Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha descends from rebels.
She often heard tales of her great uncle Nuri, always fighting for different causes and fleeing authorities. Upon further research, she learned even more about his rebel past.
Nuri was one of the only two Iraqis to enlist in the Spanish Civil War, traveling from Baghdad to Spain to fight Francisco Franco and his fascist regime at the beginning of World War II. Since he spent a stint of time at MIT, he became a part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
“It was amazing to learn about one of my ancestors who once again I heard about so much as a kid, who really kind of personified the values that were instilled in me as a kid, that you do the right thing no matter how hard it was,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said. “He literally risked his life for a cause that was greater than him. It wasn’t about race or religion or country, but it was about freedom and justice.”
His rebellious spirit and commitment to fighting injustice, no matter the opponent or cost to himself, thrives in her as she fights to help Flint, Michigan overcome their crisis of poisoned water, and hold the titans of industry, who put so many at risk, accountable.
The pediatrician, professor, and founder-director of the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative already had more than enough on her plate.
Her work in Flint, Michigan is so instrumental, in fact, that she even testified before Congress in regards to the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill, was named one of USA Today’s Women of the Century, and recently received the 2020 CDC Foundation’s Fries Prize for Improving Health.
On top of all this, she wrote What The Eyes Don’t See, an enlightening genre-defying memoir and history of lead, Flint, and the water crisis that claimed the town.
As she juggled caring for children and helping to mitigate the Flint water crisis, Dr. Hanna-Attisha didn’t think she had the time to write a book in the first place. Though she never considered becoming an author, she said she also didn’t think she’d be at the center of one of our most pressing public health crises.
But that didn’t stop the idea of authorship from cementing itself in her mind.
“In the back of my head, there was this tiny voice that kept getting louder that was saying, “Mona, you are a reader, you grew up in your city library,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said. “You devour books, you love literature. You know, you need to tell the story.”
Meeting her eventual editor and leader of One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House, Chris Jackson. His publishing of some of her favorite authors, like Ta-Nehisi Coats and Graham Kennedy, and commitment to diverse voices in literature, gave her the final push to finally write her own book and assured her that it would be shared with an ethical purpose in mind.
Aside from deciding on a title for her book – she had eight pages worth of names – finding the time to even write the book on top of Flint’s recovery efforts remained a challenge, in addition to relaying the complex history of Flint. Dr. Hanna-Attisha quickly realized that she couldn’t tell the story of the water crisis, and her role in it, without sharing a bit of her own history.
“As I started to write the story, I kind of quickly realized, I can’t tell you a firsthand account of what I did and why without telling you also who I am and where I came from,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said. “So the book also then became kind of this memoir and this immigrant story of this brown girl who wasn’t supposed to be in this country, who grew up with this perspective of being every day grateful to be in this country, but also kind of with this heightened sense of injustice.”
The ending became especially challenging for her because unlike many narratives and even memoirs, there is no end in sight to the Flint water crisis.
“We’re still working on recovery and there’s still efforts and accountability and justice. And there are so many things that are not finalized,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said. “So that was the hardest part about writing the book was how to end it, because I could have gone on forever.”
Dr. Hanna-Attisha said she could have researched and edited her book forever, had it not been for her editors putting a stop to it, and delighted in going down mini rabbit holes throughout the book. A paragraph about one of her personal heroes, Alice Hamilton, and her crusade against General Motors for their attempts to put lead in gasoline, remains one of her favorites.
“It was just so wonderful to learn more about this strong, smart woman who fought for the vulnerable, for poor people, for immigrants, for children, went against really powerful interests, was really savvy also with using media,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said.
That description sounds…eerily similar.
Despite the joy she found in the writing process, the difficulty of writing her own book gave her a newfound respect for authors.
“It was hard. I mean, writing a book was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, despite going to medical school and residency training. But it was really, really hard,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said. “And like I said, I’m a perfectionist. I wanted everything to be right.”
Despite being an expert on the subject matter at hand, even Dr. Hanna-Attisha learned new elements of history and the legacy of science denial when it comes to public health as she put together her book.
She acknowledged the similarities between the past and present, especially when it comes to science denial at the peril of citizens. She said people go as far as asking her if she predicted the pandemic because of the similarities she relayed in What The Eyes Don’t See.
“There are lessons from this crisis that are kind of a more general disregard for infrastructure, for public health, for equity, for democracy, for immigrants. There are so many intersections intersecting yet today, resonant stories are in this book,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said. “Disparities and infrastructures, all these different things, it’s about good governance. It’s about valuing public health. These are some of the same kind of ingredients that have put us where we are right now in the pandemic.”
The title of the book, What The Eyes Don’t See, accurately conveys the message that she sought to send by even writing it, the timeless lessons that the Flint water crisis, and the history behind it, hold.
“It’s about people and places and problems that we don’t see, our blindness that we have to injustices all over. People literally kind of close their eyes to our problem and to the kids of Flint, because they didn’t look like them or they didn’t care about them,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said. “The biggest kind of lesson is to share that we all have this power, no matter who we are, where we are, what we do, to open our eyes, to open our eyes to injustices that are happening everywhere.”
She hopes that her book acts as a “playbook” for others to do good, no matter who or where they are.
A number of positives came from the book and the work that Dr. Hanna-Attisha and her team have put into spotlighting, and ultimately trying to solve, the Flint water crisis. The U.S. is on the brink of replacing all of our lead pipes, for example, a huge step in achieving adequate water quality for all Americans.
“Water quality, water affordability, water access, good things have happened because of Flint, and that’s very much kind of part of this book,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said. “And part of my work is making sure that folks all over don’t have to go through something similar.”
But the work doesn’t stop here. While part of the profits from What The Eyes Don’t See go towards the Flint Kids Fund, which supports many of the recovery efforts, she said that people looking to make a difference can do so anywhere.
“There is Flint everywhere and find something that you’re passionate about, that you care about, and put your energy and resources into something in your own backyard,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said. “There’s a lot that you can do wherever you are.”
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