Flint, MI—How would you describe the perfect community?
This is one of the many questions teens in the Latinx Technology and Community Center’s Youth Leadership Academy are faced with during their daily lectures.
“Cleanliness,” said seventeen-year-old Tomas Tello. “If you look up and down any street, you’re going to find trash everywhere.” The room fell silent as the rest of his classmates pondered on the response.
Seconds later, that silence turned into a wave of sound as other students chimed in, sharing which streets they thought had the most litter.
They talked about the graffiti on Bennett Avenue, the broken glass on Franklin Street and the overgrown grass taking over the sidewalk on Lewis Street.
Though not an average conversation for teens, this particular group of students would soon be taking to the streets of Flint’s east side to pick up litter on the very roads they were talking about.
That’s what the leadership academy was designed for: to help foster an interest in community and service within Flint’s youth. Monday through Thursday, the group of young people meet up at 10 a.m. for two hours of lecture and discussion. After that, they hit the streets and spend two hours getting their hands dirty and cleaning up the surrounding area.
While the discussion continued, nineteen-year-old Evelyn Camo mentioned the need for community pride and service.
“If you are walking down the street or driving and you see trash, you will not be proud of it. You will think ‘Oh, I can throw something away here as well,” Camo said.
For Camo, a perfect community doesn’t mean nothing ever goes wrong, it means that when something does, residents have enough love for their community to act.
For Camo, Tello, and their peers, these conversations are not hypothetical. The youth academy does much more than clean up the same couple of streets. Over the course of its 4-year existence, members of the academy have been helped to change the east side’s landscape.
Through the program, a handful of students every year collectively spend thousands of hours mowing lawns, clearing brush and slowly chipping away at the sense of abandonment that has haunted that area of Flint.
In that same conversation, Tello talked about barriers to access for the east side. Even as a teenager, he felt his local government, who in his eyes should be taking care of issues like litter and blight, has lost sight of him and people like him.
For Tello, Flint’s focus is on downtown and he said that while the development happening there is positive, it is also serving to alienate other areas of Flint.
“What is Flint going to look like 10 years from now? he asked. “All of it, not just downtown. I want care for everybody, we’re all in this flock. We can’t just have certain sheep get more attention or more care.”
The conversation came to an end as lunchtime arrived. Following a meal provided by the tech center and a mindfulness break where students practiced mindful breathing and meditation, the group of teens took to Lewis street.
They put on their green visibility vests and gardening gloves, grabbed their various gardening tools, and switched from conversation to action, making their community beautiful the best way they know how.