FLINT WATER Focus on Flint: Crossing Water (interview with Michael Hood)

Editor’s Note: This month we talk to Michael Hood, co-founder of Crossing Water, a humanitarian relief agency working in Flint. Part Two will appear in the March 17 edition.

What exactly is Crossing Water? How did it get started?

Crossing water is a small frontline humanitarian relief agency currently working in Flint Michigan. Crossing Water started with a rather low-key visit during the height of the water crisis in January 2016. I and three friends, including a retired firefighter paramedic, a social worker and a farmer all drove to Flint to see what was happening there on the ground to see if there was anything we could do to help. What we found was truly unbelievable and what we decided was we had to do something and so crossing water was born in the snows of January. We set up an operation center in the basement of an old Catholic Church downtown.

By week’s end we had purchased 22 billboards with Public health education billboards and public service announcements on radio and TV as well as in English and Spanish and we put out flyers to over 15,000 low-income homes throughout the city of Flint. We then went on to quickly form a new model for social service in social work crisis response and disaster relief called the rapid response service teams or RRST. These were multidisciplinary human service teams with social service workers, medical staff, skilled trades, and others set up and designed to meet the most critical needs of residents and families in the most affected areas in what would come to be known as the Flint water crisis.

Tell us about yourself. How did your path lead you to you Crossing Water?

My path to forming Crossing Water would be an unexpected and circuitous one. As a recent social work graduate, I expected to take the year off from school and do some wilderness guiding, turn some extra money for school and then begin my graduate program in the fall of 2016. I have been a wilderness guide and camp director for 30+ years running rock climbing, dog sledding, canoeing trips, high-adventure summer camps, and all manner of wilderness training and outdoor education programs. Going to Flint, Michigan to do crisis relief and humanitarian work was really the last thing on any of our radars but once we got there it seemed the most natural thing to do as there was no coordination of any kind going on no collaborative effort that we could find.

More importantly, there was no organization of any type doing any sort of large scale and meaningful coordinated relief work that we could connect with. We found so many residents who were being impacted by this crisis, and those most in need, the most vulnerable and underserved residents and families in Flint desperately needed help from someone. So that made it really easy for us to figure out what we needed to do and there were so many holes in the relief response to fill it was more a matter of just finding out which holes you want to fill in first, meaning the biggest unmet needs and then set about going in with robust and immediate services and fill those holes for residents and get them what they needed. And what they needed was far more than what anyone of us knew at the time.

A year later we’re still in Flint and we’re still doing this work and residents are still at risk and still in need of the most basic and critical services, including safe drinking water, working water filters, and cartridges, food, clothing, bus passes, baby formula, children’s books, critical home repairs, social and medical service and referrals and much, much more.

How long has Crossing Water been in Flint? Were you asked to come or were you just led there by the disaster?

This week marks the one-year anniversary of our presence in Flint as a humanitarian relief agency. And while we weren’t asked to come here, clearly we were needed and we were called to be here to do this work, if you can say that, by conditions on the ground. Once we saw what was happening, and maybe more importantly, what was not happening, our mandate and our mission was pretty clear to go in, in a very strong and in a very robust way to get the most basic services to those most at risk and to this day we’re still doing it. From the very beginning our response and our mission was crisis driven. And by that I mean we have no preconceived notion, no agenda, no game plan no playbook, and no preexisting structure for what we were going to try to accomplish. We let conditions on the ground dictate how we were going to respond and the kind of program we would bring or create in this crisis and for these residents to get them the highest level of services we could possibly deliver. It’s as simple and complicated
as that.

Describe a typical day working at Crossing Water—although I suspect there is no such thing as typical.

At Crossing Water there is no typical day. But when speaking about our R.R.S.T. crews we have developed a pretty strong and effective model of crisis response and humanitarian relief that is as far as we can tell a brand-new model of social service intervention. Volunteer team members assemble at our headquarters in Flint and once there they’re given a two to three hour training and briefing on conditions on the ground, current services we can offer and provide, as conditions are at that moment.

In addition to the briefing they’re given training in plumbing and how to troubleshoot, install, and maintain water filters in an urban residential setting. We also do a fair bit of risk management training because some of these neighborhoods can be pretty unsafe and so we want to make sure that our teams know how to handle themselves safely and ensure that they can take care of one another when they’re in the field so that their safety isn’t compromised in any significant way.

They then get their field assignments for their orders and deployments and they provision up their vehicles, filling them to the very roofs with water, food, clothing, water filters, tools, replacement filter cartridges, whatever they need to get the job done. They then go out in the field for two to four hours where they do extended home visits. Then they return to our operation center where they write up their field notes and where they have a hot meal waiting for them when they arrive. They also talk to the HQ staff about any problems they might’ve encountered and then we all gather in a big group meeting room and we have a clinically facilitated and confidential group debrief. Every team member takes part in this. These elements when looked at individually don’t seem so significant but when put together they create a recipe for a strong and incredibly effective crisis response and recipe for deep social service interventions and emergency services in a disaster relief scenario such as this. And when taken together they have made up one of the strongest emergency responses to this crisis in Flint by anyone during this time. Other agencies have even called what we’re doing the gold standard of frontline crisis response work and Flint during the water crisis. We wouldn’t disagree with that characterization.

One of the reasons this program works so well, is so strong, and has lasted so long is that we have developed a new model of dealing with and treating social workers and volunteers which is all but unheard of in Flint and elsewhere in crisis relief situations. We believe volunteers and social workers should not be treated like the disposable commodities that they so often are, and in so many settings. We believe they are the very bedrock and foundation of good and lasting crisis response and relief work. And so our work with them reflects that belief. For example when people sit down to a meal with their fellow colleagues around a table, they are able to share completely openly and without fear of judgment or repercussions what their experience was in the field on that day. Their comments about their experience, their feelings and reactions are greeted and embraced and respectfully listened to with the love and compassion that only their colleagues and comrades can bring to that setting.

And so that sharing, that unpacking, that natural camaraderie, all allows for our staff to leave what does happen on a day in the field, and for the most part, on the table, so that they aren’t necessarily left to deal with full weight and burden of their emotions and the secondary trauma that many of them experience by going into these homes. This makes their recuperative time from this experience much quicker, deeper, and more long-lasting and this we believe is the centerpiece of why we have volunteers who have been with us every week, every month for an entire year with very little attrition. This, in itself is a remarkable accomplishment and nearly unheard of in the 130 odd groups and agencies responding to this crisis with volunteers.

Hood hugs water delivery volunteers

While this wasn’t our initial priority in this intervention but it soon became clear we could change the very face of crisis response from a human resource and humanistic approach, emphasizing self care at an individual and agency level. In our wildest dreams we didn’t expect to be this successful in this approach, but now that it’s working, it makes total sense. Some of our volunteers drive more than a few miles to get to us to do this work some come from as far away as Chicago, Cheboygan, Traverse City, Kalamazoo, and elsewhere and for them to continue to do this work, they have to be treated in a way that makes them feel valued and appreciated and that they are invested and dedicated to not only the work itself but also to the process of building an agency from scratch under what can only be termed as the very worst of circumstances. From a purely administrative standpoint what is happened with our volunteers and our staff is truly unprecedented, remarkable, and nearly miraculous in terms of how we manage to keep almost our entire core staff during this entire year and with no pay and only occasional stipend for gas money. We think that is something more than notable and maybe even unique in the field of social services, humanitarian relief, and crisis response.

Next Month: Michael Hood talks about Flint conditions, shares stories and tells us what we need to know about the Flint crisis.

For more information go to Crossing Water’s Facebook page.

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