Spurred by the Flint water crisis, Mari Copeny emerges as a force in grassroots activism in her community and beyond
By Jamie Ludwig
Photography by Darrel Ellis
Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny recently celebrated her 13th birthday, but despite her age, the Flint resident has already accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime.
Dubbed “Little Miss Flint’’ after winning a local beauty contest, Copeny first came into the national spotlight in 2016 when, at 8 years old, she wrote a letter to President Barack Obama about the challenges that she faced during Flint’s water crisis. “Imagine not being able to take a bubble bath,” she says. “Like, I know, that would make you so devastated and mad. Bubble baths are fun.”
For Copeny’s family and the Flint community, though, the water crisis was much worse than skipping bubble baths. In one interview, her mother, LuLu Brezell, described tap water that smelled of bleach and caused headaches and rashes that resembled chemical burns.
To Copeny’s surprise, the president not only responded to her letter, but met with her and her family during a visit to Flint that year. Following his time in Michigan, Obama pushed Congress for action; in December lawmakers passed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act of 2016, which he immediately signed into law. In March 2017 Flint received a $100 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to fix its water system. By then, the crisis had entered its third year, and Copeny had emerged as a force in grassroots activism.
She launched campaigns to raise funds and drive awareness about Flint’s plight, and through her efforts she raised $280,000, which she used to donate over one million bottles of water to Flint-area families affected by contaminated water. “I like to give back to my community, and I have a huge following on Insta and Twitter,” she says. “If people do really like me [they’ll pay attention]. That’s why I started a fundraiser to get money to help Flint kids.”
Copeny soon realized that many kids in her community needed more than just water to truly thrive, so in 2018 she started the letter writing project #DearFlintKids, which encouraged people to send positive messages to local children. She also partnered with the Pack Your Back initiative, which was launched by students at Central Michigan University to enhance the educational experience for underprivileged youth. At the start of the 2018-2019 school year, they delivered 10,000 backpacks filled with school supplies to Flint schools.
In 2019, Copeny expanded her sights beyond her city, partnering with water filtration company Hydroviv to donate filters to communities dealing with lead crises, like Pittsburgh, Newark, New Jersey, and New York City. To date, they’ve raised over $300,000. “There are places that you’d think have clean water, but in reality they don’t,” she says. “I want to fix that.”
By the spring of 2020, Flint’s water pipes had largely been replaced, but the city was still grappling with the tail end of the crisis and its aftermath: Health experts estimate that around 14,000 children under 6 years old had been exposed to high levels of lead, and many residents still relied on bottled water. Then COVID-19 hit, and soon thereafter the world’s attention was focused on the Black Lives Matter movement, as protests around the nation condemning the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others at the hands of police cast a spotlight on systemic racism.
Copeny, as usual, tackled these complex issues head on. She recorded a PSA for kids about the importance of following health guidelines such as hand washing and social distancing, and was the keynote speaker at a local youth-led protest. When asked about the connection between the water crisis and issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, she sighs. “Our community has been protesting since 2014, so this isn’t something new to us.”
Positive change starts with good leadership, and after meeting many people in power (including Elon Musk and Donald Trump, whom she met in Flint in 2016), Copeny has a lot of thoughts on what that entails. “I want to see leaders to actually do their job instead of sitting behind their phone and tweeting irrelevant [thoughts] and lies,” she says.
So she’s leading by example. She’s already started a campaign to raise money for the upcoming school year, whether kids attend class in person or online. “I don’t really believe that leaders are listening to kids, ’cause all they’re gonna say is to ‘stay in a child’s place.’ But in reality the kids are doing way more things, and saying a lot more educational stuff than all the adults and politicians.”
Flint activist Tracy Palmer, who runs modeling and etiquette program Trendsetters Productions, has been one of Copeny’s mentors since the two met at a local fashion show. “[Copeny] has no fear,” says Palmer. “There’s right and there’s wrong and there’s no in between with her. A lot of people might say that as a child, ‘Oh, she just wants attention,’ but Mari just wants to save the world.”
It’s frustrating when you feel like your message isn’t being heard, but Copeny says that kids shouldn’t let that stop them from getting involved. “You just gotta keep speaking up and keep on using your voice,” she says. “They’re going to start listening to us eventually.”
Speaking of the future, Copeny has big plans. When asked if she had any final thoughts to share, she offers one: “Vote for me for president in 2044.”
Help Mari Copeny reach her $500,000 goal by donating to her Flint Clean Water Fund at, gofundme.com/f/teammariwater.