At the 2016 PEN Literary Gala, Lee-Anne Walters and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Flint, Michigan, will receive the 2016 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, which was established in 2014 to honor exceptional acts of courage in the exercise of freedom of expression. 

Ms. Walters and Dr. Hanna-Attisha were two essential voices in exposing the lead poisoning of Flint’s water supply, calling out the grave damage to public health in a majority black community where about 40 percent of the population lives in poverty.

2016 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award Honoree

A mother of four, Ms. Walters demanded that the city test her water and was devastated to learn that its lead level was far beyond the Environmental Protection Agency’s permissible limit. Her four-year-old son Gavin was diagnosed with potentially irreversible lead poisoning. Despite the test results and Ms. Walters’ public protests to the Flint City Council, the city denied that it faced a serious water crisis. Ms. Walters then put in hours of research—uncovering glaring gaps in the city’s testing and corrosion control protocols—to take directly to the regional EPA. They then engaged experts from Virginia Tech to begin a study that uncovered lead throughout Flint’s water supply at levels up to twice what the EPA considers toxic waste.

“Courageousness in expression comes in many forms. Walters’ gutsy perseverance in the face of official dismissiveness, political inertia, and willful ignorance is a powerful illustration of the centrality of citizens’ expression to a thriving democracy. The willingness of individuals to stand up, speak out, and refuse to be denied is an essential catalyst for the vindication of rights and the realization of reform.”

—Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director, PEN America



2016 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award Honoree

The Virginia Tech water study tipped off local pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Michigan State University and clinician at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, who surveyed the hospital’s records of blood lead level testing in the city’s children. Her results revealed a doubling in the number of cases of lead poisoning since the city’s April 2014 move to a new water system. Dr. Hanna-Attisha took considerable professional risk in circumventing standard journal publication of her findings to instead announce them publicly in a press conference on September 24, 2015, at a time when the city and state continued to insist that Flint’s water was safe. A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality disputed the results, calling her research “unfortunate” in a time of “near-hysteria.” Just over a week later, the state confirmed Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s findings, eliciting assistance from the Red Cross and National Guard, and a January 2016 declaration by President Obama of a State of Emergency in Flint. 

“Dr. Hanna-Attisha spoke out for one of the country’s most vulnerable populations. She bypassed standard channels to take on a malevolent state bureaucracy, undermining its assertion of official inviolability. Her success in drawing public attention to Flint’s unfolding health crisis reflects the power of free expression to force unsavory facts out into the open. In speaking truth to power, she has saved innumerable lives.”

—Andrew Solomon, President, PEN America

Facts About the Flint Water Crisis:

• According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all levels of lead exposure, no matter how low, can cause lifelong developmental harm to young children.

• In a citywide public health directive, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha recommended that every child under the age of six in Flint—approximately 8,657 children based on Census data—should be considered exposed to lead poisoning.

• The director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Enforcement Division, Mark Pollins, cited 11 “deficiencies” in the state’s and city’s response to the Flint water crisis, such as the failure to properly treat drinking water for lead corrosion and the failure to provide data on the amount of lead in water since January 2013.

Take Action

 I stand with @PENAmerican Lee-Anne Walters & @MonaHannaA in demanding clean water for Flint #FlintWaterCrisis #PENgala

More on the 2016 Literary PEN Gala & Free Expression Awards

• PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award: Ahmed Naji
• PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award: J.K. Rowling
• Publisher Honoree: Michael Pietsch
• The PEN Literary Gala ceremony