Social Scientists work to leverage assets for Flint’s future

September 13, 2019 - Tony Beyers

The MSU School of Social Work and the College of Social Science partnered with Flint community leaders to develop a new program called the Flint Community Initiative. The program, which was launched this summer, combines service learning and internship experience, and is open to upper undergraduate and graduate students from every major and college.

This innovative program is set apart by its emphasis on identifying the assets already present in Flint’s communities and amplifying their impact. According to Dr. Anna Maria Santiago, who led the collaborative effort to develop the initiative and served as a co-instructor, “at the core of our mission is the belief that the key to revitalizing distressed areas is to look at neighborhoods not for their deficits and needs but for their assets and strengths. The goal is to help expand community assets and contribute to a thriving future for Flint residents.” Students in the program were paired with leaders of nonprofit or civic organizations to work on one of five collaborative, community-driven projects. This summer, eight student interns from four different colleges at MSU contributed over 2,400 hours of service with Flint community partners.

At the end of the 10-week program, student interns presented their summer projects at a Scholars Showcase hosted by the Applewood Estate in front of program leaders, community organizers, university partners and their fellow students. Students overall produced engaging, impactful final projects and reflected positively on their internships and their time in Flint. Additionally, in partnership with MSU’s Community Engagement Scholars Program, each intern also was designated a Community Engagement Scholar in recognition of their work.

“The Flint Community Initiative is transforming leaders and community” says, Monica Villarreal, who is the Flint Community Initiative Program Coordinator, a faculty co-instructor, and a community leader and resident of Flint.

Reflecting on her 10-week internship experience with the City of Flint Planning and Zoning Division and Blight Elimination Division, Shelby Brejnak, an Interdisciplinary Studies senior says, “I was unfamiliar and out of touch with what constitutes a community. Did I really feel that I belonged to any community at all? Today, I can tell you that I am a part of and surrounded by community, just about anywhere I go. A community has no universal form or expectation, it holds no set boundary or limit. Community is rooted in caring connections and trusting relationships. Flint has demonstrated to me true passion and dedication in their commitment to caring for their communities.”

Brejnak’s project focused on helping to develop a resource guide that will assist neighborhood groups, agencies, and residents with accessing government services in order to address community concerns such as street lighting, sidewalks, and blight.

Seniors Madison “Maddie” Kuhn, a Human Development and Family Studies major, and Fransesca Delmonte, a Social Relations and Policy major, interned with the Ruth Mott Foundation’s “Share Your Story” project. Students gained insight and learning through collecting oral testimonies from Flint residents and individuals with ties to the Flint community about their experiences in Flint as well as with the CS Mott and Ruth Mott Foundations and Applewood Estate. In the future, the Ruth Mott Foundation plans to turn these stories into a free, mobile exhibition that will travel around the city for the community to experience.

“Throughout my internship in Flint, there were a variety of people I was able to meet that changed my perception of the community and taught me how to approach leadership”, reflected Delmonte. “Additionally, I was able to adapt certain skills throughout my internship that I will confidently use throughout the remainder of my undergraduate career and professional experience.”

After working with the Ruth Mott Foundation, Kuhn says, “I will carry forward that everybody can participate in their community to attempt to make it a better place for everybody to be a part of.”

Social Science Scholar and Social Work junior Madeline “Maddie” Elliot worked with the Neighborhood Engagement Hub to create an accessible, immersive directory of Flint’s community groups and neighborhood associations. By better outlining the boundaries and highlighting the strengths of each group, Elliot hopes the directory will foster more effective collaboration from these organizations.

“We have over 50 neighborhood associations in the directory, which showcases the incredible commitment that Flint residents have to their community,” Elliot explained. “At a time when other communities are becoming disjointed, I am inspired by the dedication that these groups and individuals give to their community.”

Ben Hendrickson, an International Relations senior, and Munzer Elsir, a Computer Science junior, were paired with the Asbury Community Development Corporation to work on the Flint Eastside Connecting Neighbors Project. They created and implemented surveys in both English and Spanish to identify the gifts and talents of Eastside neighborhood residents. They also created a database of Flint residents’ skills and talents so that the community can have a resource that highlights community assets with neighbors who are ready and willing to help with various individual or community-level tasks.

“After this project, I realized the importance of community strength”, reflected Hendrickson. “Focusing on existing assets and allowing residents to lead community development is much more effective than outside help. While outside organizations may provide some help, the community takes pride in their existing gifts. With the right opportunities, community members can lead the way.”

As part of the Scholars Showcase, Elsir whose family is from Sudan, shared about his experience of how welcoming and grateful Flint residents were for their work. He shared that his favorite moments were when, “I got to talk with the residents; hear their stories and see how things are going. The best part is when they thank you. Thank you for doing this. Thank you for your work. Thank you for being here. That meant a lot to both of us because that reinforced in our heads that what we are doing is important and showed us that the world is a place of caring for one another.”

Junior Adriyonna Fields, a Kinesiology major, and senior Alexis “Lexie” Smith, who studies Comparative Cultures and Politics and Political Science Pre-Law, completed their internship project with Keep Genesee County Beautiful. The students developed a resource guide of local talent to assist Flint Park Adopters with creating programming in the parks. They also created a survey instrument for monitoring park usage. Together they completed 96 park observations and were able to draft a report of their findings. A highlight for both was helping to build two playgrounds this summer.

When asked about the most important lesson or skill learned in the course/internship, Smith said, “The most important lesson I learned was actually a mindset. The asset-based approach imprints a new way of thinking and looking at the happenings in a community.”

When asked, what advice might you give to a student interested in the Flint Community Initiative, Fields replied, “The learning for this course is a process of discovery. This course will give you the chance to develop your own reason and thought from personal experiences and the readings. You have to put more thought and effort into most of your responses, rather than repeat what someone else says.”

"Under the leadership of Dr. Santiago and Ms. Villarreal, this program directly applied asset-based community development principles – from conception to culmination. It directly advanced our mission of positive change. With guidance from community leaders, the scholars produced impressive deliverables that will have lasting value; they articulated their learning through sophisticated language and professional presentations; and they touched the lives of Flint residents and strengthened our connections with the Flint community. I was truly grateful to witness the passion, energy, and impact of this initiative, and am confident that it will greatly impact service and learning in the coming years." - School of Social Work Director, Dr. John Mooradian

Students and Flint community organizers interested in getting involved with the program are encouraged to learn more by visiting the program’s website or contact Program Coordinator Professor Monica Villarreal at