Anna Clark believes Flint, Michigan, was harmed by the “danger of the single story.” As the chronicle of its water crisis was told again and again, she said the community was reduced being portrayed as “nothing but a basket case.”
To expand on the city beyond the crisis, Clark, journalist and author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, moderated the Week Two panel on “Uncommon Ground: Communities Working Toward Solutions” with journalist Jiquanda Johnson and entrepreneur Lev Hunter at the morning lecture Wednesday in the Amphitheater.
“It is not that this story is necessarily untrue, but it isn’t complete,” Clark said. “That causes actual harm to people. I think this is acutely relevant in Flint, Michigan, the City of Detroit, where I live, and in disinvested communities all over the country where there is the familiar story of what these places have lost over many, many years. In Flint’s case, I would venture that its single story actively contributed to the harm done of its extraordinary water crisis.”
Clark turned the conversation over to Johnson, founder and publisher of the hyper-local online newspaper, Flint Beat, and Hunter, creator of the shop and podcast “The Daily Brew,” asking how their Flint-centered careers originated.
Johnson started her journalism career at The Flint Journal. Born and raised in Flint, she knew there was more to the community than what the paper was reporting.
“At the time, we were saturated with crime, sports and the Flint water crisis,” she said.
Johnson took matters into her own hands and created Flint Beat to fill in the gaps of Flint’s untold stories.
“I really jumped out there on journalistic faith and I launched Flint Beat,” Johnson said. “I was thinking about it as a journalist and the impact I am going to make on my community, so I just stepped out there and started covering it in a way I felt it needed to be covered, and in a way that the community had asked me to cover it.”
Hunter is also a lifelong resident of Flint. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, he knew a business was the platform he wanted to use to make a difference. In 2018, Hunter launched The Daily Brew, an online coffee shop that “brews java and conversation.”
When Hunter was hesitant to take the first step, his pastor told him the best times to start a business are either when the community “is in a turnaround, or when there are issues or trouble.”
“During this time in Flint is probably the best time to start a business, because if you can be resilient in this, when the glory days come, this is going to be such a downhill, easy street to go,” Hunter said.
The Daily Brew’s business motto is “coffee brews conversation.” Hunter thinks conversation in Flint is critical to improve morale.
“So, when you have a water crisis, the only conversation people are having is ‘How bad is it?’ or ‘Woe is me,’ and I think sometimes if you can bring people together to have meaningful, intentional conversations, then you’ll start seeing a community change,” he said.
Clark asked Johnson and Hunter what they had to “keep and let go of” from the beginning of their careers in order to embark on their own journeys.
Coming from a traditional journalism background, Johnson felt she needed to get out of the “business of being in a hamster wheel.”
“I had to learn that’s not necessarily how I am going to make a real impact,” she said. “I need to start paying attention more to my sources, digging deeper for stories and not necessarily reaching for the low-hanging fruit.”
Johnson found that being her own boss has led to more success.
“Sometimes I sit on stories a little longer, sometimes I reach out to a few more people before we publish,” she said. “My one friend said ‘We got it first, but you got it right.’ ”
According to Hunter, the key is “using what you have.”
“It’s 2019, and business today is totally different than what it was for my father and my grandfather,” he said. “It’s this thing called the internet — I don’t know if you guys have heard of it. When you’re in a place like Flint, Michigan, you know, everybody is not well off, everybody’s not well-to-do, so you use what you have.”
With all Flint has lost in the water crisis, Clark asked why it was worth it to not only stay as residents, but to “grow new structures.”
Hunter said the people of Flint keep him inspired.
“I love Flint,” he said. “There is no other place in this world quite like Flint, and what makes that true is the people there. You have so many resilient people.”
In addition to his coffee business, Hunter also sees resilience through his job working with victims of violent crime.
“I am the ambulance at the bottom of a hill that someone has jumped off of,” Hunter said. “To be in that role with people, at their lowest moment, and they still have a will to want more or to want better, that’s remarkable. To have a water crisis, to have a job lost, to have violence, to have all of those things that have happened, you still have a core group of people that want to see (Flint) rise back to its glory days. I don’t know where you see an American story in our country like that.”
