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There's a Flint, Michigan in your community

Hear from Jason Schipkowski, Pets for Life mentorship and training coordinator for The HSUS, as he applies what’s happened with the water crisis in Flint to crises happening across the nation.

The recent lead-contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan in and of itself is shameful, thrusting discussions of environmental classism and social injustice to the forefront of the media. During such publicized tragedies, the outcry against deceit and negligence can rise to replace decades of muted suffering, where blatant inequality and the impacts of systemic poverty either don’t show up on people’s radars or are largely misunderstood.

We are all participants in a society that creates and perpetuates an unfair and discriminatory reality for tens of millions of people, even if it’s a reality many of us are privileged not to face. The awful situation in Flint is representative of countless other overlooked communities across the country--communities enduring their own crises that don’t have an outraged citizenry in their corner.

What’s happened in Flint and many other forgotten places begs two questions for those in the animal welfare field: How can we consistently recognize and understand the immense challenges faced by residents of underserved communities, and how can this understanding guide our work?

Many of you reading this may be asking, “What is the connection between what I do and the crisis in Flint?” I’m glad you asked. While the specifics may vary from place to place, Flint, with over 40 percent of residents living at or below the federal poverty line, is just one of many communities in our country that have fallen victim to this all-too-common pattern of being out of sight, out of mind. A staggering 46.7 million people in the United States live in poverty, and an estimated 23 million pets. Flint is one of many cities in the U.S. that has been left to navigate a minefield of damaging policies, crumbling infrastructure, food insecurity, isolation and a stark lack of access to resources for people’s beloved pets.

It’s not uncommon in our field to overhear an angry discussion or read a Facebook rant about how certain people or particular neighborhoods aren’t behaving right. Neighborhoods full of “those irresponsible people” or “all those unloved and neglected dogs and cats”. I can say with confidence these words have been uttered about the residents of certain neighborhoods in Flint, or Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore, Milwaukee--the list trails off beyond the horizon.

But no person in their right mind would blame the residents of Flint for their current plight. Nobody blames them for having only lead-contaminated water to give their children and pets; on the contrary, if a person were to insinuate that the steady poisoning through public drinking water was in some way the residents’ fault or in some way within their control to prevent, that person would be justly scorned.

So why, then, do we tend to vilify and cast our net wide over people living in marginalized areas when most of them are simply (and complexly) doing their absolute best to provide for their pets with what little they have, all while fighting a battle to get comfortably to the next day? If our mission is to help as many companion animals as possible, we have to first recognize that many of those animals are living with very loving people who are faced with monumental barriers preventing them from accessing the services they want for their pets. People in poverty are sitting down to a game of poker and only being dealt one card.

But we can do our part to change the game, starting with altering our own policies (or at a minimum understanding others’ predicaments) to ensure we aren’t worsening the systemic challenges people face every day. Writing a citation for someone who doesn’t have a proper dog house? The person may not be able to afford one, and a fine will only further drive a wedge between what the person wants for the dog and what is financially feasible. Being angry at someone for not making it to that spay/neuter appointment? Maybe they have unreliable transportation, or none, and may not be able to make it to the clinic location. Maybe the clinic’s drop-off/pick-up hours conflict with a work shift that’s desperately needed.

If we’re not sympathetic to the many ways in which communities are underserved and how that affects being a pet parent, then the risk becomes forming policies that aggravate, rather than advance, the situation for everyone involved. Throughout the 34 underserved communities in which the Pets for Life program operates, nearly 90 percent of residents have never contacted an animal service agency. That’s a very high percentage of people who either don’t know you exist as a resource or are apprehensive to reach out to you for fear of being further punished for living in already punishing circumstances. Either way, the percentage of people seeking your support can be greatly increased by approaching the situation with an open heart and not reacting with a biased mind.

What’s more, kindhearted, animal-loving advocates are found in underserved communities just as anywhere else, and it behooves us to engage people in a positive, supportive way. There’s an opportunity to go beyond “education,” sharing the information and services we have on common ground, forging lasting partnerships.

Kristen Huston of All About Animals Rescue in Detroit, Michigan, a Pets for Life mentorship group, has been nurturing these partnerships for over three years. “One day during door-to-door outreach, I met Donny and his dog Lucky,” she writes. “Donny lives in a community that has been so ignored, he had never heard about neutering before. All I needed to do was show up and share the information, and Donny was on board! What’s more, I was able to get Lucky on antibiotics the very next day for a urinary tract infection. Today, Lucky is a happy dog, and Donny has been doing outreach with me for almost a year now, helping to spread the word to his neighbors about spay/neuter and other available services.”

In Flint, we as a country had no choice but to listen. The situation became so infuriatingly glaring that to look away would itself be an injustice and an assault on our own conscience. But it shouldn’t take an injustice this transparent and public for us to take notice.

There’s a Flint, Michigan in your area. In it, people are facing daily obstacles that make basic peace-of-mind seem more like a mirage than an achievable condition. It’s difficult to fathom unless we suspend judgment and truly listen to what people have to say about their needs and wants. From us, that’s access to spay/neuter, wellness care, a decent collar and leash, or maybe just our empathy. These are things within our power to provide, and strong relationships can be built around our mutual love of pets. While the systems undermining underserved communities are complex, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. What will you do to start down your path?

About the Author

Jason Schipkowski is a mentorship and training manager with Pets for Life (PFL) at the Humane Society of the United States. As part of this role, he provides training support throughout the country to organizations that desire to connect people in underserved communities to information and services for their pets. Prior to joining the PFL team, Jason worked for a rescue and shelter group in St. Louis, Missouri, where he helped to implement the PFL community outreach model and served as marketing and development director. Jason has additional years of experience in marketing, communication, and companion animal medical care.