2017 NBA Awards

Q&A: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

Physician working with partners such as the Detroit Pistons, NBA Players Association to help those impacted by Flint Water Crisis

Lang Whitaker

NEW YORK The inaugural NBA Awards (Monday, June 26, 9 pm ET, TNT) will honor some of the greatest performances from the 2016-17 NBA season. And some NBA teams are using the NBA Awards to recognize some of the most significant off-court performances, as well.

Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores invited Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha to New York City as a special guest of the organization. Dr. Mona, as she is known, is the pediatrician in Flint, Michigan, who helped reveal the Flint Water Crisis and has worked tirelessly since then to address the situation. Following the revelation of dangerous levels of lead in Flint’s water system, several NBA-related groups have been integral in the recovery efforts, including the Detroit Pistons and the National Basketball Players Association, which have provided kids in Flint clean bottled water and coupons to ensure they can afford healthy food. Additionally, Gores founded the organization FlintNOW, which is raising money to provide private sector support to Flint, and has pledged at least $10 million both to address the immediate crisis as well as provide long-term economic development and support systems.

NBA.com spoke to Dr. Mona last week about the ongoing efforts in Flint…

NBA.com: So, in reading about what you went through after discovering the lead levels, once you got people to understand the problem, was the next step trying to figure out how to address it?

Dr. Mona: Absolutely. Right from the moment when we realized we had population-wide lead exposure, right when we realized the entire city and our kids had been exposed to lead, our focus right away switched to tomorrow. It didn’t switch to accountability, or investigations, or justice—I could care less about all that stuff. For us it switched to, ‘How are we going to preserve the tomorrows of our kids?’ So, we worked in our community. Flint is an amazing place—everybody rolls up their sleeves and gets to work. We rolled up our sleeves and the community came together to figure out how to best preserve the tomorrows of our kids. I direct this pediatric public health initiative, and our goal is to flip the story. Our goal is to do everything that we can to improve the outcomes for our children. We cannot take away this exposure—it is an irreversible neurotoxin—but we can do so much to limit, to mitigate, to buffer the impact of the exposure. So, that is what we are doing, and we are so blessed to have the support of so many partners.

NBA.com: And while you are working to limit and mitigate, it seems like there weren’t a lot of resources immediately available for you to work with.

Dr. Mona: Right. Flint got into this situation because we were under financial emergency management. Flint has no money, and there was a lot of jockeying and arguing that the people who created the problem should pay, so it’s really the state who should pay, and there’s no role for the feds, but the feds said it was the state’s fault, and the state said, ‘Well no, it’s a federal emergency.’ And then there became this role of philanthropy. A lot of folk in philanthropy would say, ‘Well, this is a government problem, this is a water problem, why should donors and foundations have a role?’ But I think quickly people realized that everybody needs to play a part in the recovery, from government, from philanthropy, from donors, because we can’t do this on our own. And the resources are so vast. This is not like a flood or a hurricane that you clean up. This is something where we need decades of long-term investment in. And that’s the foundation and the framework of the FlintNOW work, and really all of our philanthropy work and our current advocacy. We’re doing great stuff now, but we need to make sure that we can maintain this stuff for years to come.

NBA.com: And pretty early on Mr. Gores and the Pistons got involved?

Dr. Mona: Right, I think one of the very first donors. Because, Tom Gores, the owner of the Pistons, is a Flint kid. He came in and said, ‘I want to be part of the answer. I want to be part of the solution.’ And they have been absolutely all-in. They helped mobilize additional resources, and find additional funding. But in Flint, so many people have come and gone, like celebrities and different folks, they come and they go. And because Flint is not in the national eye anymore, they forget about it. But the Pistons are here, and they have stayed with us and continued to support so many critical programs.

NBA.com: Just out of curiosity, I know you grew up in Michigan, but were you a basketball fan, at all?

Dr. Mona: (laughs) That’s a great question. I’m a first-generation immigrant—we are Iraqi-American. My first exposure to the Pistons was through my grandmother, who is a Pistons nut. And I grew up with the Bad Boys—Isiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman. I learned everything from grandmother, who speaks, like, no English. She’s one of the biggest Pistons fans. So, I’ve always grown up with the Pistons. Obviously through medical school and residency and my work I haven’t been able to be as invested as she has been, but who doesn’t root for their hometown team? And since the crisis I’ve had an entirely newfound appreciation for athletes and their organizations, because I think they have been the most vocal supporters, be it from basketball, football. And the NBA Players Association has also been phenomenal.

NBA.com: Why do you think that is? It’s interesting that athletes have been so invested in this.

Dr. Mona: You know, Flint has created a lot of amazing athletes. But I also think the environmental justice issue resonates here. Flint is also predominantly a minority population, so I think that has also resonated with a lot of our athletes.

NBA.com: So, looking ahead, what’s next for Flint, what’s next for you?

Dr. Mona: So really, our work is just beginning. Like I said, this is a long-term problem, we need long-term answers. So, a lot of our programming, a lot of our assessments, a lot of our interventions are just beginning. So, we look forward to long-term partnerships with FlintNow, with Tom Gores, and with everybody who wants to be part of the solution.

Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.

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