Like so many of you, we’ve been highly concerned and grossly disturbed by the negligent tragedy that can aptly be described as environmental racism or genocide, that has struck the residents of Flint, Michigan. I’ve maintained a rather familial relationship to the community there through several of its natives – namely my friends Frances, Ali and Cherisse Bradley and their extended family and friends. So naturally, when I learned about the human rights violation that is their “water crisis” I felt the need to do something, say something. I had the opportunity to both facilitate a skype conversation with Frances for The Future Project and wanted to speak with Ali a little more in depth about what’s happening and how people thousands of miles away can support the cause. Because let’s be honest, Flint can and is easily any of our communities – areas highly populated by people of African descent inflicted by the many -isms of the America that doesn’t always love us. Yet, somehow, someway, we find a way to carry on.
SB: I’ve been a huge fan of the Bradley clan ever since Frances came into my life. Tell us a little bit about your family’s background and why you all are such a staple in the greater Flint community.
AB: Thank you Shantrelle! My father Alfred Bruce Bradley is the nucleus in our family. He has been serving the community of Flint for over 35 years. Like most black families in Michigan, my father’s family moved from Alabama and Louisiana to work for General Motors. He grew up with the desire to pursue his passion in visual and performing arts. He also became a father at the early age of 19 to Cherisse Bradley, giving him clarity on his purpose in life and responsibility as a man.
While going to school in the south at Alabama State during the late 60’s and early 70’s, his consciousness for equality and justice for Black people was at the forefront of his mind. Once he graduated he moved back to Flint and began working with the Urban League of Flint. He became really pro-active in the community through programming that would help employ Black men.
SB: So how did he then you all, get so heavily involved in tapping?
AB: Around that time he began getting so involved with community programming, he also got connected with McCree Theater (an all black community based theater company). This is around the time he also met my mother Sherry Taylor and got married. Eventually he went down to work in New Orleans, LA with Vernell Johnson in “One Mo’ Time” and toured a few cities with this show. I was born around this time and my mother would take us to visit him on the road from time to time. Apparently, Walter Payton (a New Orleans legendary musician and father to Nicholas Payton) used to baby sit me. When this show had a sit down in Toronto, Canada, my father finally decided it was time for him to learn how to tap dance. He was 32 at this time and Frances was just born. My father continued to travel and ended up in New York for a little while working in the off Broadway show “Staggerlee”. He eventually decided to come off the road to be home with his family and make a difference in the community.
After teaching, directing, and working with multiple art based organizations and the Flint board of education for 13 years, he took a position in the European tour of Black and Blue working with legends like Jimmy Slyde, Chuck Green, Lloyd Story, Dianne Walker, and Henry LeTang.
I was only 13-years old when I took over all of his tap classes at Creative Expressions Dance Studio and continued to teach after he returned back to Flint. He was so eager to share all of the information that he learned while on tour with Black and Blue, that he decided to organize a tap festival called Tapology. This was a crucial turning point in the trajectory of his activism in Flint. This program has brought in world class musicians, tap dancers, and educators to share knowledge, train youth, and expose the whole community of Flint to the great art forms of jazz and tap.
Tapology is one of the only leading black tap festivals in the world. My father has committed his entire life to providing quality training and education to disadvantaged youth in Flint, Michigan. Some of our students have gone on to work professionally in the entertainment business appearing on shows like Showtime at the Apollo, So You Think You Can Dance, broadway shows like Billy Elliot, Scottsboro Boys, STOMP, and Shuffle Along. Tapology is a model program and is supported by the Flint Cultural Center, and the Ruth and Charles Mott Foundation.
SB: When did you first become aware that there was something wrong with the water?
AB: When I first heard about the switch in 2014, I did not want to believe it. I knew it was not going to be a good idea. Everyone knows in the city of Flint that the Flint River is not the kind of water you would go skinny dipping in or even drink from. General Motors has been dumping toxic waste in that water for years. What people were hoping for, was that the government had their best interest at heart by treating the water. However, this was not the case. It wasn’t until months later folks started complaining about the water and discovered that there were contaminants in the water. After meetings with the water department and the city council, they tried to tell the people that the water is still safe to drink and that they had nothing to worry about. However, the people of Flint are resilient and started organizing and meeting on their own to fight this issue. Once Marc Edwards, the science professor at Virginia Tech and his students took it upon themselves to do water testing and investigations, the truth started coming to light that the water is not right.
AB: My life has clearly been affected on a psychological level. Flint has been struggling on so many levels and it was really starting to feel very oppressive to accept what is going on in my city. As a teacher who works with youth in buildings that have signs that read “Drink At Your Own Risk” it’s very distracting and difficult to ignore. To see the physical stress on people who have to go to a neighbor or family member whose home may not be effected to take a shower, bathe, cook, and wash their clothes is a reality that I have only heard of and seen in third world countries. I have also learned that two of my baby cousins who are not even 2-years old are at level 6 of lead poisoning. One is looking like they may have autism. They have lost hair, breaking out in rashes, and their immune systems are compromised. Knowing that the damage of lead poisoning can cause irreversible brain damage, upsets me because there are ways to overcome these obstacles. However, you have to have money to afford the treatments, eat the proper food and nutrition, and therapies. Those who are effected the most are very poor and don’t have many options. This is the demographic of people that we serve as an organization. Which makes feel like we are going to have to give more love and hope to a generation of children who were set up fail and rebuild their confidence and faith that they too can overcome this.
