The Michigan pediatrician was honored for her role in exposing the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and her work to advocate for the protection and safety of children.
A pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha has always been deeply invested in the wellbeing of her patients and their families. So when many parents came to her with questions in 2014 and 2015 about the quality of the water flowing out of their taps in Flint, Michigan, Hanna-Attisha weighed their concerns, and then repeatedly reassured them.
"I was reassuring my patients for over a year," Hanna-Attisha told the crowd gathered in LaRose Digital Theater in the Koury Business School on Wednesday, April 17. "I was telling them, 'Of course, it's OK. How can our water not be OK when we turn on the tap?' … That all changed when I heard about the possibility of lead being in the water."
What followed was work by Hanna-Attisha to gather data about lead levels in local water and the impact it was having on children and other local residents. Sidestepping academic conventions, Hanna-Attisha went to the public with her findings, and continued to push when local, state and federal authorities attempted to brush away her concerns.
Her vision, persistence and tireless advocacy along with that of others by her side would help to bring to light a public health disaster, one that disproportionately impacted low-income and minority communities in Flint. On Wednesday, Elon University and the Doherty Center for Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship honored her role in fighting for the health of her home community and her continued advocacy on the part of children by awarding her the Elon University Medal of Entrepreneurial Leadership.
"The power of her work is measured in the ripple it produced," President Connie Ledoux Book said before presenting Hanna-Attisha with the award. "This is what courage and commitment to change looks like."
The Elon University Medal for Entrepreneurial Leadership recognizes an individual who is a leader in his or her industry and who exemplifies the values of Elon University – integrity, innovation and creativity, passion for lifelong learning, and a commitment to building a dynamic community. Alyssa Martina, director of the Doherty Center for Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, explained the significance of the award, and noted in her remarks Wednesday that Hanna-Attisha "embodies the essence of entrepreneurial leadership."
Hanna-Attisha detailed the decades of change that led up to Flint's water crisis in the mid-2010s. The birthplace of General Motors, Flint was once a booming industrial city with among the highest per capita income levels in the country. The city suffered from changes in the auto industry and by the end of the 20th century, poverty and violence had become epidemic.
The city was on the verge of bankruptcy and as a potential cost-saving measure, the city switched its municipal water source from the Great Lakes to the Flint River. Cutting corners with water treatment caused the water to corrode local supply lines, leeching lead into the supply and in turn, into the bodies of local residents, Hanna-Attisha said. Testing identified lead levels in the water supply at 22,000 parts per billion in some cases, while research has determined that there is no safe level of lead for a person to consume.
After offering her research findings and giving voice to the concerns of many, Hanna-Attisha said she was rebuked by those in positions of authority, causing her to second-guess herself.
"It was hard to not second-guess yourself," Hanna-Attisha said. "Then I quickly realized that this had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with children, who as a pediatrician I had literally taken an oath to protect. Doctor or not, we have all taken an oath. It is our civic and human responsibility to stand up and speak up for children, especially when they are in harm's way."
The ensuing investigations into the water supply have led to criminal charges against many who made decisions in the interest of money or power instead of health, Hanna-Attisha said. What happened in Flint is a prime example of environmental injustice, with low-income and minority communities suffering from public health disasters because they disregarded by those in power, she said.
"It is absolutely the story of what happens when people who are in power care more about money and power than they do about us, and most importantly, our children," Hanna-Attisha said. "Flint is a story about what happens when we disrespect science and facts."
Efforts are not underway to replace all of the municipal water supply lines in Flint, and Hanna-Attisha has expanded her efforts to protect and lift up local children. She's the founder and director of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative, a model program to help children impacted by the water crisis grow up healthy and strong. She is the author of "What the Eyes Don't See," a book about the Flint crisis as well as other instances of environmental injustice.
Past recipients of the Elon University Medal for Entrepreneurial Leadership include:
2009 – Jim Goodnight, CEO and Founder, SAS
2010 – Bernard A. Harris, Jr., CEO and Managing Partner, Vesalius Ventures, Inc.
2012 – Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Founder of the Grameen Bank and Chairman of the Yunus Centre
2013 – Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, founder and CEO, Pace Communications and Chairman of the Board of the American Red Cross
2014 – Patrick Awuah, Jr., Founder and President, Ashesi University
2015 – Guy Harvey, wildlife artist and conservationist
2016 – Alexander Julian, fashion and furniture designer
2017 – Louis DeJoy, president, LDJ Global Strategies LLC
2018 — Mitch Kapor, partner at Kapor Capital and the Kapor Center for Social Impact