At one point, Johnson tried to leave Flint. After moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, she immediately wanted to go home.
“I just knew that I saw some wonderful things going on in Charlotte that could happen at home, so I was called back home,” she said. “I haven’t missed a beat. … It’s that love and that passion that keeps us where we are because I’ve had other opportunities. It’s also wanting to make a difference and being part of something that nobody knows what it’s going to bring, but we know it’s going to be great.”
Clark then directed the conversation to youth involvement, something Johnson has experience with in Flint.
Johnson said the kids in Flint were aware of the crisis, but didn’t know they could be a part of the reporting. In response, Johnson launched a youth journalism program in 2018 to implement new voices for Flint Beat.
“These young people, they are the today,” Johnson said. “But they also, in Flint in particular, need people who are going to invest in them, people who are going to listen to them and position them in places they need to be in order for them to also have an impact and make change. In Flint, doors are closed on these young people so often. I’m 43, doors are closed on me all the time in Flint. I am just one of those people who wants to be a vehicle for them so they can make change.”
Clark asked Johnson and Hunter why they focus on generating “alternative sources of power” in their community.
Hunter said the question reminded him of one of the “greatest presidents,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his efforts in the New Deal.
“He talked about the New Deal and getting people back to work and really getting this country together to bring prosperity, and that’s what we are doing in Flint,” Hunter said. “We are looking for those opportunities — that are unconventional — to bring jobs or sometimes just a smile. We use what I call the ‘New Deal 2.0,’ and it’s really going to come from people investing back into places like Flint.”
When it comes to investing, Clark asked if there were any public policies that could help Hunter and Johnson do their jobs and make the necessary changes for Flint’s longevity.
As a journalist, Johnson tries to separate herself from policy. However, she thinks it’s important for people to understand that Flint is serving as a “sustainability model.”
“(Flint Beat) is being now looked at nationally (for how we can) sustain journalism in underserved communities,” she said. “When we speak to the underserved, it’s not just predominantly black communities, we are talking about poor communities or rural communities. What do we need to be able to support this kind of news? Because it’s needed.”
Hunter believes there is a lot of “distrust” in the government in Flint, so he’s putting his trust in the hands of the people.
“At the end of the day, I would probably like to bet more on people helping better than government helping people,” he said. “It’s people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, but learning how to craft the bootstrap, how to sell the bootstrap. I don’t know if policy is the key, it’s people. People help people.”
Clark recognized that Hunter and Johnson can’t do their jobs alone, and asked what help they have accepted along the way.
Hunter recalled an opportunity in Flint to receive a Per Capita loan. From what he had been told, Hunter did not meet the necessary criteria to apply. When he met one of the lenders, he was told the information he had wasn’t true. He wasn’t alone; it was why no one in Flint had applied for the loan in the past year.
“It is so disheartening when you go to the places in your town that are supposed to help you and they put barriers in front of you,” Hunter said. “It seems as if there is a checkbox that they check to say ‘Hey, we did all of these things, now give us more money,’ to continue to be gatekeepers to money.”
Johnson said she agreed with Hunter “150%” and has her own set of issues with philanthropic foundations acting as gatekeepers.
“What I’m suggesting to them is let’s take that (barrier) down,” she said. “Let’s go directly to me. Give me the money so I can put it where I need it to be, instead of giving these foundations money where they’re building capacity to tell me where they think I need it.”
Outside of funding, Clark asked what the two have learned from other organizations that have aided them in their work.
Johnson said she learned that she couldn’t be successful by herself.
“If you do this by yourself, if you try, you’ll probably fail,” she said. “You need a team, you need a partner, you need some support. It’s not always about funding; it’s us being resourceful.”
For Hunter, it’s all about building the right relationships. Hunter said he has gained a lot of opportunities through other entrepreneurs.
“Like (Johnson) said, it’s not all about funding,” he said. “Sometimes that’s just the engine in the car. It’s all about if you don’t have the engine running, can you ask two or three people to help you push?”
To conclude the conversation, Clark asked what Flint can teach communities beyond its city limits.
For both Hunter and Johnson, it all goes back to resilience.