Perspectives on the Flint Water Crisis

10:45 AM – 12:00 PM

Artina Sadler, Food Systems Navigator, Community Foundation of Greater Flint

Robert Brown, Associate Director, Center for Community and Economic Development, Michigan State University

Mark Valacak, Health Officer, Genesee County Health Department 

Steven Gray, Assistant Professor, Community Sustainability, Michigan State University

Laura Schmitt Olabisi, Assistant Professor, Community Sustainability, Michigan State University

Moira Zellner, Associate Professor, Urban Planning and Policy, University of Illinois at Chicago

Participatory modeling both incorporates and offers diverse perspectives on complex problems. Although participatory modeling engages the perspectives of diverse stakeholders, different modeling techniques may provide different types of understanding of the problem. In this session, we first discuss the ongoing Flint water crisis from the perspectives of three members of the Flint community with different professional roles, including: Artina Sadler, a community activist and food systems navigator; Robert Brown, a community organizer and member of Michigan State University's Office of Outreach and Engagement; and Mark Valacak, the Genesee County Public Health Officer. Next, three participatory modelers provide an overview of how different modeling techniques (fuzzy cognitive mapping, system dynamics modeling, and agent-based modeling) may be used to incorporate stakeholder perspectives into the modeling process, highlighting the unique contribution of each approach. In subsequent Track 2 sessions, participants will have the opportunity to explore additional issues and modeling techniques in greater depth.


Artina Sadler, MBA is a professional facilitator, trainer, and curriculum designer with an extensive background in community engagement. She continues to hone her craft serving as the regional food system navigator/program manager with the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. Since her introduction to participatory modeling in 2015, she has worked collaboratively with local partners to learn more about modeling as a community engagement tool. The emergence of the Flint water/lead crisis has accelerated this process, resulting in the need to better understand the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of the crisis. Partnering with MSU partners Bob Brown, Steven Gray, and Laura Schmitt Olabisi, the team adapted the mental modeling framework and developed and facilitated “Trusted Conversations” work sessions, with the goal of capturing the community's most pressing concerns related to the crisis and addressing the disconnect between community concerns and solutions put forth by decision makers.

Ms. Sadler is dedicated to (what she sees as) the art and science of modeling. She is also passionate about adapting modeling tools for multi-tiered community use as a way to better understand the challenges of, and the complex solutions related to, the redevelopment of the city of Flint.

Steven Gray is an assistant professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University. His research focuses on understanding how individuals and groups make decisions about complex social-ecological systems and addresses questions about how values, attitudes, beliefs, and local conditions influence human behavior toward the environment. This effort has recently led to a focus on understanding how collaborative modeling software tools help communities, resource managers, and other decision-makers understand, and adapt to, the social impacts of climate and other environmental changes through iterative learning. He is the lead editor on the book, Environmental Modeling with Stakeholders: Methods, Theories and Applications (Springer 2016). His research has been funded domestically by the National Science Foundation, the Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), and federal resource management agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Internationally his research has been supported by the Leibniz Institute, the Australian Academy of Sciences, and the Belmont Forum.

Laura Schmitt Olabisi is an assistant professor at Michigan State University, jointly appointed in the Environmental Science and Policy Program and the Department of Community Sustainability. She uses system dynamics modeling and scenario visioning to investigate the future of complex socio-ecological systems, often working directly with stakeholders by applying participatory research methods. Dr. Schmitt Olabisi’s past and present research has addressed soil erosion, climate change, water sustainability, energy use, sustainable agriculture, and food security. She has led modeling and scenario exercises with stakeholders in the U.S., the Philippines, Nigeria, Zambia, Malawi, and Burkina Faso, and has published her work in Environmental Science and TechnologyEcology and Society; and Society and Natural Resources, among other outlets. Dr. Schmitt Olabisi holds a B.S. in environmental science from Brown University, and a Ph.D. in systems ecology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Renee V. Wallace is a lifelong learner and entrepreneur, serving as executive director of Food Plus Detroit and CEO of Doers Consulting Alliance, both located in Detroit, Michigan. Introduced to participatory modeling in 2015, she served on the ICM conference planning team, helping develop the community track. That experience included engaging over 20 members of Detroit’s urban agriculture and community development organizations to create a systems dynamic model of food security in Detroit. Afterwards she joined an effort to build a Detroit-Flint-MSU modeling team to serve the Detroit and Flint communities. To date Ms. Wallace has partnered with Laura Schmitt Olabisi and Kyle Metta of MSU to develop a systems dynamic model and policy analysis using data from dialogues on urban livestock in Detroit, is a member of the SESYNC Participatory Modeling Synthesis Working Group, and is currently shadowing a team led by Artina Sadler of the Community Foundation, who is using mental modeling to support facilitation of “trusted conversations” with Flint citizens affected by the water crisis. Wallace is working to master participatory practices that complement participatory modeling methods. She envisions using both disciplines to work with visionaries and doers in accelerating implementation of innovative solutions to diverse challenges facing urban communities.

Moira Zellner joined the Department of Urban Planning and Policy in January of 2006. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Zellner earned her undergraduate degree in ecology at the Centro de Altos Estudios en Ciencias Exactas and pursued graduate studies in urban and regional planning and in complex systems at the University of Michigan. Before coming to the United States, she worked in Argentina as a consultant on environmental issues for local and international environmental engineering firms and for the under secretary of environment in the city of Buenos Aires, in projects related to domestic and hazardous waste management, river remediation, industrial pollution control, and environmental impact assessments. She also participated in interdisciplinary and international research projects on urban air pollution and on the spread of tuberculosis through public transportation. In the United States, her professional work includes greenway development and river restoration projects in Miami Beach and in California, and transportation surveys. In her position at UIC, she has served as primary investigator and co-primary investigator for interdisciplinary projects investigating how specific policy, technological, and behavioral changes can effectively address a range of complex environmental problems, where interaction effects make responsibilities and burdens unclear. Her research also examines the value of complexity-based modeling for participatory policy exploration and social learning with stakeholders. Zellner teaches a variety of workshops on complexity-based modeling of socioecological systems, for training of both scientists and decision-makers.