From Canada’s Chemical Valley to the “Heart of Flint”: Field Notes on Environmental Justice

By Sarah Wilkins, Project Manager

As a Thriving Earth Project Manager, I am always thrilled to see the world out from behind my computer screen: meeting a project team in person, visiting the lands of a First Nation or walking a neighborhood with a community leader. I was granted such a chance in late September and early October this year when I visited three environmental justice communities—that is, socioeconomically vulnerable communities that disproportionately suffer environmental health burdens. In three parts, I share my reflections and welcome your reactions. Part 1 / Part 3

Part 2: The Heart of Flint

This year Thriving Earth Exchange decided to reach a new audience by attending the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference, held this year in Flint, Mich. Each year, organizers aim to bring their conference to an environmental justice community in need of media attention, or in the case of Flint, renewed media attention.

At the end of the conference I had the pleasure of meeting our Flint Thriving Earth Exchange project team at Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village (SBEV), a community organization that offers programming, services and a gathering space for people in North Flint. Since General Motors pulled out of Flint and the water crisis devasted the city and its residents, leaving behind a sea of blighted, abandoned properties and little hope, SBEV has become known as the “Heart of Flint.” SBEV offers a wide range of programs to its neighborhood residents, including sports, dance, youth journalism, nutrition, adult literacy, music and after school homework assistance. I met with SBEV leaders Maryum Rasool and Saadia Shah along with the landscape architects from Michigan State University (MSU): Dr. Jon Burley, Vincy Tan and Rayshaun Landrum.

Together we discussed plans and a vision for a green roof for the SBEV center. We walked the roof despite the cold October rain falling on our heads. Saadia explained the construction of the roof, its weak points and how water drains. Dr. Burley, Tan and Landrum took many photos and considered a vision and layout for the green roof. The MSU team also looked at the condition of roof trusses throughout the building and determined that an addition was made to the building, likely in the 60s or 70s. The newer portion of the building supports the section of the roof suitable for the green roof and will require less revamping than the older section which contains wooden roof trusses. Before the green roof can be installed, the existing roof will need to be replaced to ensure stability.

The green roof project will involve heavy input and buy-in from those living in North Flint. MSU will co-lead several workshops with SBEV to generate an overall community vision for the roof. MSU plans to create a model of the building where workshop participants can contribute their input and suggestions. The idea is to have Flint residents’ ideas reflected in the final form of the resulting green roof.

During our meeting, I learned a new term coined in Flint: “place-saving.” I am familiar with the term “placemaking,” which is used in the design world to describe how community members can collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces to ensure health, happiness and well-being and spur economic growth. “Place-saving” relates to the purposeful reuse of abandoned areas in the community, whether a community garden, farm or abandoned lot.

A large urban agriculture movement has grown in Flint where vacant parcels are reused for urban agriculture and community gardening. As Saadia Shah said, “These efforts address the look of abandoned lots, while simultaneously bringing people to public spaces and connecting the community through shared practices. The gardens are a solution to ‘save the spot’ until economic and residential development can catch up again.” It was heartening to learn of this vibrant urban agriculture program taking root in Flint—a city plagued by food insecurity.

During my time in Flint, I learned a good deal about the city—its history, its future and the wounds still festering just below the surface. The water crisis is far from being over for many Flint residents—lead spikes continue to render drinking water unusable and government officials have yet to be held truly accountable. Everywhere I looked in North Flint, I noticed abandoned and blighted properties. Despite these challenges, I met people who are resilient and hopeful for a future Flint. I see SBEV’s green roof as a true harbinger of hope.

Sarah Wilkins editor