Flint, MI—Fiona Mamai is a go-getter.

When contractors didn’t come back to finish the floor in her new north Flint home, she did it herself; when reporters showed up for a morning interview, she had fresh muffins and ginger tea ready; and when the pandemic hit, she moved her family from Waltham, Massachusetts to Flint, Michigan without giving up on her budding nonprofit organization, Mamai Art Gallery, Inc.

Mamai Art Gallery’s mission is to empower young people by helping them build profitable businesses around their creative talents. Though the name may imply a physical space, the nonprofit’s current events are hosted online or in rented pavilions while Mamai builds out her garage for Flint’s young people.

“I’m going to take my time,” Mamai said of transforming her new backyard into her nonprofit’s headquarters. “I want to make it like a lounge … a very beautiful space where kids can make a mess and know they won’t be stopped.” 

Mamai holds an industrial and fine arts degree from Makerere University in Uganda, but she said she spent much of her career doubting her artistic talent and business instincts despite encouragement from family and clients. 

“But I found if I work with the younger generations, then they will learn to value their talents and gifts more,” she said. 

So the mother of two started Mamai Art Gallery in 2015 after securing a basement studio space in Boston. 

Since then she’s helped children build their artistic confidence and business prowess through teaching art classes, hosting workshops, and organizing children’s art fairs and business fairs.

It was going well, Mamai said, but when the pandemic hit, she decided it was time to take a risk and move her family and nonprofit to Flint.

“Being in Waltham, I felt limited,” Mamai said. 

By mid-2019 she’d transitioned her programming online to save on her “crazy” studio rent, and then quarantine underscored how important a home for her kids, herself, and her business was by mid-2020.  

“I thought this was the greatest chance for me to spread my wings,” Mamai said. She started house hunting early in lockdown, deciding on a home in Flint by summer 2020 because of its space and affordability compared to her Waltham apartment.

Within minutes of coming to see her house for the first time, Mamai felt validated by her new community.

“While we were checking out the house, a lady down the street came up with water and snacks for the kids,” she said. “That is what made me go: ‘This was the right decision.’” 

Mamai is just breaking ground on her backyard lounge vision, but she already organized her nonprofit’s first children’s business fair in Flint, which hosted 13 young entrepreneurs and Mayor Sheldon Neeley in early September.

Fiona Mamai in her back yard in Flint on Sept. 15, 2021. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

“I have had a couple of kids, high schoolers, approach me about wanting to volunteer next time,” she said excitedly after the event. She said she hopes those volunteers will help her grow the fair to 50 entrepreneurs and more sponsors by its second iteration in 2022.

For now though, Mamai is focused on bringing her go-getter attitude to the immediate projects of her nonprofit’s online programming and transforming her backyard for Flint’s young creatives.

“I just can’t wait to get down to work,” she said.

And then, as if to prove it, Mamai picked up a reciprocating saw she’d left by the back door and headed out to continue disassembling the yard’s massive wooden play structure herself.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....