What's The Story In Flint?

Ever hear someone talk about Flint, Michigan? Usually they’ll mention Michael Moore and then focus on how down and out the city is. But there’s more to the story of Flint. Last week, I went to Flint to wrap up over seven years of work with people in the community I have come to deeply admire. During these years, we have seen countless changes, including the following:

    • When we started, people in the community said that they trusted few leaders; now there is a cadre of recognized leaders, many of whom went through our public leadership school. The leadership school now has a faculty made up of Flint leaders and is now housed at the local United Way, so that others in Flint can learn and benefit from it.
    • There were few organizations in the community people trusted when we began; now, there are dozens of organizations that people say are working in the interest of the community, not just pursuing their own agenda. Indeed, today, there are also eight organizations – from the Flint Community Foundation to the Flint Cultural Center Corporation to Woodside Church – that are "homes" for civic engagement. These groups have committed to not only pursue civic engagement in their own work, but to be advocates and resources for engagement throughout the entire community.
    • Years ago, people could only identify a handful of collaborations in the community; now, they see scores of collaborations, with new ones starting all the time. A recent collaboration brings together two partners of ours – the Flint Cultural Center Corporation and the Broome Center – to engage youth in telling stories about their aspirations for Flint and talking about what they can do to achieve them.

What made the difference in Flint? One big challenge was the need to generate new norms, structures, relationships and networks in the community – to build the capacity of the community to discover and pursue its own new path. That meant developing leaders with new sensibilities and practices; strengthening organizations to become more civic-minded; spreading new norms of engagement in the community; and creating a new public story – one that reflects the emerging pockets of change, rather than focusing solely on the negative aspects of the community. There are two other ingredients that have been necessary, and which my friends in Flint have come to exhibit so well. First, there is the need for courage – to put a stake in the ground and declare one's convictions and stay true to them. This is no easy feat in Flint, where community norms have been for people to tear one another down, point fingers of blame, and cast aspersions. Flint can be an inhospitable place for good leaders. Second is the need for humility – after all, how can one figure out where to place a stake in the ground, if they are unwilling to listen to others? Humility requires that individuals realize that they alone do not hold all the answers, and that they must husband their resources. The norm in Flint, as it so often is elsewhere in the nation, is to protect one's turf and seek the spotlight alone. To do otherwise requires a healthy dose of humility. It is true that for years the community of Flint has struggled through plant lay-offs, street crime, abandoned lots strewn with litter, and boarded up storefronts. But during this time, the community has inched its way back. It is because of the people of Flint that change has come about. People are stepping forward to address race relations and racism, to improve the public schools, to clean up the abandoned lots, to fight for better code enforcement of abandoned buildings, and to create arts-based programs to give voice to local residents. Is everything perfect? Far, far from it – there is much unfinished work to do. But today there is a competition occurring in Flint, a competition between the old, tired story about a down-and-out community, and a new, emerging story of hope – a story whose roots can be found in the pockets of change throughout the community. You can go and see these pockets for yourself – they are inspiring. I told the people gathered last week that I have come to love their community – and I have. I have come to love it for its spirit and its resilience; but, most of all, I have come to love Flint because of its people. Conversations occur about Flint all the time. The ones I hear when I mention the community to others are usually negative. They often swirl around what people think about the latest Michael Moore movie. Well, I am here to engage in a different conversation about Flint. And this conversation is one I hope you will have with others when they talk about my adopted home of Flint. It is the story of a town where people have not given up; where they are fighting for change, each and every day, day in and day out. In Hope Unraveled, the book I'll be releasing this fall, the people I interviewed across the nation over the past fifteen years or so talked a great deal about "everyday heroes" – ordinary people who help others, who persevere in the face of adversity, and who maintain their integrity. Those Americans I talked with would find a great deal of hope in my good friends in Flint.