In Flint, Michigan, our challenges are many. Ours is a community that is experiencing extreme barriers such as poverty, high infant mortality rates, low graduation rates, high unemployment and extremely high crime rates. Flint’s socio-cultural history, however, is an eventful and colorful one, centered on the automobile industry. Flint is known as the birthplace of General Motors, which was founded in 1908 at Durant-Dort Factory One (originally the Flint Carriage Works, built in 1880), near downtown Flint. North Flint was the original home to the Buick Manufacturing complex built in 1905, later purchased by General Motors soon after its founding. At its peak (ca. 1969), the Flint Buick Manufacturing complex employed around 30,000 Flint workers, thus making it the largest United Auto Workers (UAW) Local in the world. (Flint was also the birthplace of the UAW in 1937, with the infamous Sit-Down Strike.) Buick’s history spanned 95 years in north Flint until Buick closed its Flint operations in 1999. This devastated the economy of Flint and because most residents in north Flint were Buick factory workers who now found themselves unemployed, Flint generally and north Flint specifically was cast into an economic depression. Years later in October, 2015 our aging infrastructure began making international headlines when it was discovered that lead had been leeching into the city’s water supply from April, 2014, when the City of Flint switched its water source from Detroit Water (and Lake Huron) to the Flint River. Because houses in the north Flint zip codes are some of our city’s oldest on the water system grid, their infrastructure was hit the hardest with toxic lead when the appropriate compounds were not properly added to the Flint River water to make it safe for residents’ consumption.
In the heart of this economically hard-hit region of Flint is the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village, hereinafter SBEV, which is playing a major role in the transformation of the north Flint Community. SBEV occupies the former George M. Dewey Elementary School, established in September, 1921. The building, soon entering its tenth decade, has seen several changes in ownership over the years. After it ceased operating as a school in 1991, it was purchased by Jobs Central, Inc. (later renamed Career Alliance, Inc.), which specialized in career readiness and job training. The building was renamed the Sylvester Broome Jr. Training and Technology Center (or the Sylvester Broome Center, as it is more popularly known in the Flint community), and opened in 1995. Under Career Alliance, the Broome Center eventually reached 93% occupancy before closing in 2012, in spite of much community effort to spare the programs and keep the building open. The Broome Center then sat empty for approximately three years before being purchased in 2015 by two business owners wishing to invest in north Flint, an area known for its high crime that had seen little redevelopment in at least a decade.
SBEV has 62,000 square feet of space wholly devoted to the developmental needs of north Flint’s youth population who have been deemed “at-risk.” Eventually, the SBEV mission is to reach all youth in the city of Flint. The space is dedicated for learning, developing, leading and investing in children and youth through employment, community health, and community engagement. At SBEV we firmly believe that if we empower and provide the resources to youth, they will be the catalyst to drive change in the community. SBEV plans to provide youth a safe harbor and an alternative to gangs, drugs and violence.
Our building is nearing 100 years old and it was redeveloped in 1964 and again in 1995, the latter renovations generously funded by a $4 million grant given by the C.S. Mott Foundation. At that time, the building underwent extensive renovations.
Our Response to the Water Crisis
When the Flint water crisis was just unfolding in late 2015, early 2016, residents were deeply impacted by the horror of learning that their water supply was laced with lead, due to failures of protection at every level of government, including local, state and federal. But at SBEV, we rallied our members and partners, and our facilities quickly became one of the first water Points of Distribution Sites (PODS) in the city. Partnering with other organizations and volunteers who came from around the country to offer their assistance, SBEV and our affiliates organized as many as three and four hundred people a day to distribute more than one million bottles of water. SBEV staffers also organized free lead testing and a dermatology clinic on site. At SBEV, we lease space to Wayne State University and the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership (FACHEP). FACHEP is conducting an academic study of legionella, in accordance with the cases of Legionnaire's disease that claimed the lives of 12 people before lead was discovered in our water supply. Through negotiated agreement, Wayne State hired Flint residents only for this work, thus creating a small economy of employment for those most directly affected by the water crisis. Thus, SBEV has been at the forefront of addressing components of the water crisis from its beginnings.