Feedback from participants in community dialogues on racism shows hope amidst challenges

FLINT, Michigan -- According to data collected by Community Roots, a community development organization committed to “authentic engagement and measurable change,” approximately 89 percent of people who participated in four community dialogues over the summer believe racism can be eliminated in Flint.


How to get to that vision is more complicated. Although respondents mentioned things like more community involvement, education, advocacy, and speaking out about racism in response to a question about how to eliminate racism, only about 40 percent of the dialogue participants responded to that question.


The dialogues, called “The Vent,” were facilitated by Community Roots members. Residents answered questions about what an ideal Flint looks like, what policies that have embedded racism and inequity are a threat to that ideal vision, and how the conversations can be spread to include more voices. Three were held outdoors, socially distanced in parks (Logan Park in the Brownell-Holmes Neighborhood, Whaley Park, and Dewey Park) and one was virtual. Community Roots presented findings from four community dialogues held over the summer during a virtual meeting on December 9, and discussed next steps for the organization.


“We promised the community that when they participated, we’d come back and report out and continue moving forward with these conversations to develop strategic items that can be put into practice,” said Todd Womack, one of the group’s facilitators. “We’ll be reaching out again and supporting the work the Genesee County task force is engaged in related to racism as a public health crisis. We’ll be developing a strategic plan to address these disparities head-on.”


The city of Flint declared racism a public health crisis in the spring, and the Genesee County Board of Commissioners followed suit soon after.


Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley, who participated in the four Vent sessions over the summer, praised the work Community Roots is doing, noting that it is particularly vital as it expands to the county level.


“Genesee County is the second most segregated county in the state of Michigan,” Neeley said. “(The work Community Roots is doing) adds a spirit back into the body of our society, making sure that hope can be dispensed from the work you’re doing.”


Community Roots facilitators said 154 people participated in the four vent sessions, and 401 comments were submitted from participants. The top four areas identified in a question about what a healthy Flint looks like were beautifying the city, creating more opportunities for connections or collaboration between residents and organizations, respect and value, and creating more job opportunities.


Respondents identified five areas where racism embedded in public policy threatens the city. Those were the criminal justice system; schools; housing; racial profiling; and a lack of access to critical resources.


Ongoing discussions, outreach, action planning, sharing and collecting data, and meetings were all ways respondents suggested for keeping the community engaged. Liz Gordillo, a consultant who presented the findings in the December 9 session, said 80 percent of the participants said the Vent sessions helped.


“Participants were really happy with the facilitators and having a safe space to have difficult conversations,” Gordillo said.


Now that data has been collected and shared, the next step for the group will be developing a common language to help bridge gaps in understanding between people.


“The Vent was the first iteration of this work,” said Willie Smith Jr., one of the facilitators. “We’re working on another aspect. The next will be common language, where we bring everyone together and try to get everyone to talk on the same level so everyone is being heard and understood.”


Sponsors of The Vent sessions were the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, United Way of Genesee County, University of Michigan-Flint Social Work Department, Brownell-Holmes Neighborhood Association, North Flint Neighborhood Action Council, Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village, Urban Transformation Development, Latinx Technology Center, Flint Neighborhoods United, Eastside Franklin Park Neighborhood Association, and Asbury Community Development Corporation.


For more information about Courageous Conversations on Race, Racism, and Radical Change, contact Willie Smith, Jr. of Community Roots at [email protected]

Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.

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