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A Fight for Public Health

First-Year Book Addresses Environmental Racism

By Liam Farrell

"What the Eyes Don't See" book cover

The 2021-22 First Year Book author, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, will deliver a virtual campus speech on Oct. 14.

Photo courtesy of One World

The COVID-19 pandemic has given Americans an up-close look at how bad planning, lack of government funding and systemic racial biases can harm public health.

But this cautionary tale also played out just a few years earlier in an industrial Midwestern town that suddenly found itself endangering its most vulnerable residents.

The University of Maryland community is poised to consider those parallels in the 2021-22 First Year Book, “What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City” by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, which chronicles how Flint, Mich., began using tap water in 2014 that exposed children to high levels of lead. Hanna-Attisha, a local pediatrician who later founded the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, recounts her efforts to bring awareness to the problem as well as mobilize an indifferent bureaucracy to solve it.

“It really is a book about environmental racism. This idea that there is unsafe drinking water in this country is kind of unbelievable … and yet there were people who knew about it and refused to do anything about it,” said Lisa Kiely, assistant dean for undergraduate studies and head of the First Year Book program. “This woman really took a risk in her own profession and her own life. I want students to be able to see they have this power to make a change.”

The overall goal of the First Year Book, Kiely said, is to have students engage with a topic that will be relevant to their future as well show them how to debate and disagree respectfully. Created in 1993, the program has previously used books such as “The Refugees” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, and “War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning” by Chris Hedges.

“How do we learn to communicate?” Kiely said. “We want to model that for students early in their time at the university.”

Events and classroom lessons will be held this semester in connection with Hanna-Attisha’s book, which was published in 2018. On Sept. 27, environmental activist Catherine Coleman Flowers, founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, will talk about inadequate waste and water sanitation infrastructure in rural American communities. On Oct. 14, Hanna-Attisha, who was given the Freedom of Expression Courage Award by PEN America and named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, will deliver a virtual campus address.

Elisabeth Maring, associate clinical professor of family science and director of College Park Scholars’ Global Public Health programs, said its students will use the book as an introduction to both the history of public health work and how broader social and ecological forces impact individual lives.

“It really weaves together a personal story with the story of a health professional,” Maring said. “It’s a gift to a program like ours.”

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