Future President: Mari Copeny

Read our interview with BRICKS issue 7 cover star Mary Copeny and her inspirational work raising awareness for the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

WORDS Eni Subair 

At just 12-years-old, Mari Copeny has proclaimed she will be a future US president. Perhaps a somewhat bold statement, but the self-assuredness and forward-thinking qualities she possesses make the statement an all-too-believable one. Indeed, the same characteristics have ensured Mari has remained on the front lines, championing for a better future for her peers and primarily helping solve the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.  

Copeny, otherwise known as ‘Little Miss Flint’ began tirelessly campaigning to raise awareness about the polluted water dilemma, which began in April 2014, and almost seven years on, the injustice that has resulted in multiple fatalities is still yet to be resolved. The reasoning behind the painfully slow progress is rooted in logistics it seems, the teen explains to BRICKS: “It’s not easy to safely change water lines quickly when you can’t move people out of the area while the replacements are done.” Additionally, unity between the city’s public departments is another added difficulty she mentions: “It’s not easy to get the city, state and federal government to work together.” 

The toxic outbreak was first identified in 2014 after the city’s water supply switched from the Detroit water department to the Flint River: a decision that would impact the Flint community in a colossal way. The young environmentalist has not only continued to seek ways in which to improve water conditions (lead levels spiked among kids in 2016), her activism speaks volumes, too. Her lengthy impressive resume includes advocating bully-free zones for young kids, initiating toy drives, founding and spearheading the Dear Flint Kids programme (a project that encourages kids to exchange positive, uplifting letters), and last but not least, garnering the title of youngest Women’s March Youth Ambassador — all while still in school. 

Speaking about her monumental achievements, Copeny touches on what has continued to fuel her fervour: “I absolutely love the kids in my community, they deal with so much on a daily basis (toxic water, poverty, a rundown school system, violence) and they are still smiling and trying to thrive.” Noteworthy public figures like fellow vocal activist and actor Yara Shahidi inspire the teen, she continues: “She [Yara] is a great role model and big sister that has always gone out of the way to include me when so many others don’t.” Honing in on the US water crisis as a whole is another focal point for Copeny. Her realistic approach to the situation echoes that of someone far beyond her years, “Flint is not the only place with toxic water, and if we forget about Flint then none of those other communities stand a chance at being fixed.” 

Last June cemented a somewhat large dent in the ongoing crisis, as prosecutors opted to drop all criminal charges against the key figures involved in the environmental catastrophe. Former health director Nick Lyon was among the defendants on trial absolved of his participation as prosecutors assured residents the investigation would be reignited. Of late, the focus has shifted in the media towards sustainable issues and the very real threat of what may happen should we continue to pollute the planet. Therefore, with such hyper-awareness surrounding climatic changes, has the Flint crisis received more attention? “When people talk about environmental awareness, the water crisis in Flint is often left out because it is seen as a man-made disaster. The longer the water crisis goes on the less the media and people pay it any attention. I will keep on fighting to make sure water is always included though because it should be a huge part of the conversation.” 

When people talk about environmental awareness, the water crisis in Flint is often left out because it is seen as a man-made disaster. The longer the water crisis goes on the less the media and people pay it any attention. I will keep on fighting to make sure water is always included though because it should be a huge part of the conversation.

Mary Copeny

As aforementioned, Copeny has high hopes of becoming a future president, an aspiration many young kids often state to their peers or family.. However, in this case, her trajectory seems as though she may achieve her dream. At the tender age of eight, the Flint resident wrote to former president, Barack Obama, about the lead poisoned water and not only did he reply, he visited the city and donated 100 million dollars to the cause. Now? Copeny hopes to overhaul the US system to better benefit kids: “I want America’s infrastructure to be fixed so that there aren’t millions of people having to deal with some type of a water crisis, I want to make sure the funding is there for schools so all kids get the equal opportunity to learn, I want schools to stop treating black kids like criminals, and I don’t want to see immigrant kids in cages.” 

In the midst of all of her jaw-dropping accomplishments, it’s easy to forget the activist has just entered adolescence. So, what exactly do her close friends and family think about her game-changing initiatives? “To my friends, I am just Mari, they love to help out when I have big events. My family is super supportive, and my little sister is starting to step up and wants to help out now too.” Her proudest moment to-date isn’t Lizzo shouting her out, although it blows her mind – “To have such huge names rooting for me and helping me along the way is a great feeling. Especially for a kid from Flint.” she explains – it’s a more modest moment. “Hands down getting my own water filter. Knowing I was able to give a solution to people in need without waiting for the government to fix it is just an amazing feeling.” 

No doubt Copeny will remain a major fixture within the Flint landscape for the foreseeable due to her notable efforts, and her advice to those wanting to help the Flint cause? Speaking and staying focused: “The hardest part about starting is taking that first step, but as long as you focus on what you want to change and keep working at it you will be able to create change beyond your wildest dreams.” Unfortunately, contaminated water is a widespread issue in the states that has no quick fix: “There are hundreds of communities in the US with the lead over the American Pediatric Associations action level for lead, and this is without getting into any of the other contaminants in the water.” But Little Miss Flint has her sights set on innovative ideas to speed up the process. “Protesting will only get us so far, that is why I am focusing on getting more funding for my filter, which will remove not only lead but hundreds of other toxins. Ideally, it will be ship communities that need immediate relief without having to waste time and money on bottled water.” 

This article originally appeared in The Rise Together’ issue of BRICKS, available to purchase from our online store.