By Patrick Hayes
Serving the needs of the population of Flint, Michigan is no easy task. Most notably, coming home provides insecurity when soldiers are left without jobs. Hiring military and veterans has become a priority for many corporations and a new aspect of diversity and inclusion in every workplace across the country.
A city once known as the birthplace of General Motors and a monument to the once-great manufacturing power of America has now become a national symbol of the crisis that befell many Rust Belt cities when those manufacturing jobs began to dwindle. Still, bolstered by an emergence of new business opportunities, a diverse population, and a mayor who grew up in the city during its more productive days, Flint could be on the verge of a major turnaround.
Flint is 57 percent African American, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The city faces several challenges not only due to its racial diversity, but also the changes caused by a dramatically shifting economy. Moving from an economy primarily dependent on General Motors and the automotive industry to a more well-rounded market not at the mercy of the erratic auto industry has been a major focus of late by city leadership.
Because of the steady loss of manufacturing jobs, Flint’s unemployment rate is nearly 12 percent. Flint’s poverty and crime rates are unsurprisingly high as a result of those unemployment figures.
But the city’s composition is no longer just people with roots in the manufacturing industry. Flint is home to three colleges: University of Michigan-Flint, Kettering University and Mott Community College. UM-Flint is the fastest growing public university in Michigan; Kettering is one of the top engineering schools in the country according to U.S. News and World Report; and Mott was recognized by the White House this fall for its emphasis on workforce training programs. Combined, the colleges bring nearly 9,000 students per day into the city limits.
As a result, the public’s expectations of government have become more nuanced. Citizens in the most crime-riddled areas are concerned foremost with public safety. The unemployed want local government to help create jobs they are qualified for or provide training programs to help them land work in new fields. The college crowd is interested in adding attractions like restaurants and entertainment venues closer to the campuses.
The city’s administration, led by Mayor Dayne Walling, tries to meet all of these very different needs.
“I took an oath when I was sworn in as mayor to serve all people in the city, and I take that commitment very seriously,” Walling said. “Democracy is all about finding common ground among diverse perspectives. I believe that the solutions we identify as a whole community are much better than what one group or one neighborhood would come up with.”
Walling, who was re-elected in November to his second term as the city’s mayor, is a product of Flint Public Schools, which helped him understand the diverse needs he’d need to meet when he was elected in 2009.
“I grew up in Flint and graduated from Flint Public Schools,” Walling said. “I was part of the first generation that came through racially integrated public schools here. From a very young age, I was interacting with kids from all different parts of the city, from families of all different income levels. It taught me a lot about the different backgrounds and perspectives that people come from.”
One of the first initiatives he put in place was designed to give residents of the city a chance to make demands on their government leadership: Neighborhood Action Sessions. The public forums essentially started a dialogue between residents in all parts of the city and local elected officials, law enforcement, and other administrators. Walling’s administration hosted more than 40 of these sessions in neighborhoods, churches, businesses, schools, and community organizations and sought input about the services residents felt were most vital. Not surprisingly, the feedback was very different depending on the audience, something that Walling felt has been useful.
“The process was very effective because it allowed everybody to get involved right in their own neighborhood,” he said. “We had nearly 1,500 people participate in that process.”
Jared Field, a resident of Flint’s Bradley Hills neighborhood on the city’s west side, notes that the city’s diverse population and opinions are a key to turning things around.
“I’ve heard stories my whole life about Flint and what it was like in its ‘heyday.’ I made the decision to move into the city because I know, without a doubt, that positive change comes from within,” Field said. “We have a healthy mix of people living in this city, people whose experiences cover a broad spectrum. To make another ‘heyday’ possible, we have to continue to harness the power of a diverse population and inspire more people to take ownership of Flint’s future.”
Field also said that although Walling, like any elected official, faces his share of criticism, his administration has established an open line of communication with residents.
“During Mayor Walling’s tenure in Flint, a new economic reality set in and it has been an adjustment for everyone,” Field said. “I respect Mayor Walling for his willingness to make tough decisions aimed at right-sizing our city. In the midst of a national recession, Walling has helped create an environment of cooperation focused on comprehensive solutions for a city on the rebound.”
Walling noted that, despite the crime and poverty the city has experienced over the last three decades, Flint has a long history of different races and backgrounds working together in unison. In 1968, for example, Flint was the first city of 100,000 or more people in the United States to pass an open and fair housing ordinance.
“They passed it by referendum – other cities put something similar in place by a city council or commission voting, but a majority of Flint voters supported an open housing referendum that eliminated a lot of the deed restrictions and allowed people of all racial and religious groups to live anywhere in the city,” Walling said. “We have a proud history of cooperation that goes along with the ongoing challenges of racial and socioeconomic inequality.”
Walling’s work as mayor has focused on one major common solution that he believes will solve a multitude of the city’s problems: redevelopment. Redevelopment creates jobs, which reduces unemployment. It also reduces blight, which fosters safer neighborhoods. Redevelopment brings entertainment and attractions into the city, which encourages not only Flint residents but outsiders to visit and spend money in the community.
Walling’s development initiatives have targeted all regions of Flint.
“The new jobs and developments in the city have positively impacted neighborhoods in all parts of the city,” Walling said. “We have a new state of Michigan Department of Human Services building that is anchoring a commercial and retail plaza on the city’s north side. We have a major infrastructure improvement from the expressway to our college corridor that was put in on the city’s west side. On the east side, we had major demolition and neighborhood improvement work that has been done with federal grant funds. On the south side, a major pharmacy company has moved their headquarters into the city of Flint. We have a comprehensive, city-wide strategy of improving the infrastructure and bringing new development to all parts of the city.”
One theme, though, has been present in all of the decisions Walling’s administration has made: diversity. He believes that more feedback from different groups of people will ultimately lead to a stronger city.
Concludes Walling: “The developments and initiatives that can be supported by a diverse group are more sustainable over time, more resilient to market change, and they end up benefitting more families.”
Patrick Hayes is a freelance journalist based in Michigan. Read more of his work at his website, www.patrickhayes.net, or follow him on Twitter @patrick_hayes.