Bringing good Carma to Flint

FLINT, Michigan—It’s a question she must ponder. Carma Lewis’ eyes roll toward the ceiling while she processes her reply. “I’m nosy,” she says with an easy laugh.  
In this case, nosy is good.

“That’s basically what it is,” she says. “I can find out things and communicate with people on different levels—and I care.” Whatever the reason, Lewis is very good at her job, a job that was created, in fact, because she is so good for the people of Flint.

Lewis, who grew up in Flint and lives in the Civic Park neighborhood, is the Community Outreach Coordinator for FACT, the Flint Action Coordination Team—a title that seems very lofty until you see the humility of the person that comes with it.
Carma Lewis picks up trash along the lake in Flint Park during a visit.
“When I realized all the resources we have here that I didn’t know about, I figured there are other people that don’t know it either. And, so, I started sharing. That’s all I do. There are people who think I do this great work, which is really not so great. It’s really the other people who do the great work. I’m just sharing the information,” she says.

Modest, but her work has been central since the start of the water crisis. 

Lewis has become the one person everyone can rely on. She knows what’s happening, solves problems, and works as an important bridge between water crisis recovery efforts and residents.

“Our nonprofits have always been amazing, but they just took it to a whole new level,” Lewis said. “People are working together more. Organizations are working together more. Organizations had been working as silos. Now they are pooling their resources and making those resources more available.”

She gives special credit to the C.S. Mott Foundation, Ruth Mott Foundation, and Community Foundation of Greater Flint. 
Carma Lewis (center) takes notes during a meeting of Recovery Resource Group.
At first, Lewis was hired simply to work at a water crisis station on Flint’s eastside, a position funded through the state of Michigan with federal dollars. She immediately excelled—and stepped up to do more and more, according to Jamie-Lee Venable, the United Way’s director of community impact. 

“She was already going to these town hall (meetings) and bringing back information, and so the state knew what was going on to the point where, all of a sudden, they thought she needed to be doing something else,” Venable says. 

Then she was hired into a one-year communications job through a grant from the Department of Labor. 

“That term ended in March, but she was so valuable to the work we were doing, that if we had lost her we would have had a huge gap,” Venable says. So, she was hired into her current position with FACT, a position sub-contracted to Lewis through the United Way.

Lewis says her work is guided by the water crisis “so if there’s a meeting that has anything to do with the water crisis I try to attend those. I want to make sure the residents have a voice. I try to attend as many neighborhood association meetings as I can and that’s a good way to share what’s going on.”

“She’s all over the place,” says Venable. “She knows everyone. She knows everything.”

“She cares about the people who live on her block and live in her neighborhood and she wants to make the place better,” Venable says. “She has the drive. She has a strong passion and that’s what makes her good.”

Lewis has a long history of community service in Flint. She has worked with Flint Neighborhoods United—a coalition of neighborhood associations, block clubs, and crime watches—since its inception in 2012. 

Today’s schedule has Lewis meeting with a host of representatives from nonprofits as well as local and state agencies. She is dressed in a flowered top and carries a small, round black and yellow purse adorned with a glasses-wearing smiley face. She wears a peace sign pendant and running shoes. Then she grabs her backpack and hops into her 12-year-old Jeep—a vehicle that seems to reflect both her passion and purpose.

“I love it,” she says. “It’s my convertible and my truck.”

She moves from meeting to meeting, site to site, always on the job. 

Along Martin Luther King Avenue, she slows her Jeep and raises her phone to take a photograph. Lewis later explains that there were water bottles strewn along the road and she will report those to the DPW recycling project.  

Lewis technically has an office—a spartan space not far from the information desk at City Hall. Really, though, her office is her backpack. It has to be, considering the nomadic and hands-on nature of her job.
Carma Lewis makes herself familiar with a small rototiller at the Community Tool Shed at the Neighborhood Engagement Hub on Martin Luther King Avenue. At left is Ceasare Copeny, assistant manager of the Community Tool Shed.

At the Community Tool Shed—a service center that makes lawn-type hand and power tools available to residents at a low cost or at no cost—Lewis takes the opportunity to become familiar with a small rototiller. A visit to a local park leaves her with a handful of trash she has picked up. Entering City Hall finds her organizing literature placed in the path of residents who may find solutions there. 

These are not the activities performed by someone simply doing her job. These are the actions of someone doing what she loves. 

“This is home. This is where all my memories are. I’ve lived other places before. There’s just something about Flint that keeps drawing me back. I have to make it right,” Lewis says. “I’m hopeful that when all this is done, we’ll have a re-engineered infrastructure. I hope for elementary schools to be back in every neighborhood.”

“It’s a lot to dream …,” she says. “Things won’t change until the work is done.”
Carma Lewis works hands-on throughout the community. Shown here at Max Brandon Park.

Read more articles by Bruce Edwards.