A few days before the Miss America pageant, Miss Michigan, Emily Sioma, 24, decided that she wanted to use her eight-second introduction to raise awareness about the water crisis in her state. Her single line, “From a state with 84 percent of the U.S. fresh water, but none for its residents to drink, I’m Miss Michigan Emily Sioma,” went instantly viral.
Sioma told The Outline that she was thinking about a multitude of water-related crises in her state when she made the comment on stage. We talked with Sioma about the enormity of the water crisis in Michigan, why she chose to speak out on the Miss America stage, her role as an activist, and the changing culture of the Miss America organization.
The Outline: Beauty Pageant stages aren’t exactly known for making political statements. What compelled you to speak out about the drinking water in Michigan on such a huge platform and on such a big night?
Emily Sioma: When I decided that I was going to make a statement on national television, I just thought about what statement can I make that’s going to make such an impact, that’s going to be something more than just an issue that affects me because I have an opportunity to represent the entire state. And that was something that I knew, it just felt right when I was thinking about it.
It’s more than just Flint. Now PFAS being found in the water across the state in places like Ann Arbor, where I’ve lived for six years, Kalamazoo, Alpena, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Detroit. I’m hearing the Detroit Public School system, they’ve had to shut off a lot of their drinking fountains, and those kids going back to school don’t have clean water to drink from their drinking fountains.
When you think about Michigan from a U.S. standpoint, you think about the fresh water that’s available. And the fact that there are people that are insecure about where they are getting their water.
TO: Were you worried that speaking out about the water crisis on the stage would impact your ability to win the competition?
ES: Well, when I had made that statement at that point they had already determined the top 15. I knew there was a good chance I probably would not make top 15 just because I was competing with so many amazing, brilliant women standing next to me.
We were taught from the very beginning, when you get involved in this organization, that with or without a crown, you have the opportunity to make an impact. Even if it was with not winning the crown, I felt so much stronger about wanting to represent and talk about an issue that’s important to the communities that I represent.
TO: As a Michigander, when I heard your comment, I thought about not only Flint, but the multitude of water-related issues that are facing the state. The oil pipeline, Enbridge Line 5, [running under the Great Lakes] for instance, and the sale of the Great Lakes water to Nestle. Was your comment meant to draw attention to all of this?
ES: Absolutely. It was meant to stimulate conversation. The fresh water that we hold is not all the property of Michigan, but it shocked a lot of people and people did their research and found out that it’s not just Flint. Flint is the most notable and so that’s what a lot of people have tagged on to my statement. But once you start looking, you notice that this issue is so much larger and affects a greater percentage of the population than people ever expected, and so it does include all aspects of the different water crises going on in the state.
TO: Another city in Michigan, Parchment, was recently found to have undrinkable water when it tested with extremely high levels of PFAS – a toxin that has been linked to cancer. It is becoming clear that our water sources are extremely vulnerable (and monopolized). Your comment was definitely an important part of awareness-raising about the enormity of the water crisis in Flint and in the state of Michigan. What else do you see in your future as far as activism, particularly around this issue?
ES: I’ve had a lot of local representatives and state representatives reach out to me. I want to make sure that we’re continuing to have the conversation, especially with midterms coming up, encouraging people to make sure they’re talking to their representatives or people that could be their possible representatives about why water is important to them, why protecting some of our most underserved, vulnerable populations in the state are really important to them.
I also want to make sure that I use my opportunity and platform to be lifting the the voices of the leaders who are already fighting this fight, because I’m absolutely no expert on this issue.
TO: I remember sitting on the floor, watching the Miss America pageant with friends when I was a kid, and I don’t remember any pageant contestants back then who would have identified as activists, but you identify as an activist. What do you hope that young people who admire you as Miss Michigan learn from your role as an activist?
I want people to take from my experience what they need in order to inspire and empower themselves. But, the change in the way that the Miss America organization is being viewed, really, is a larger cultural change in how we’re viewing women. Women [back] then were strong, were, in their own way, the most progressive and powerful women that we had.
I don’t just want people’s daughters looking up to me because, oh, Miss Michigan’s an activist; I want people to be looking at me to say, ’this is one person who is using her voice to make a difference in her community and hopefully making an impact on the world, I can do that, too.’ We all have opportunities, no matter how big or small. Using them to say something, to make it meaningful, to make an impact on something more than just yourself – I really hope that’s what I inspire people to do.
This interview has been condensed and edited.