SB: What’s happening in Flint has been described as a crisis, which is such a gross misnomer. It’s clear that this is an example a human rights violation and some can go so far to say as genocide. What are the long term health implications for you all who have been in direct contact with this contaminated water for long periods of time?
AB: According to research some of the long term heath implication are memory loss, brain fog, auto immune disorder, hair loss, hypertension, rashes, and legionnaires disease has been found in the water leading to ten deaths. Lead contaminated water is a danger to pregnant women. I have a friend who believes that she had a miscarriage from drinking the water. I have read this and heard these horrific stories from other women who are traumatized.
SB: Racism rears it’s ugly head in so many ways. While many of us have been focused on state sanctioned violence and murders by police, there are so many other issues like environmental racism that go unnoticed. Flint is one of hundreds of communities where Black and Brown people have been violated. What strategies are Flint residents employing to demand justice and to ensure that this is adequately dealt with?
AB: Protesting, marches, social media by sharing their water woes and making their videos go viral, petitions to have the governor arrested. The Flint Democracy Defense League along with the Concerned Pastors for Social Action of Michigan have been some of the lead organizations pushing for justice. I also learned that there are a group of lawyers who have been reaching out to residents to build a case. I am also aware that Erin Brokovich has join the legal team in the Flint water class action law suit. So you can rest assured that the people are not going to stop until justice is served.
SB: Last Sunday night’s benefit, #JusticeForFlint was both well attended and raised a lot of money and awareness. It was great seeing the efforts of Ryan Cooglar, Ava Duvernay, Jesse Williams, Stevie Wonder and others. What was the general reaction to the benefit? What other celebrities are using their names to bring awareness to what’s happening?
AB: Overall it seems like there general response to the benefit in Flint from the community was something that the community needed. To know that people around the world are standing with them in this fight to justice. I personally feel like whatever it takes! Other celebrities who have responded to what has happened are Beyonce, Big Sean, Game, P Diddy, Russell Simmons, Michael Keaton, Michael Moore, Cher, and the list is pretty long……it is a beautiful thing to know that humanity isn’t completely dead. I believe that as artists our mission is to serve humanity at its core and if there is an opportunity for us to use our art to bring justice to society is whatever way we can then that is a step in the right direction.
AB: The Harlem For Flint fundraiser is an artist response towards helping to raise $25,000 that will go to the Dr. Gail Ganakas Fund through the Community Foundation of Greater Flint for art, education and enrichment programming for disadvantage youth. As a mother of a child who suffered brain trauma at 6 months old due to a fall, and watched her advance and overcome obstacles of speech, physical and mental delays through the intervention of music, dance, and art therapy, I know it is crucial to find ways to secure funds that will aid the children who have been compromised by lead poisoning with irreversible effects that they may have to deal with for the rest of their lives. There will be a whole generation of children who will be disadvantaged, who may end up with severe behavior problems that will lead them towards criminal behavior that will ultimately keep them in an oppressive and vicious cycle of mass incarceration.
This is a state of emergency and we have to act now. Access to quality education, art and culture in Flint is very limited. It breaks my heart to know that my middle school and high school are now closed – many of which had amazing art and humanity programs and some of the best teachers in the company. Dr. Gail Ganakas was my middle school principal and she was very crucial to the art, culture, and educational programs in making sure quality and excellence was the standard for all children. There is a downsizing of Flint that makes me very sad and motivated to fight to maintain the integrity of Flint. These funds will go directly to programs that use art or social change and help build the creativity, possibilities of success and victory in the future of our youth.
Thanks to the generosity of contributing artists such as Danny Simmons, Shani Peters, Cannon Hersey, the fundraiser will also include a silent auction. Live performances by musicians like the grammy winner Ben Williams, Greg Osby, Otis Brown III, Samora Pinderhughes, the Last Poets, the Tapology Youth Tap Ensemble, and the list goes on…who will be pouring out their hearts in honor of our brothers and sisters in Flint who are suffering and terrorized by Gov. Snyder and his administration. We will jam out, raise the vibration and money to help protect our own. DJ, music, dancing, art activities for the kids, and we’ll also be live streaming the democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders that will be happening in Flint.
SB: Lastly, I vividly recall how helpless friends felt across the nation during the aftermath of Katrina. There are so many people who are concerned but not sure how to go about supporting the cause. What are some direct ways that people can contribute to supporting those in the most need, both immediately and long term?
People can definitely contribute by reaching out to churches and organization such as the Concerned Pastors for Social Action and The Flint Democracy Defense League about where they can send bottles of water. If you are a plumber and or have a company and want to lend a hand to help install proper water filters for sinks, showers, and or systems in peoples homes it is necessary and immediate. They can always check with the Community Foundation of Greater Flint and see what other efforts are being made to secure funds for the long term. If you are a resource or organization who want to help do not hesitate to reach out and do something. Everything helps and count towards healing the community as a whole.