Flint native named Michigan’s clean water chief, says she’ll ‘lift up voices in our community’

By: - October 22, 2019 9:00 am

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) has named Ninah Sasy as its first clean water public advocate, the department announced Tuesday morning.

“I feel like I’m really going to ensure that we lift up the voices of our community, and that we’re really clear on what we’re doing to improve clean water,” Sasy said in a phone interview with the Advance on Monday.

Ninah Sasy

The Flint native added that she can “bring a different lens to this office” as someone who’s seen the impact of the water crisis on her family and others.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created the Clean Water Public Advocate position through an executive order in February as part of her administration’s efforts to ensure clean drinking water in the state.

The executive order also restructured the former Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) into what is now EGLE, designating the new department as “a full-time guardian of the Great Lakes, our freshwater, and our public water supplies.” The Office of the Clean Water Public Advocate is one of three new offices that were created within EGLE.

Sasy has been involved in statewide public health and emergency response initiatives since 2005, most recently leading the maternal and infant health programs at the Michigan Public Health Institute. She also has worked for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA). 

She has a master’s of science in administration from Central Michigan University, a master’s of public health from Michigan State University and a bachelor’s of science degree from MSU.

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The following are excerpts from the Advance’s interview:

Michigan Advance: You have previously worked in the public health sector in Michigan, including two positions at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for a combined total of nearly 12 years. How have these previous positions prepared you for this new role?

Sasy: [They’ve] prepared me in so many ways. I’ve been a public servant for the last 15 years, and I really care about making sure that people’s voices get heard and that we’re listening to the community.

If you look at my history, I started off at the [DHHS] laboratory as a chemical threat laboratory response exercise coordinator, and a lot of that was really just making sure that our partners in the community were prepared if we had a large scale chemical exposure event. 

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But most importantly, it’s about building collaborative partnership. It was a progression of my career working as a grant administrator for the Michigan Energy Assistance Program. That experience really taught me the importance of making sure that there is funding, and that we’re dispersing it throughout Michigan – so that families who don’t have the means to have heat in the winter have … that capability.

More recently, I served as a senior maternal child health strategist … I really enjoyed that position for so many reasons, and it was because I really got to drill down to the community. We had these town hall meetings where we got to hear from families and community members about what we can do to improve our program, but it was also about … collaboration. We relied on leaders and community leaders to really help us, as we were developing and implementing the statewide plans to improve the health of moms and babies.

I feel like all of this experience has taken me to this role, and I feel like I’m really going to ensure that we lift up the voices of our community, and that we’re really clear on what we’re doing to improve clean water.

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Michigan Advance: Can you talk about some of the new duties you’ll be taking on as Michigan’s clean water public advocate?

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Sasy: Having a strong connection with our drinking water program here … taking a look at the system that’s already in place, and then looking at ways that we can improve that system, so that we make sure that we’re capturing information we need from the community. Also just making sure that we have a mechanism in place for complaints, and that we’re capturing that information from community members. And that we have a way of tracking that – we have a system in place, but we’re going to definitely improve that and just continue to build upon the work that we’ve already been doing within EGLE.

Michigan Advance: What will your top priorities be as the head of the Office of the Clean Water Public Advocate? Is public transparency one of them?

Sasy: Just broadly, it’s about transparency. We have to make sure that we have … a clear plan that we make sure that that’s visible to all of our community partners. We have to make sure that we have multi-sector collaboration. It’s really important that we get the business community, nonprofits and all of the different programs within the state of Michigan on board. This is something that one area can’t do [alone]; it has to be a collaborative effort. 

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And then I feel like the … most important thing is just really making sure that we’re listening to our communities and we’re going to make sure that we do that with this office, that we’re really hearing what our community has to say and learning from that.

Michigan Advance: Why do you believe the clean water public advocate position is important at this time in the state’s history?

Sasy: There’s a lot of reasons why it’s important. There’s a lot in the news and a lot going on personally that families are dealing with … as far as the Flint water crisis, PFAS. …. I think that this office was needed, and I’m glad that Gov. Whitmer created it, because there has to be a channel where we’re listening to our families and community. 

We have to make sure that it’s clear, and we also have to make sure that we’re improving transparency. There’s a lot of things that we’re doing within EGLE and statewide to improve water conditions, and I think that this office will make sure that that information is disseminated out to the community so they’re aware of it.

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Michigan Advance: What motivates you personally to advocate for clean water in Michigan?

Sasy: Well, on a personal note, I was born in Flint, Mich. My grandparents still live in Flint; my grandfather retired from GM; my grandmother was a librarian. They worked really hard, just like other families in Flint and across the state. They worked really hard and they have their home there. I really feel like this is an opportunity for me to advocate for them. 

When I think about this job, you know, and any job that I’ve taken, I really want to think about the families that are affected by this, and I feel like … I would do a great job just because I have that personal connection and … I have heard about the effects of the water crisis and I just feel like I can bring a different lens to this office.

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Michigan Advance: Was your family directly affected by the Flint water crisis?

Sasy: Yes, my grandparents were affected. They’ve been using bottled water for the last four years, and although they have a filter in place, I think, again, it’s just [a matter of] not really having trust in the system. But I think that’s why we’re here. We’re going to make sure that we improve transparency, and we’re going to build that [trust].

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).