Hello Jay & Beyoncé,
This letter is the result of a collaboration between two families, 3000 miles apart – on the opposite coasts of the North American continent -but united by a common experience and shared vision…
My name is Briar Fishman [Jay – you performed with my husband Jon (and his band Phish) in 2004].
I’m writing to you about a very personal, very important cause—one that I understand may also be of personal importance to you, as it has ties to a concern that you are passionate about [it is a cause that is inextricably linked to Freddie Gray’s story and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.]
As I assume you know, Freddie Gray was lead poisoned as a baby; his early childhood lead exposure is an element that I believe is of great significance in the heart-breaking story of prejudice, brutality and injustice that unfolded—but one that is also nearly universally under-appreciated and misunderstood.
I recently learned that my own youngest son was also lead poisoned. In our case, he was poisoned by dust that was created when we had the floors in our historic home in Maine sanded and refinished—not knowing the impact that this could have on our children.
Lead poisoning (especially chronic low-level poisoning or single-impact acute poisoning) constitutes a brain injury—and typically causes permanent brain damage—producing an array of learning disabilities, behavioral disorders and chronic conditions like ADD/ADHD and Autism Spectrum symptoms. The support Freddie Gray got (the payout from his lawsuit against the landlord that poisoned his family) came too late—by the time his family had resources to address the issues, it was too late for Freddie to receive the therapeutic interventions and behavioral support that may have given him tools to succeed in life.
An enormous number of young adults who were lead-poisoned as babies (especially those who do not get therapeutic interventions after diagnosis) struggle throughout life to fit into a society that does not perceive nor understand the obstacles they face, nor their extreme difficulty or inability to demonstrate the socially-expected/required level of “normal” cognitive, behavioral and executive judgement functions [as a result of the life-long impact that the early exposure to extremely neurotoxic lead had on their developing brains].
As lead poisoned children enter adolescence, they are typically under a very real and crucial intellectual and social handicap (ranging from subtle to severe)—and are consequently often misunderstood, taken advantage of, marginalized and mistreated/victimized by individuals and the system.
Their extra burden in life [especially amongst victims who are not fortunate enough to be born into a circumstance of parents who happen to have access to benefits that come with financial privilege—proactive screening, recognition, therapeutic intervention, appropriate and effective educational support, etc.] often leads to a cycle of struggle, overwhelm, “failure”, resignation, and alienation—with victims often dropping out of school, and also frequently turning to drugs to self-medicate the multitude of physical and psychological impacts. [Note: while Freddie’s sister was also poisoned, lead poisoning has been clearly shown to be far more damaging to males than females—lead poisoning always has been demonstrated to have more significant long-term impacts on boys than it does on girls.]
Recently in the news—and much less widely known and appreciated—is the fact that lead poisoning has also been clearly shown to impact members of the law enforcement community (primarily as a result of lead exposure through mandatory firing range practice). Adult exposure to elemental lead can cause impaired judgement, very poor impulse control, aggressive, irrational behavior and violent outbursts.
Especially when understood against the backdrop of inculturated ignorance, insularism, prejudice, insensitivity, and growing institutionalized authoritarianism/militarism, it is no wonder we are seeing system-wide failure in the law enforcement community in this country. We have potentially neurologically handicapped, insufficiently screened and trained police officers totally misreading and grossly over-reacting to perceived threats / resistance in cognitively handicapped—and understandably/inexorably frightened, confused and alienated young men who often cannot when challenged/accosted by (real or perceived) hostile/threatening authority, instantaneously sift through an array of all hypothetically possible responses to select the reaction that might conceivably diffuse the dangerous confrontation…
Brain scientists now know that widespread damage from lead exposure/lead poisoning is a greater factor in much of the cycle of violence and urban unrest than most people today realize.
I would posit that it truly may constitute a “main ingredient” in the lose-lose recipe that produced Freddie’s tragic story.
Since my son’s poisoning, I’ve become more and more aware of the impact of this pervasive-yet-preventable environmental disease on children, families and society.
Unfortunately, the lead industry is extremely powerful, well-organized and well-funded, with an entrenched and very powerful lobby apparatus. The lead industry has in fact recently posted record profits, so they do everything and anything they can to marginalize lead poisoning and make people think that it is a disease of the past, no longer impacting our society, when this could not be further from the truth. A recent report showed that all environmental illnesses combined cost the United States $76.6 BILLION annually in terms of the impacts on our children; of this $76.6 BILLION, $50.9 BILLION of that is costs directly related to early childhood lead exposure. Two thirds of all environmental toxicity is still lead… yet very few people understand this. And this is today, now, in this decade [in spite of the lead industry’s immensely successful campaign to craft a very different impression.].
As a result I’ve made a personal commitment to make a difference and do anything and everything I can to protect other children from being poisoned as my son was. This starts with sharing our story with other families.
In sharing our story and looking for solutions (and trying to help others in our community), Jon and I have become friends with another family with lead poisoned children, Tamara & Len Rubin in Portland, Oregon. Tamara has made this cause her life’s work since two of their four sons were poisoned in 2005. She started the internationally recognized Lead Safe America Foundation in 2011 – a small Portland, Oregon based 501(c)3 nonprofit that has won several national awards (including two from the Federal government) for advocacy work helping families across the country.
Tamara has also created a documentary feature film on childhood lead poisoning, called MisLEAD: America’s Secret Epidemic [it’s in post-production]; Jon and I are supporting her work (helping to get the film finished) and Jon’s late-mother’s charitable foundation (the Mimi Fishman Foundation) has also become a sponsor of the work of the Lead Safe America Foundation.
My request: we would like to come meet with you two, parents-to-parents, to share Tamara’s eye-opening film, and to talk about childhood lead poisoning and what people like us, working together can do (frankly, with very little effort) to make a huge difference, for we, who are fortunate to have the ability—for a moment in time—to speak to a base of fans that have generously lent us their attention can help raise awareness, so children (like Freddie Gray at the time of his poisoning) get the interventions and support they need when they are poisoned, or better yet – never get poisoned in the first place!
Tamara lives in Portland, Oregon. We are in Vermont. We can all meet at her house, your house, or ours (she and I each have lead-free / lead-safe homes now, so feel free to bring your little one!)
Any help you can offer to the cause [small or large] (a tweet?, a post? a letter?) could help shift the public perception of this epidemic that is impacting the lives of so many of our nation’s children—across every demographic [lead poisoning doesn’t care about a child’s race, socio-economic status, education, political or religious affiliation or geographic location—merely whether that child’s house, school, daycare, or church or playground still contains any traces of deteriorating paint dating from before the 1978 U.S. ban on lead-based paint.]—and Tamara and I would be honored for the opportunity to share with you about this culturally (and racially) charged health epidemic that is the single most expensive environmental illness in the country today – to make sure all your questions are answered so you can choose how best to get involved.
Jon & Briar Fishman
Parents of Five
Tamara & Leonard Rubin
Parents of Four Boys
Founders of Lead Safe America Foundation