Just 40 years ago, Flint, Michigan deemed "Vehicle City" touted the title of America's 4th largest city. Predominately African American working class families found great opportunities to flourish in manufacturing jobs that became the entre to economic security for many families. In Flint's heydays, the city bolstered a population of 200,000 people. In the 1970's General Motors, became the predominate employer in the city, providing jobs for up to 80,000 people. Today, the city is known for different statistics. From an outsider's perspective the highlights of Flint include links to the infamous film maker Michael Moore, high crime rates, and stories of many dreams deferred. Despite negative labels the city has several strengths that should be uplifted and reinforced. In reflection of Black Philanthropy Month, we would like to share our experiences in Flint with the hopes that it will encourage others to look beyond the valleys and take time to promote philanthropic investments in all communities. We also hope to encourage the next set of ABFE Connecting Leaders Fellows to deepen their commitment to strategies that promote economic equality in our communities.
In 2012, we landed in Flint to start our tenure as the 2012-2013 Class of ABFE's Connecting Leaders Fellows. Invited by former fellows working at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Ruth Mott Foundation, and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, we came to learn about the city and the work of our philanthropic colleagues. Upon our arrival we were slightly disheartened by the state of the city. Despite our ambivalence, we were welcomed with open arms to tour the city and to meet key representatives of the community. By the time we left Flint, we all felt a sense of hopefulness and confidence in the individuals on the ground committed to working to revitalize the community.
As we commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and celebrate the work of some of the greatest dreamers in history, it is important to recognize the dreams of everyday people; particularly those who have had so much stripped from them and have been left holding nothing but a dream. The residents of Flint are these people. While the nation may see a community unworthy of investment and a city with empty coffers, the souls of Black Flintonians are not bankrupt.
During our visit, we received a guided tour through the streets of Flint's Black neighborhoods by former Flint Mayor, Woodrow Stanley. We were struck by the glimmers of hope peeking through endless blocks of urban blight. Nestled in between dilapidated buildings and abandoned businesses were local gems like the historic Berston Field House (training ground of Olympic gold medalist, Claressa Shields) and the New McCree Theatre (Black community theater). We also met with native Flintonians who shared stories about once thriving neighborhoods and Black businesses. As the days continued, we realized that embedded within the great challenges facing Flint's Black community; there is still great potential to ignite real change.
In Flint, as in many blighted towns across America, there is unrealized value and prospective wealth in the land occupied by abandoned buildings. The land can represent a pathway to individual and community prosperity; if acquired by the residents of Flint. Throughout our community talks we began to realize the connection between land ownership and the Black community's ability to be an integral part of the re-development process. One available opportunity that we learned about involved the Genesee County Land Bank Authority's Side Lot program. This program offers homeowners in Flint first rights to purchase vacant lots adjacent to their property for a nominal cost of $25 plus an administrative fee. The Side Lot program is one example of how Flint's Black residents could collectively leverage their resources to reverse urban blight. A collective approach could lead to a block by block take over and provide a blueprint for systematic community revitalization.
The African American residents of Flint have demonstrated a commitment to their city and have shown a resiliency that is not easily matched. We enjoyed listening to the stories not shared often by national media; an oral history of their efforts to give the best of their time, talent and treasure. Rightfully, we want to celebrate and recognize Black Flintonians as philanthropists in their own right. Our hope is that institutional philanthropy will see the value of investing in Flint's Black community. As we move forward, we must remember that there is also an opportunity for a renaissance in Flint and everybody should have a role in designing it.
We look forward to embracing the next cohort of ABFE Connecting Leaders Fellows who will kick off their fellowship year with a retreat in Flint, we pass the proverbial torch to them and ask that they give serious consideration to how they can give back to the residents. We ask that they build on the legacy that we are leaving and continue to lift up Flint and its people.
2012-2013 ABFE Connecting Leaders Fellows
Tammy Dowley Blackman
Angel Roberson Daniels
Summer N. Jackson
Nakisha M. Lewis
Denise St. Omer