FLINT, Michigan — Jeanette Edwards’ roots go deep in the Brownell-Holmes neighborhood. She worked in the neighborhood’s namesake elementary and middle school as a paraprofessional in learning support, made her home here, and watched in frustration as blight and crime spread.
She became among the first volunteers when Community Education returned to Flint Community Schools through funding from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and oversight of the Crim Fitness Foundation.
Deeper and deeper she dug into her neighborhood, determined to make a difference, actively seeking solutions to her neighborhood’s struggles.
Today, Edwards is widely known as the founder and president of the Brownell-Holmes Neighborhood Association. Few realize that the block club was eight years in the making and launched in 2017 with just two people attending its first meeting. Today, there are 52 official members, whom Edwards calls the “faithful few.”
“We are a family in my neighborhood and I want us to stay like that,” she says of the neighborhood located in the northwestern most corner of the city.
Edwards, 63, was born in Arkansas, one of eight siblings, but her family soon moved to the Flint area and Edwards spent her early years in the Beecher district. She still proudly considers herself a Beecher Buccaneer although she dropped out of high school because of a reading disability.
In 1987, she graduated from Mott Adult High School and spent the rest of career helping people learning how to read and write, much of her career spent at Brownell and Holmes.
“I had a special brother. … He had a speech impediment and we had to think of ways to communicate with him and to teach him things. It was easy for me to do that. It was real easy. God gives everybody a talent and that was my talent, to work with special people,” Edwards says. "Even when I was in school, I catered toward [and] was drawn to the learning-support kids, the kids that had problems. I was always trying to figure out how to help them.”
Edwards saw her story mirrored in many of the children she encountered as a paraprofessional in special education learning support. Now a resident of the neighborhood for 38 years, Edwards lived and worked in the neighborhood and continues to take great pride in it.
She is a staunch advocate for the schools and a constant volunteer recruiter.
“Pick up a piece of paper, teach a child how to write. It’s 500 and something kids in those two schools. How many volunteers do I get? I beg people all the time: Give me a half and hour, 15 minutes to read to a child,” Edwards said at recent forum to plan on improving community wellbeing as part of the $1 million federal grant awarded in north Flint.
Along with scheduling cleanups, boarding up vacant homes, and coordinating volunteers, the block club in its very first year also set its sights on a lot just across the street from Brownell STEM Academy. For years, it had been used as a dump.
It was more than ugly; It was not safe for the children to pass by everyday on their way to school. They deserved better.
In its very first year, the Brownell-Holmes Neighborhood Association cleared the lot and built a little library book share on the site, installed benches, and defined a new sense of community for the neighborhood.
Ultimately, Edwards sees her work as an effort to restore a legacy — something she can pass down to the next generation of children to empower them to do good for their neighborhood, too.
“When the Lord closes my eyes,” says Edwards, “I want (my grandchildren) to say, ‘My granny was out there fighting for something positive.’ I want them to be able to say, ‘My grandmama made a difference in our lives.’"