AmeriCorps, universities and residents rally to revitalize Flint neighborhoods

Despite the bitter cold of a February day in Michigan, members of the Flint Urban Safety Corps were out in the Stevenson neighborhood, filling a donated dumpster with heavy, snow-covered trash and boarding up the windows of an abandoned apartment complex that has vexed residents for years.

“How can we say we care about the neighborhood if we don’t do something about this place?” asked Joy Alston, who directs the initiative and helps her team maintain their positive perspective as they tackle the important work of helping residents restore community pride and spirit.

“We serve as a catalyst,” says Joy Alston, director of Flint’s Urban Safety Corps, of community-driven efforts to stabilize University Avenue neighborhoods.
Photo: Cristina Wright

Known formerly as “Hot-Spot #3,” the Stevenson neighborhood is a lot more peaceful — and safe — these days, thanks to the efforts of the 10 AmeriCorps service members who make up the Flint Urban Safety Corps. Together with the University Avenue Corridor Coalition — a partnership that includes three universities, local nonprofits and businesses, medical institutions and police agencies — they are providing the “boots on the ground” needed to engage residents, assess neighborhood priorities, develop block clubs, reduce crime and eliminate blight.

During the past year, the Corps members have secured six properties, including the abandoned apartment complex. They patrol 15 miles of public space, spending at least two hours each week picking up trash along designated routes, and they’ve recruited more than 100 volunteers for 44 clean-up projects.

Like the Detroit program it uses as a model, Flint Urban Safety Corps combines community outreach with crime mapping and analysis, zeroing in on “hot spots” with activities designed to reduce unlawful activity, improve neighborhood guardianship and lower the chances of victimization.

Mark Walker, a University of Michigan-Flint police officer, makes frequent checks on AmeriCorps members as they secure an abandoned apartment complex.
Photo: Cristina Wright

“We started by canvassing the neighborhood, reaching out to residents one-to-one,” said Alston. The city’s water crisis actually helped advance that work, she said.

“If people don’t have access to clean water, they really don’t care about block clubs. As we talked with residents, we found many with urgent needs. Eventually, little acts of individual kindness helped us gain trust.”

“We’re fortunate to have Joy,” said Tom Wyatt, director of Kettering University’s Renew the Avenue project. A collaborative undertaking to revitalize neighborhoods along University Avenue, which connects the campuses of Kettering and the University of Michigan-Flint, Renew the Avenue is powered by the University Avenue Corridor Coalition and a federal Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program grant, which Wyatt coordinates.

Raul Garcia (right), the City of Flint’s Blight Elimination Coordinator, and his partner Adam Schumacher (left), work hand-in-hand with the Urban Safety Corps on clean-up efforts.
Photo: Cristina Wright

The Byrne grant, awarded to Kettering in 2014, has provided the impetus for many of the public safety improvements along University Avenue. Flint was one of just six cities to receive the award from the Department of Justice — $1 million over three years to reduce crime, eliminate blight and engage residents in revitalizing their communities. According to Wyatt, that’s where Alston and the Flint Urban Safety Corps have played a critical role.

“Having a director with Joy’s experience — and her ability to identify and focus each AmeriCorps member’s skill sets — has played a big part in the program’s success,” said Wyatt.

And a success it has been. Since its launch in 2015, Renew the Avenue has helped reduce violent crime in the Stevenson Neighborhood by 25 percent and property crimes by 51 percent.

Despite freezing temperatures, AmeriCorps members Marie Herron (left) and Robert Horton (right) work to board up an abandoned apartment complex.
Photo: Cristina Wright

“The work they’ve done has been transformational,” said Wyatt. “They’ve played a major role in eliminating a decade of drug activity in the neighborhood.”

While Alston is proud of her dedicated, caring team, she is quick to point out that, without the crime and public health data collection, analysis and mapping provided by Michigan State University, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan-Flint, it would be much more difficult to target their work effectively.

“We serve as a catalyst — to make sure the work is community driven,” Alston said of corridor revitalization efforts. “The timing of the Byrne grant, the creation of the Urban Safety Corps, and the support of law enforcement, the universities and United Way — it’s all come together in a way that is making a difference by empowering communities.”

Wyatt agrees.

Joshua McCambri, one of several students taking part in the University of Michigan-Flint’s Alternative Spring Break, helps Urban Safety Corps members clear debris at a neighborhood clean-up.
Photo: Cristina Wright

“Partnerships are what make this program work,” he said. “It’s not just a Kettering, or U of M or AmeriCorps effort — it’s truly a collaboration. When we meet, we check egos at the door. We don’t hold back on sharing ideas, we follow up with each other, we look at what’s working and what’s not. Everything is malleable.”

Funding for Flint’s Urban Safety Corps and other AmeriCorps members working in Flint also is a collaborative undertaking, with the Michigan Community Service Commission, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation each providing support for service members, as well as Flint’s National Service Accelerator. A pilot program housed at the United Way of Genesee County, the Accelerator has helped local nonprofits increase the number of service members three-fold to about 200 now working throughout the city.

“United Way is proud to be a partner with the University of Michigan-Flint in administering the Flint Urban Safety Corps program,” said CEO Jamie Gaskin. “It’s one of many national service programs supported by United Way under our Flint National Service Accelerator initiative.”

Ray Hall, director of Public Safety at the University of Michigan-Flint, which houses and supervises the activities of the Urban Safety Corps, says partnership is key to the success and sustainability of efforts to keep neighborhoods safe and stable.

“This program doesn’t belong to a single institution or person,” said Hall, a long-time proponent of community policing tactics. “It’s a very holistic approach to public safety — much more than enforcement. And it involves the efforts of a lot of unsung heroes. I can’t say enough good things about the United Way of Genesee County and Michigan State’s School of Criminal Justice.

“It really is a demonstration of the transformational power of partnership.”

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