Sometimes, it is easy to remember that Mari Copeny is 11 years old. She pushed back a meeting with a reporter last week because basketball practice ran long and she had to eat. She likes to eat, draw and watch YouTube videos. And she likes to punctuate conversation with words like “awesome” and “great.”
Then there are times when you must step back and remember that yes, Mari Copeny is 11 years old.
Her dimples deep and her hair curly, Mari has become the activist face and voice of the Flint water crisis, a federal state of emergency, where more than 100,000 Michigan residents have been exposed to contaminated, lead-tainted drinking water.
Since 2017, Mari has raised more than $350,000 toward Flint’s recovery. She has collected and distributed more than a half-million bottles of water, over 550 bicycles and 15,000 backpacks filled with school supplies.
“Sometimes, I feel like a real-life superhero,” said Mari, who is in the sixth grade.
But a superhero with real-life issues to address.
The water crisis in her hometown started in 2014 when Flint’s drinking water source was changed from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the cheaper Flint River. But water hadn’t been treated properly, resulting in lead leaching from the lead water pipes into the water supply.
Residents were encouraged to use bottled water while politicians and governments fought over how to fix the problem.
“When we started hearing about the crisis, she felt like she wanted to speak up,” said Mari’s mother, LuLu Brezzell. “She was like, what can we do to help? So, she started dragging us out to go to all of these meetings, rallies and protests.”
Eleazar Barzart, a former City Council candidate who now runs a nonprofit in Flint, said Mari has a “keen sense of bringing attention to issues. It is different when you see a child stepping out, especially if it impacts children,” Barzart said.
On a whim, Mari, who won the title of “Little Miss Flint” in 2015 with a platform of building relationships between kids and police officers, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama asking for a meeting to talk about the water crisis.
“I am one of the children that is affected by this water, and I’ve been doing my best to march in protest and to speak out for all the kids that live here in Flint,” Mari wrote in early 2016, before a trip to Washington to watch congressional hearings about the crisis.
On April 25, 2016, Obama wrote back saying “letters from kids like you are what make me so optimistic about the future,” and that he would come to Flint and meet Mari on May 4, in a meeting that went viral. That evening, Obama mentioned her in his speech, as she stood behind him with her arms raised.
“When something like this happens, a young girl shouldn’t have to go to Washington to be heard,” Obama said. “I thought her president should come to Flint to meet with her.”
But the crisis continues. Mari’s family, including two younger siblings, are still using bottled water. They have a water filter for the shower but can only stand the water for a few minutes before it starts to irritate them.
“It is scary, because I don’t know what is gonna happen to me or the other kids from Flint,” Mari said. “I am just trying to stay alive.”