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Column: Local communities know what’s best for their residents


Column: Local communities know what’s best for their residents

Sep 20, 2023 | 12:54 pm ET
By Carmella Johnson
Column: Local communities know what’s best for their residents
Flint | Photo by Anna Gustafson

For the last 30 years, I have spent my days in the classroom helping children learn reading, math and other critical skills. Educators strive to understand all the factors — in and out of the classroom — that impact our students, because we want every child to have a healthy, full life. 

I will never forget when a parent shared that her 4-year-old child’s lead levels were so high, the doctors said it would affect that child’s grandchildren. 

That family’s future is forever shaped by a tragic decision to change who gets to make decisions about basic policies that affect our lives. Corporate lobbyists and extremist billionaires have pushed to take power away from local and city leaders and concentrate it in the hands of state leaders. In Flint, the state used the emergency manager law to take away the city’s power to keep our water clean and our kids safe.

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This “preemption” of local officials’ power to govern our communities has opened the door to state legislatures imposing a long list of corporate-friendly policies–at the expense of working communities. In Texas, the state took away local governments’ power to make sure construction workers get water breaks. In 2011, Wisconsin used state preemption to prevent Milwaukee from raising paid sick leave standards — a measure that had overwhelming support from voters. 

Here in Michigan, state legislators took away local elected officials’ power to raise the local minimum wage, establish fair scheduling laws and other policies that support working people.

The impact has not been evenly felt. Just as the emergency manager law has been deployed most often in cities like Flint where the majority of residents are Black, preemption laws tend to harm Black and Brown working families, immigrants and women most. 

I’m proud to live in Flint. It angers me that so many people only think of us as the city with undrinkable water. We know that our city has beautiful neighborhoods, filled with hardworking people who care deeply about our schools and communities. Flint has so many people opening new businesses and giving back.

Flint has so much untapped potential. But too many low-wage jobs hold us back. Too many Flint families, along with millions of other Americans, struggle to pay their bills. According to the American Community Survey, more than one in three renters in Flint are spending at least half their income on rent. As costs rise and paychecks do not, housing and food insecurity impacts every part of family life. 

Research shows that housing instability can inhibit a child’s ability to learn and parents who have to work multiple jobs are less able to participate in their child’s learning. I constantly hear from parents that they want to come to school meetings, but they simply cannot afford to miss work. 

The reality is our entire community is healthier and stronger when every person, regardless of race, background or job title, is paid a decent livable wage and has paid time off to be there for their family. Local elected officials live in our communities. They are our neighbors and the parents of students in our schools, and they should be able to pass policies that they know the community needs. 

When we give power and flexibility back to communities and local leaders, we can build a better future for our families, not just in Flint, but in every community across the state.