community?” - Ali Rose Van Overbeke
Because typically what would happen is that plastic would be collected and it would be shipped overseas, and then corporations would buy that recycled material and profit off of it. And it's like, no, how do we close that loop and bring the plastic back into the city to manufacture something that could create jobs in the community. Activism looks different for everyone, and, for me, it was starting a business. It sounds like for you, [it was] using your voice and being a face of the youth and leading the way.
How is your voice changing? How is your activism changing? What are you passionate about right now? I've seen that you're talking a lot about the water crisis that America is facing, which I would love to hear you talk about. And your water filter, because you've turned your actions and your voice into a physical product, which I love as well.
Mari: I designed my own water filter! I used to do water drives, like the semis, it was really big, we were helping. Then I found that people were not taking the water responsibly. They were littering and you know, that's plastic and a bad thing for the environment. So it's like, no, most of them that's like saved by kids saving water, but is safe for the environment.
I partnered with this team called Hyrdoviv. They're a water [filtration] company and they were on Shark Tank. I got my very own water filter and raised money, and I was so excited because I had funds to get them to the people who need them.
Ali Rose: What does the water filter do?
Mari: The water filter installs right underneath the sink and it's simple, it filters out any lead or bacteria out of the water, like any bad chemicals, and makes the water clean. And you get another cartridge, so you get a year's worth of water if it runs out.
Ali Rose: So back to the fact that America has a water crisis. What does that mean? Why does America have a water crisis?
Mari: Let's go with Florida, Florida is a big state. You can have nice clean water down there. Cities inside Florida, some cities in Florida have bad water. Some cities have really bad water, but they wouldn't know because nobody’s telling them. America does have a water crisis. And I want to make sure that everybody knows about it.
Ali Rose: One of the reasons why the water crisis is happening everywhere, it's an infrastructure issue with the pipes; in Flint the pipes were leaching the lead and that was due to corrosive materials. And a lot of these water crises we're seeing in New Jersey and Chicago, a lot of times it affects predominantly Black communities because the government's not been providing the funds to those cities to update their infrastructure.
Larger cities are getting updates on their pipes and things like that, but other cities are not. In Flint that is so dangerous, especially for kids, and lead poisoning affects kids for their entire lives. And there's no way to really reverse that. So, I completely agree with you, it's been something that I've been passionately talking about as well. It's not just a Flint issue, like, this is happening everywhere. And so often, people are just not being told about it.
It's activist and local community groups that are getting vocal, and bringing this to the attention of our government in demanding change. But it's like, “No, no, no, that should have been happening beforehand.” You know, we elect governmental officials to take care of the people. And they're failing us when they're not making sure that everyone equally has access to like basic rights, like food, water and shelter.
So as you're going into high school, where do you see yourself headed like during high school, like post-graduation? What are your long-term goals? What's your dream?
Mari: I do want to go to college because l have to go to college if I want to become president someday. I want to become president in 2044, but I have to go to college and learn about stuff like that. But I still have a lot of time to think about that.
"You have to be willing to speak up and use your voice because you want people to hear you. And you never know who will be listening to you talk about a topic you're passionate about. Let's say you want to talk about water safety, if you want to talk about water, talk about water, then learn facts and then write speeches and stuff like that, then talk about it." - Mari Copeny
Ali Rose: Right now, if you were to have a platform, what would that be? What would be your hope for our country?
Mari: My hope for the country would have to be there would be clean water for everyone. Everybody gets clean water. No more kids separated from their parents and parents won't get separated from their kids. Kids won't be put in cages. There's a lot of things that I hope for.
Ali Rose: What advice would you give to other preteens and teens who are wanting to make change? How would you tell them to start?
Mari: You have to be willing to speak up and use your voice because you want people to hear you. And you never know who will be listening to you talk about a topic you're passionate about. Let's say you want to talk about water safety, if you want to talk about water, talk about water, then learn facts and then write speeches and stuff like that, then talk about it. Post on social media, hijack hashtags, because you never know, if you have a really big following, you never know who could be listening, either a group little kids inside a classroom, or even someone like a celebrity, you never know, you just have to use your voice, you have to try. That's the really big thing that you have to do in order to get into doing activism.
Ali Rose: I always think, you know, people talk about influencers and stuff on social media. And I would say everyone's an influencer, whether you have, you know, a huge following or small following we all have people who are like listening to what we have to say.
And even if you start small and just start speaking up to your family and friends and being vocal about the things that you care about, people are always listening. I think that's a really important thing to remember. We all have influence in someone's life. And you know, it is exponential. I think being an activist is maybe you start planting seeds and changing one person's perspective, once that person's perspective changes, they start doing that with the other people in their life, it is such an exponential wave. Whether or not you know, you're making change big or small, it all matters, we need everyone to get on board and start using their voice whether that's big or small.
How do you think the pandemic has affected you as a student? How hard has that been?
Mari: It has been really, really, really hard. And the way it affected me, I didn't think it would actually get to that point, but basically it honestly made me really sad. It lowers my motivation to want to do anything.
Ali Rose: I'm not a student, but I I feel like at we're all feeling it, it's been the most stressful year ever. And it is hard to keep ourselves motivated to keep ourselves happy. Like what are some things that you do is like a pre-teen for self-care, what lifts your mood? That's great advice to share with everyone.
Mari: So normally what I do with my mood would be sleeping, because I love sleep. I love sleep so much. Eating well, watching anime, drawing, riding my skateboard going outside and being productive.
And it also boosts my mood to talk to all my friends. I don't have many real friends, and it kind of sucks because I know that some people weren't actually my friend and they were only my friend because you know, famous moments, and Flint, you know? But yeah, luckily I still do have a few friends. Like I have a small friend group, but it's cool because we all get along.
Ali Rose: I think that's a good lesson to be learning so early in life. I am the same way, I don't have a huge friend group. I've never been that person. When I was younger, in high school and middle school, I was kind of jealous of all these people who had these huge friend groups. And that just wasn't me. But as you get older, you kind of realize it's better to have one really good loyal friend than a bunch of people that, at the end of the day, they're not really going to have your back. You know, it's quality over quantity. I think when it comes to friends at least that's what I've learned. You're super close with your family, right? You've got a little sister and everything.
Mari: Yes, I love my little sister. We will literally call each other bestie because we are our own best friends and I'm close with my little brother, too. I do things with both my siblings, I'm really, really glad and lucky that I have my two little siblings.
Ali Rose: I'm sure they think they're lucky to have you. Thank you so much for taking your time to chat, this was so inspiring. I would love to stay connected. I'm so inspired by how you've used your voice as such a young person. I think you're setting an example for young people, old people, all of us to really get active and use our voices and find something that we're passionate about. So thank you so much Mari.
Mari: You’re welcome.