Lighting a Fire

Before sunup on a side street on Flint’s south side, you’ll find Vanessa patrolling her neighborhood for any signs of delinquent activity that may have taken place overnight.

Vanessa’s neighborhood is one of those treasured bastions of community that exist throughout Rust Belt cities like Flint and Detroit. Get enough people in a single place who give a damn, add a little sunshine to the rain, and the neighborhood holds on despite the otherwise hostile environment.

Vanessa doesn’t do what she does for the attention. In fact, she prefers to stay out of the spotlight.

“You know, it’s not even so much as me leaving a mark … I don’t really care if no one really knows who I am.”

Vanessa walks to the beat of her own drum, and she’ll probably thank you for noticing.

“I’m zigging while everyone else is zagging,” she says with a smile. She attributes this, in part, to being left-handed.

When I finally got to asking her what keeps her motivated, her blunt answer was, “I don’t know.” Then, tentatively, “Survival?”

She thought about it.

“I don’t know what drives it,” she finally said. “I want to survive. Not just barely survive, I want to survive. I want to be in the land of the living. All I know is that if I spend time trying to figure out what drives it, I probably would waste time.”

In a city that, to be blunt, often feels hopeless, Vanessa’s independence and indomitable spirit are striking—like the first warm day of the year coming two months too early.

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“I got to Flint and I came back in 2008 because my mother passed away, to visit—you know to bury her and everything—and I noticed this was not the city that I left. The people, I mean, the people all the way to the children, walking around with this hopeless attitude in their face. You could see it in their face, in their demeanor. You could see it in the houses. You go down the street and see the houses … they were leaning over like they were listless.”

Vanessa doesn’t complain about much. That said, spend more than a couple of minutes with her and you’ll probably catch at least part of a rant about Flintstonians too young to remember General Motors’ heyday carrying on about how they took all the jobs away.

“It just hurts my heart to hear children saying, or their parents saying, ‘Well, this is all I can be. This is all I have to offer.’ It hurts when you find children with that same attitude of ‘This is our lot in life, this is the way it has to be.’”

That being said, the city has had a long list of issues far preceding the water crisis, and that list has only been growing by the year.

When Crossing Water—a scrappy relief organization powered by social workers and other first responders—showed up on her door for the second time, Vanessa saw an opportunity to get involved and make a difference beyond her own neighborhood.

One of the reasons Vanessa was so interested in their work was seeing how they recognized the complexities of Flint’s problems.

“I wanted to be with an organization that said, ‘We’re trying to cover more issues, because we see that there’s more issues in Flint.’”

Where to start?

Classrooms overflowing with more than 50 students to a teacher as school closures become an annual occurrence. Grocery stores leaving the city, forcing most residents to drive to the suburbs for food or rely on the sparse selection of mostly processed and packaged food at liquor shops and corner stores. Not to mention getting to the store in the first place, as the city’s public transit is, at best, limited.

“I’m not gonna say it sucks, but it sucks.”

The list goes on.

With few resources available, Vanessa has to rely on herself for a lot.

Her granddaughter Faith believes there’s nothing her granny can’t do. Vanessa’s been working hard to instill that same sense of self-reliance in her granddaughter as well.

 

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Just one example of Vanessa’s work in her neighborhood: The city chipped a stump in front of one of Vanessa’s neighbors’ homes. Vanessa saw a neighbor who could use the wood chips under their entryway and volunteered to move them herself.

“It’s called old school, but it’s her survival kit. And so she knows how to do things that a lot of kids don’t know today, but that we grew up with. And so I call them her survival pack.”

Faith is learning much more than self-reliance. For Vanessa, it all comes back to being a neighbor, participating in community, and helping those in need.

“Today my neighbor may not be able to bend over and tie his shoe, so I can tie his shoe for him. I may not know anything about cars, but I can help push that car. Somewhere, I can help. You know? And that’s what it boils down to at the end of the day for me …  And now [Faith’s] looking like that, she’s thinking more like that, ‘Who can I help?’ instead of ‘Woe is me.’”

Vanessa’s hope lies in connecting with others in the city who feel the same drive to create change on a city-wide scale.

She recalls meeting a woman with “the same fire in her belly” while she was out volunteering in the city’s North End.

With a sigh, Vanessa says, “It was like giving me life that this woman has taken all the young kids on her block and they come to her house … They were helping carry water to other neighbors’ houses from the vehicle that we were in.

“If she’s over there on the north side and I’m over here on the south side, and I can find a few on the east side and I can find some on the west side, then they’re right here in Flint and we just keep on getting up every morning and maybe eventually our dots will connect and it will encompass the city of Flint and the fire will be lit.”

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