The Billboard Music Awards are a celebration of top-charting artists and their contributions to music and pop culture, but in recent years, the award show has made it a point to highlight the work of pop culture figures who have positively impacted their communities. In 2020, rapper Killer Mike was named the BBMAs inaugural Change Maker, and Trae the Truth was awarded the prestigious title in 2021. This year, Mari Copeny (also known as “Little Miss Flint”) will be named the BBMAs 2022 Change Maker. Don’t be fooled by her youth — Copeny’s long resume and the change she’s created speaks for itself.
When Copeny was just eight years old, she wrote a letter to former U.S. President Barack Obama about the distressing water crisis in Flint, Michigan. For the past hundred years, the Flint River had been used as a waste disposal site for local factories, with thousands of pounds of dangerous waste products dumped into its streams on a daily basis. Simultaneously, the city was going through severe economic hardship that led to the disastrous 2013 move to end its practice of rerouting treated water from neighboring city of Detroit into the area in exchange for pumping in toxic water from the Flint River into local homes. As the quantity of lead in the water that was meant for consumption reached dangerous — even fatal — levels, residents began experiencing significant health issues that were directly linked to the contamination of the river water; children were at increased risk for neurological impairments, and local fertility rates rapidly declined as the number of fertility deaths surged. Something had to be done in Flint, and it was Copeny, a kid, who was the one to step up to make sure that her community’s voices would be heard.
Copeny’s plea to President Obama would alter the course of her life as well as those of fellow Flint residents. In addition to sparking an ongoing national discourse about human rights and environmental injustice, her campaign also inspired Obama to declare a state of emergency in Flint and sign a bill freeing up millions of dollars in federal aid to be released in order to address the problem.
“Because I was dealing with the situation firsthand and giving out a million bottles of water, I knew there had to be a better approach to the water crisis,” Copeny tells Unbothered via email. “So, I partnered with Hydroviv and now have my own filter, which gives immediate relief to those dealing with toxic water without having to wait for the government to ‘fix’ it. My focus has also expanded beyond Flint because there are millions of people in this country living with toxic drinking water. America has a water crisis, but since it’s not headline news, people just don't know about it.”
Along with raising awareness and over $250,000 for her hometown and beyond, Little Miss Flint’s activism has expanded to include other important social issues. She’s a Youth Ambassador to the Women’s March on Washington, served as chairman of the board of directors for Kid Box in 2019, and is an active member of WeVoteNext, an initiative to rally teenagers to vote once they turn 18. Copeny is also a member of the Michigan Department of Education Student Anti-racism advisory board as well as a core member of the Flint Youth Justice League, an advisory board through Michigan State University that advises on issues related to the kids of Flint.
Copeny’s social justice efforts will be celebrated at the upcoming BBMAs, where Teyana Taylor will present her with the third-ever Change Maker Award. The tribute is obviously a huge honor for the 14-year-old, but her activism is just getting started — there’s still so much more to be done in Flint and all over the country when it comes to environmental equity.
It’s amazing that my work is being noticed and that the BBMAs feel I’m worthy and deserving of such a prestigious award. But I hope people will go beyond just applauding and actually join me and support the cause.
“While Google will tell you that the water crisis is ‘resolved,’ there are still several service lines that have still not been fixed,” Copeny reveals. “People in Flint are still dealing with rashes from the water; just the other day, our water was coming out of the faucet a yellow-ish brown color. So yes, progress has been made, but we still have a lot further to go until we can say the water crisis is over. And the damage from the lead in the water will affect the Flint area kids for the rest of their lives.”
As the youngest recipient of the Change Maker Award, Copeny hopes that people of all ages will be inspired to take matters into their own hands and make a difference in their community. With all of the chaos going on in our world today, we’re going to need all hands on deck.
“It’s amazing that my work is being noticed and that the BBMAs feel I’m worthy and deserving of such a prestigious award,” she says. “But I hope people will go beyond just applauding and actually join me and support the cause. This crisis is not just a Flint thing — it can happen in your own backyard. And unless we address the crumbling infrastructure in this country, the situation will only get much worse.”
“I want to inspire other young activists by letting them see that they can work beyond activism and actually find solutions to the issues and problems they face,” Copeny concludes. “I hope it shows others that it doesn't matter how old you are. If you keep on fighting for what you believe, people will take notice."
Watch Copeny receive her Change Maker Award at the 2022 BBMAs this Sunday, on NBC and streaming on Peacock at 8 p.m. ET.