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Meet Miss Michigan, who called out Flint’s water crisis to the world

The activist, sexual assault survivor and Miss America contestant used her airtime to speak on the ongoing issue

Just a few days before the Miss America pageant, Emily Sioma, the current Miss Michigan, made a decision about her seconds-long, live TV introduction. She chose that fleeting moment to spotlight one of the United State’s most serious issues – the Flint water crisis.

“From a state with 84 per cent of the U.S. fresh water, but none for its residents to drink, I’m Miss Michigan Emily Sioma,” she said on stage, to an audience of millions. It went instantly viral. Though the crown went to Miss New York Nia Franklin, Sioma rallied an international response to an issue that has been ongoing since 2014, as residents – whose health has been majorly affected – are still fighting for clean drinking water. Outside of Flint, the city of Parchment, Michigan, recently found its drinking water had extremely high levels of PFAS – a toxin that has been linked to cancer.

“On the Friday before the pageant, as we were doing rehearsal, I just thought… I’m extremely talented, I’ve done an amazing interview, but I’m also surrounded by 50 of the most talented, brilliant, determined, well-spoken women that are all doing and preparing the exact same way for the job. There was good chance I didn’t make it. So how could I make that moment meaningful?” Sioma, 22, from Grass Lake, Michigan, tells Dazed. “I just had this thought that there are people in my state and the communities that I represent which are still so insecure about where they're getting the water from.”

“It’s not just a call to action for Flint either. Detroit public schools system had to shut off water just as students were coming back to class recently. This was an opportunity to introduce myself and the state of Michigan to the world – what better way than to give a voice to people who are effectively being poisoned right now. I wanted to shift things to look at the leaders, the people who have been fighting this battle for reliable water sources from the beginning, to keep the conversation going.”

Michigan locals and state representatives have been reaching out to Sioma to tell their own stories, involve her in more direct action, and continue the dialogue. The mayor of Flint, Karen Weaver, praised her action.

“This was an opportunity to introduce myself and the state of Michigan to the world – what better way than to give a voice to people who are effectively being poisoned right now” – Emily Sioma

This year has been a turning point for the Miss America pageant – in June, the organisation announced that it was scrapping the swimsuit section of the competition. “We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance. That's huge,” Gretchen Carlson, the chairwoman of the Miss America board of directors said previously. She added that women of “all shapes and sizes”, would be considered. It was officially announced on the pageant Twitter account with a short video, where a white bikini was shown disappearing in a puff of smoke with the hashtag #byebyebikini. Instead of swimsuit, the contestants took part in a live interactive session highlighting their achievements.

Sioma responded with consideration to the loss of the swimsuit category. She outlines that women should have the opportunity to empower themselves as they wish, in a swimsuit or otherwise. “It should be about giving people power within their own truth and with their voice,” she explains. “I thought back to when I was in high school, how I was constantly being called out for dress code and the burden of objectification lay on my shoulders. We cannot turn ourselves into objects, removing swimsuit doesn’t get rid of objectification. I think it makes objectification a harder battle to fight. I’m very hopeful that the conversations are going to continue.”

“Be it the swimsuit or the business suit, I deserve respect. What we wear or show should not determine our worth, the validity and the value of our voice.”

Sioma’s own personal platform for the pageant – titled ‘I Believe You’ – focused on sexual assault survivors. As a survivor herself, she has been vocal about the insidious issue particularly on college campuses. During her graduation in 2016, while she was graduating with a bachelor's degree in women's studies and a minor in sociology, Sioma stood in silent protest with her graduation cap emblazoned with the words ‘I Survived’.

As an advocate for sexual assault survivors in the age of #MeToo, her message and activism remains of-the-moment. Among undergraduate students in the U.S, 23.1 per cent of females and 5.4 per cent of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation, according to RAINN. Michigan is also the state which endured the horrifying sexual crimes of ex-Olympics team doctor Larry Nassar. “We have an obligation to change this community and support survivors,” she asserts plainly. “It’s my mission to also create environments were survivors feel like they can disclose their experiences safely. It can make someone feel very vulnerable, and allies and communities can impact their journey to recovery.”

Throughout the conversation, Sioma refers back to her sense of community, as well as her own privilege that allowed her to make such a stand. “I’ve been afforded a lot of privilege in my life – as a white person, coming from a family that can afford to help me get to where I am right now. I would feel like I wasn’t paying enough back to others in my community if I didn’t speak out. They should have this moment to step up and stand out.”