May 15, 2018; Next City
One might wish to contrast what is occurring here with the organizing methods the Obama Foundation is using in Chicago.
Over the past four years, Flint, Michigan has gained national media attention for the town’s water crisis, and more recently for a high-profile trial that features public employees and their role in the water crisis. However, the story of Flint is much more than failed infrastructure, as its well documented economic decline is an illustration of how disinvestment produces a wide spectrum of social, health, and economic issues. For many communities struggling with similar issues, Flint’s recent community-led development is both inspiring and a framework for mobilizing assets, building social capital, and collaboratively paving an authentic path forward from the ground up, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. This is exemplified by the work of the University Avenue Corridor Coalition (UACC), a collaborative of 70 groups and organizations working together to restore and revitalize University Avenue, which spans the city’s Carriage Town and central neighborhoods.
These efforts need some context. Due in large part to the stable manufacturing economy established by General Motors, Flint’s population peaked in the 1970s at nearly 200,000 people. As late as 1980, Flint’s median income was higher than San Francisco’s, and Flint had the nation’s highest median wage for people under 35. Like many Rust Belt cities, however, as manufacturing jobs left and companies abandoned communities, Flint’s economy faltered, causing a job vacuum, and resulting in hundreds of businesses closed, millions of lost public revenue, and a steady population decline to its current level of 98,000. These precipitous drops spurred an entrenched economic downturn has led to Flint being named as the nation’s poorest city according to the US Census estimates released last September, with poverty rate of 41.9 percent, along with consistently high rates of chronic disease. For example, Genesee County, which Flint is the county seat, ranks 82nd out of 83 counties in Michigan in terms of health outcomes according to County Health Rankings.
Yet, despite the stark transition from being a regional economic center to a rebuilding one, recent efforts to invest in the city’s economic development have come from a broad array of groups, including a recent $3 million, four-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to the city to establish an economic development team. In addition to more formal economic development investments such as this, a major part of the story in Flint is the emergence of community level development that has produced some very positive results.
Dating back to a workshop on Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) in 2012 hosted by Kettering University, UACC has mobilized the community by using CPTED principles, along with a blend of asset-based community development (ABCD), placemaking and “busy streets” strategies that have facilitated the development of several unique events and activities that, along with a crime prevention focus, have led to a dynamic community-led revitalization force in the area. Through a combination of community organizing as well as coordinated investments at the community level, Flint is now emerging has the newest example of a burgeoning community development movement that is occurring at the grassroots level across the country. These efforts are organized by collaboratives, coalitions, networks, and community groups all of which focus on cultivating community assets rather than emphasizing deficits, thereby reclaiming their neighborhoods and filling in gaps where traditional community and economic development efforts have failed.
For UACC, one of the most fundamental pieces has been strengthening and creating resilient community networks by weaving connections, creating opportunities for sharing and learning, and increasing social capital within the neighborhood. The strategy for the UACC is summarized through a flowchart that features roles, responsibilities and the process that the collaborative uses. One of the striking things about the overall strategy is the role that co-chairs play. Two central responsibilities of the co-chairs are to listen and to connect, while maintaining the communications list and ensuring that information is flowing openly. The act of connecting through listening is powerful, UACC has been successfully able to galvanize community support for dozens of projects while growing the coalition exponentially.
Part of the growth and success of the coalition is due to its structure