HOOSICK FALLS, N.Y. >> It was their communities' tainted water that brought them together.
Six local woman, affected by PFOA contamination, sat alongside three woman from Flint, Mich., a city embroiled in a lead crisis. More than 60 people gathered at St. Mary's Academy to hear from the "Mothers of Flint," who are touring the country to share their stories.
The nine panelists were asked a number of questions about their own experiences. How did people in their communities support one another? What policies must be changed to ensure people across the country have clean drinking water?
And how did people in their communities get the government to act?
"I gave 'em hell," said LaShaya Darisaw, a Flint mother and political organizer, drawing cheers and applause from the audience.
"I brought 500 people on a daily basis," she continued. "[Government officials] get tired of having 500 people show up at their office... They have to hear you."
Highly elevated levels of lead, a heavy metal and neurotoxin, leached into Flint's water starting in 2014. City officials changed the city's water source to save money, but a failure to add corrosion inhibitors caused lead to leach from aging plumbing infrastructure. It set off a major public health crisis as thousands of children were found to have elevated lead levels in their blood. Multiple public officials were fired and face charges. Lawsuits were filed.
Danika Jackson described washing produce with bottled water and said she takes her kids out of town to take a bath.
"I never thought this could happen in the U.S.," she said.
Flint resident and longtime educator Darlene McClendon said she's seen the issue affect her students.
"They can't be still, they can't attend," McClendon said. "It's sad to teach a lesson over and over and the kids still don't get it."
McClendon described how the water issue has compounded issues of poverty. Some major grocery stores have shuttered, she said, leaving residents without access to healthy food.
Thursday's event was sponsored by the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the Hoosick Falls Teachers Association, the New York State Nurses Association, and the United Auto Workers District 9-A. The discussion was moderated by Rob Allen, a music teacher at Hoosick Falls Central School.
The Flint residents were joined by residents affected by PFOA, a man-made chemical and carcinogen linked to decades of manufacturing activity in the area, was found in private and public water supplies.
Flint, with more than 100,000 people, dwarfs the village of Hoosick Falls, which tops out at about 7,500. But similarities could be seen during the discussion. Panelists criticized governments for slow responses. They also made repeated calls to hold public officials accountable for their actions.
"Accountability starts in this room," said village resident Michelle Baker. Baker, who has been a vocal critic of the Cuomo administration and health officials, said everyone is responsible for making sure the government has the public's best interest.
Communities need to come together and show their passion and anger, McClendon said. She noted Flint still has challenges months after the issue came to light."
"I'm here to show support, and to show you're not alone," McClendon said during the discussion. "We know what you're going through and we hope it doesn't happen to another community, ever."
Contact Ed Damon at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.