Flint, MI—It’s rare to see blight in your neighborhood as an inspiration, but for Emiri Coleman and Neveah LaRose that’s just the case.
The two Potter Elementary fourth graders were recently awarded top prizes in the “Get Blight Out of Sight” essay contest, organized by Dione Freeman, founder of Community Connections of America.
Their topic? How Flint’s youth can help with neighborhood blight.
“I live in Flint, Michigan where there is a lot of litter, burned down houses, garbage and bad streets,” Coleman read aloud from her first-place essay on June 14, 2023. “It makes me sad when I see this ugliness in my neighborhood. A change must take place.”
Coleman explained that change could start with mowing lawns and picking up litter, adding that she and her neighbors should be “actively involved by taking pride in making our neighborhoods more attractive to others.”
LaRose also shared her essay with her classmates and assembled city officials, including 4th Ward Flint City Councilwoman Judy Priestley and city services manager Arnold Brown.
Reading to the audience, LaRose recalled when an abandoned vehicle near her home had been set on fire and could have hurt people. She suggested creating a neighborhood watch group to monitor abandoned vehicles in the future and report them to the Flint Police Department to be towed away.
For winning the contest, LaRose and Coleman were awarded a monetary prize of $50 and $100, respectively, and Community Connections of America’s support in hosting a clean up on each of their blocks this summer.
“Blight at the lowest level starts at home,” Freeman told Flint Beat. “It’s trained into us.”
She said she decided to create the contest after noticing a lack of blight education for young people in Flint.
“When I was younger… we had Woodsy Owl, and he’d say ‘Give a hoot, don’t pollute!’” she said. “So I wanted to do something that would engage our youth… I thought it would just be a good idea to give them the opportunity to express themselves about what they see in their neighborhoods. How does it make them feel? Do they think that we can do anything to make it better?”
Freeman repeated a similar message to Mrs. Pinson-Kelley’s fourth-grade class during the essay contest’s award ceremony, telling the students they are “the vision and the future” of Flint.
“We depend on your ideas, and we will make your ideas come to reality if we know about them,” she told the class. “That’s part of the reason why this essay contest was started: so that we can get your ideas and get your ideas out into the community.”
Freeman noted that she put the contest together rather quickly this year, but she plans to run it annually moving forward, with Potter Elementary and her two new “youth blight ambassadors” serving as a model for other schools in Flint.
As for the two young blight fighters, both girls proudly showed off their certificates to friends as Priestley and Brown thanked them for their efforts.
“I wasn’t thinking about nothing but basketball when I was your age,” Brown said with a chuckle. “I really, really appreciate you guys, and stay encouraged.”
After the award ceremony, Coleman and LaRose, self-proclaimed “BFFs,” told Flint Beat that they looked forward to seeing their ideas around neighborhood blight become a reality—and to spend some of their hard-earned prize money.
Coleman said she would portion it out over the coming summer weeks, but she is most excited to get her nails done.
As for LaRose, she said she wanted to grow up to “help the community” more. “I’m gonna be a cop,” she explained before posing for a few more photos with Coleman.
The “Get Blight Out of Sight” essay contest was open in May 2023 to Flint Community Schools students aged 10-14. Freeman said her goal is to see more participation next school year and to utilize future contestants’ responses to coordinate block clean-ups in each Flint ward in 2024.