Mari Copeny has become the face and voice of the Flint water crisis, where more than 100,000 Michigan residents have been exposed to contaminated, lead-tainted drinking water.

Mari Copeny: Activist, 11, is face, voice of Flint water crisis

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. 

She counts Bernice King, who calls Mari a “powerful, committed, light,” as a mentor. 

And she is cool with President Barack Obama.

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As part of her activism, Mari Copeny has given out 15,000 backpacks full of supplies to Flint schoolchildren.
Photo: Courtesy of LuLu Brizzell

“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 being leached 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.”

Eight-year-old Mari Copeny, known as "Little Miss Flint," wrote this letter to President Obama in 2016 in order to draw attention to the water crisis in Flint, Mich. Obama responded to her letter and arranged to meet her in Flint in May of that year.

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. “You can see where a kid is passionate about doing something on her own. She is passionate.”

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 Obama asking for a meeting to talk about the water crisis.

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Mari Copeny, seen here in 2016 wearing her “Miss Flint” sash, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama about the water crisis in Flint, Mich., which prompted a visit from the president. STEVE PEREZ / DETROIT NEWS VIA AP
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“I am one of the children that is effected 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. “I know this is probably an odd request, but I would love for a chance to meet you or your wife. My mom said chances are you will be too busy with more important things, but there is a lot of people coming on these buses and even just a meeting from you or your wife would really lift people’s spirits.”

President Barack Obama responded to a letter written by 8-year-old Mari Copeny in 2016 regarding the water crisis in Flint, Mich. The two met in Flint a week later.

On April 25, 2016, Obama wrote back saying “letters from kids like you are what make me so optimistic about the future,” 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 — like a superhero.

“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.”

Three years later, Mari is still awed by the moment.

“I didn’t expect anything when I sent the letter. I didn’t even think he would write back,” Mari said. “I thought I was being pranked when I heard he wanted to meet me. But it was the greatest, awesomest, most epic experience of my life.”

Later in 2016, candidate Donald Trump visited Flint and met with Mari. That photo went viral as well.

“We not gonna talk about that,” she cautioned. “I dislike the man that is in the White House.”

Mari Copeny was the closing speaker during the 2018 March for Science in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Courtesy of LuLu Brizzell

Mari’s activism has expanded beyond Flint as she has gotten active on social media. More than 90,000 people on Twitter and 38,000 people on Instagram have watched her post inspirational messages and highlights from gymnastics and basketball, as well as her biting political comments.

To an Arkansas lawmaker who proposed cutting lunch funding for struggling schools:

“Lets take food away from kids that are struggling to read. Why is this even an idea and when is this dude up for re-election cause he’s got to go!!!”

Or this about the formation of a Space Force:

“Trump gets his space force but Flint still doesn’t have clean water”

Brezzell, who closely monitors her daughter’s social media use to protect her from trolls and “creeps,” said all the tweets belong to her daughter.

In October 2018, Mari Copeny met Bernice King, whom she calls "Auntie" and considers a mentor.
Photo: Courtesy of LuLu Brizzell

“People question it all the time. They don’t think a kid can be articulate and outspoken,” Brezzell said. “I hate to tell people — she has a smart-ass mouth. She is very outspoken, but at the same time, it has gotten her very far.”

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.”

Mari Copeny in front of her mural with President Obama in Flint, Mich. The mural was torn down in August, despite the family's efforts to save it.
Photo: Courtesy of LuLu Brizzell

BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Throughout February, we put a spotlight on a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Mondays through Thursdays and Saturdays, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world.

And stay tuned. Beginning in March, we will recognize Women’s History Month on ajc.com by spotlighting notable women with Georgia connections in the daily Living section on Mondays and Tuesdays. 

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