FLINT, Michigan — After living out of state for several years, high schooler Keishaun Wade made a visit back to his grandmother’s neighborhood on Saginaw and 12th Street only to find that the place that had fostered his early childhood memories no longer existed. His grandmother’s home and the houses surrounding it had either been removed or abandoned. It was then that Wade made a personal resolve to fill in the gaps and enrich his community.
“You always hear the stories of what Flint used to be and how Flint used to be and how it made people feel, versus what I’ve always known and what I’ve always grew up with,” says Wade, now 18, a senior at Southwestern Classical Academy, a former small business owner, and community advocate. “Something I’m really passionate about is renewing our community in a way that will be beneficial to everyone.”
And, the world is taking notice. In a big way. Wade is one of 15 high schoolers nationwide honored earlier this year by Yale University for his community leadership, service, problem-solving and academic record. In June, Wade was awarded the Yale Basset Award for Community Engagement.
In 2017, the very year he moved back to Flint after also living in Tennessee, Texas and Louisiana, Wade operated a lawn care business for two months to mobilize youth and beautify Flint by removing urban blight.
“It was really just a learning experience. … We got to directly work in that aspect of our community,” Wade says. “We really got to dig into what it really needs [means] to be in your community to better it.”
That project developed into a direct mentorship in urban development with Flint Soup, a local nonprofit specializing in microgrants for entrepreneurs and business owners. Adrian Montague, executive director of Flint Soup, nominated Wade for the Yale Bassett Award.
“Keishaun is bright and determined. He is keenly aware of the brokenness of his school system and the social issues that exist within his local community. Keishaun does not see himself powerless to effect change but instead champions a better way. With characteristic humility and soft-spoken manner, he has set himself apart as a voice of excellence,” Montague wrote in her nomination.
Wade received the award in September. He was selected out of 970 applicants nationwide for the award — and was openly encouraged by Yale admissions to apply to the university to continue his post-secondary education.
‘“I felt like everything I had been working toward was coming into fruition, and the fact that it was because of my community, the fact that, you know, it wasn’t just me that was being represented through that award. It was the whole of Flint,” Wade says. “But I never thought I would win or anything like that.”
Wade cites the women in his life for motivating him to make a difference. Wade’s mother, Tasha Upton, says Wade has always been a leader, especially when looking out for his younger siblings.
“He was, like, 2 years old and would go into the refrigerator and get them different things for them to eat,” Upton says remembering Wade peeling oranges and bananas as just a toddler. “So he’s always been looking out, you know, for different people, looking out for his siblings.”
Wade also points to the significance of his late grandmother in inspiring him. She along with many other black families came to Flint in search of industrial opportunities and better lives. Her strength through segregation, discrimination, and relocation continues to inspire Wade.
Another major influence for Wade is his great aunt — Vera B. Rison, a well-known name to many in Flint and Beecher. She served as a state representative, county commissioner and community advocate. The library in Beecher was named in her honor before her death in 2015.
“It was always in a constant reminder like, ‘You need to be working to make things better,’” Wade recalls. “‘Don’t come into a situation and just be static.’”
Wade also is busy at school. He’s captain of the quiz bowl team, serves as Student Government president, and continues his volunteer community work. Despite his full plate, Wade has found time to apply to 14 colleges and universities and he’s got his dreams set on an Ivy League school.
Wade says his three choices are Yale, Cornell University, and Boston University.
He says he will focus his studies community development, politics, and advocacy with a specific focus on post-industrial cities. “I think that if I really want to effect change, then I have to start with what’s closest to me,” he says.