See inside Ubuntu Village — Flint's unique community-building effort

FLINT, Michigan—Looking for their perfect wedding venue, Michael and Cierra Colston knew they wanted something spectacular, memorable, and communal. They choose the Civic Park Pavilion — the very heart of a community within the community. 

The Civic Park Pavilion has platformed the mayor and the governor and became the stage for Colstons' royalty-themed wedding complete with horse and carriage. It also is at the center of the Ubuntu Village, a community building and revitalization project by the Urban Renaissance Center inspired by the African proverb and philosophy often translated as “I am because we are.”

Located on West Dayton Street, the pavilion and the Colston’s wedding drew crowds from around the corner and a slew of curious onlookers in cars, excited to see the elaborate wedding take place.  

“You couldn’t even really tell that it was a pavilion,” said Michael Colston, 29. “It’s just one piece of art and it can bring so much to the community because you got people coming from all over.” 

The Civic Park Pavilion sits midway in the Ubuntu Village — the goal of which is to create a self-sufficient and self-supporting community filled with resources that meet all its residents’ basic needs. 

Mr. Gaines Community Garden is one of the resources within Ubuntu Village.Flint’s Ubuntu Village is located within the larger Civic Park neighborhood. It extends out in a 3-block radius from the stage and from Urban Renaissance Center offices inside Joy Tabernacle Church at the corner of Dayton and Chevrolet avenues. Visitors to the space might not even realize that they are in Ubuntu Village — but they are sure to notice the cluster of resource houses including the Claressa Shields Community Project children’s house, Rebounding Forces Transition House, Urban Health and Wellness House, Heritage Gateway Park, and the Mr. Gaine’s Community Garden.

“It’s not just about revitalizing the community,” said Jamall Merritt, chief administrator of the Urban Renaissance Center. “To bring back a sense of community, you have to also effect change in people’s hearts and souls.” 

Ubuntu Village provides residents with tools and resources rarely found in the north Flint, Merritt said.

Here, lead-mitigating produce from collard greens, banana peppers, and tomatoes are grown in the community garden and distributed through Joy Tabernacle food giveaways. Here, young men who find themselves in between jobs or just starting their career enjoy a secure, stable place to stay at the Rebounding Force Transition House. Here, residents can find support groups, counseling, mediation and get a referral to a primary care doctor at the Health and Wellness House. 
People tended to access resources and information more frequently when it could be found in their backyards, Merritt said. 

“What we were doing was meeting the needs of the community and valuing the community...more than the property, more than the physical, but really looking at human capital and redeveloping,” said Robert McCathern, executive director of the Urban Renaissance Center and pastor of Joy Tabernacle Church. 

Ubuntu Village began as a pilot project in 2014 after establishing more than a dozen partnerships with area organizations including the University of Michigan-Flint, Hamilton Community Health Network, the American Heart Association, Habitat for Humanity, Ruth Mott Foundation, Applewood, Bangtown Productions, Bryan Leach of Polo Grounds Records, Kettering University, Genesee County Landbank, and the City of Flint. 

Ubuntu Villages also operate in New Orleans and Kansas City, Mo. Although each operates separately, each is formed around the same general principals of building collective wellbeing in community.

“Most community development programs in Flint...develop neighborhoods, houses, trees,” said McCathern said, “but not much is doing anything in the development of the people in community, holistically.” 

And, Ubuntu Village is continuing to grow — with plans to add a Women’s House, Single-Family Home Rehabilitation Center, Agriculture House and an urban farming project. 
Ubuntu Village extends out in a 3-block radius from the Civic Park Pavilion.

Read more articles by Alexandria Brown.

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