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How Little Miss Flint captivated the nation — and what she's up to years later

While the young activist is still focused on the water crisis, she's also turned her attention to other projects.
The day she met former President Barack Obama: Mari Copeny, then 8 years old, during a 2016 event in Flint, Michigan, to address the drinking water crisis.JIM WATSON / AFP/Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

It's been more than five years since the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, captured the nation's attention — and the child activist known as "Little Miss Flint" catapulted onto everyone's radar, including that of then-President Barack Obama.

Mari Copeny, now 11, is busy "making sure people don't forget Flint," and fighting to remind people that even though her city may have faded from the headlines, the water crisis is far from over.

"The worst part is that Flint isn't the only city. There are dozens of other places out there with their own water crises," Copeny told TODAY, as part of our Groundbreakers series for International Day of the Girl. (Both Newark and Pittsburgh have recently come under scrutiny for potentially contaminated water.)

Copeny was only 8 years old when she wrote a letter to Obama about what was happening in her hometown.

"Little Miss Flint" Mari Copeny, then 8 years old, hugs former President Barack Obama during an event in Flint, Michigan, in 2016. JIM WATSON / AFP/Getty Images

"I told Mari, you're not going to hear anything back, he gets millions of letters every day," her mom, Loui Brezzell, told TODAY. "She said, 'I know, but it doesn't hurt to try.'"

Of course, Obama did write back, and went on to visit Flint and meet Mari in person — and, as the story goes, that moment launched her career as an activist.

"Mari has always been the type of kid that if she sees something wrong, she wants to do something about it," Brezzell said. "But that was the moment that she knew her voice had power, when the president responded to her. And she just kind of ran with it."

She organized water bottle drives and spread the word about what was happening. Today, Copeny is still focused on bringing attention to Flint — pipes have been replaced and while officials say the water is safe, many residents aren't convinced; in fact, Copeny's family still drinks only bottled water. But she has also shifted her attention to other causes. This summer, she teamed up with Kidbox to help distribute boxes of clothes and school supplies to kids in need. And she has her eye on politics, too. She has a proposition for all 2020 contenders.

"I am calling on all the presidential candidates to do a town hall with the youth, where kids are moderating and asking the questions about what is most important," she said.

And in 2044, Copeny already plans to run for the Oval Office herself. She'll be 36 years old.

"If she keeps up the momentum, I could see it happening," Brezzell said of her daughter's future potential presidential run. "I'm sure she'll start one place and work her way up."

11th Annual Shorty Awards - Ceremony
Mari Copeny speaks onstage during the 11th Annual Shorty Awards on May 5 in New York City.Noam Galai / Getty Images for Shorty Awards

But before that, she has to get through elementary school. While the world knows Copeny as a powerful young activist, her classmates know her as, well, a kid. She likes anime and video games, and says it feels "weird" that people consider her an activist. "I'm just a kid from Flint," she said.

She likes the perks, though — like meeting some of her favorite celebrities and introducing them to her peers.

"I brought Elon Musk to my school," she said. "Everyone was so hyped."

Copeny knows that even as a kid, she has a powerful voice.

And she hopes other young girls know it, too.

"My advice to girls is to always believe in yourself and in the work that you are doing, even if the work is hard and it sometimes feels impossible," she said. "You can do it. You can change the world right now. You don't have to wait until you grow up."