Rewriting the Narrative About Flint, Michigan

11/09/2015 09:58 am ET Updated Nov 09, 2016

You've heard the stories about Flint, Michigan. Perhaps you've seen Michael Moore's "Roger & Me." Perhaps you've heard on the news, or in a publication like The Huffington Post, about the problems plaguing the city -- from unemployment and poverty to crime and blight.

Our population has dropped from 200,000 in 1960 to under 100,000 today. More than one-third of remaining citizens live below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is almost 10 percent. One-third of all property in the city is considered abandoned or blighted. For three consecutive years from 2010-2012, Flint had the highest per capita rate of violent crimes in the country. Recently, our water has been found to contain alarmingly high levels of lead.

This is the Flint narrative that the media picks up on and the world sees. But there's an untold story in Flint, of neighbors helping neighbors, of people of all backgrounds serving their community, and of alignment between the city, nonprofit partners, funding partners, schools, and residents to champion service as a strategy to reinvent the community.

At the end of 2013, over 5,000 community residents came together and outlined a new Master Plan for the city -- the first in 50 years. This ambitious document codifies the hopes and dreams of a 21st century community. But ambitious dreams require ambitious resources -- something that's clearly a challenge for Flint.

Here steps in Flint's not-so-secret weapon: national service and volunteerism.

In 2014, Mayor Dayne Walling, an AmeriCorps alum, participated in the Franklin Project's Gettysburg Summit. Inspired by the call to make a year of full-time national service a cultural expectation, common opportunity, and civic rite of passage for every young American, and by the national goal of creating one million service year positions by 2023, Mayor Walling nominated Flint as a demonstration site for what that scale-up looks like at a local level. He outlined a commitment to have 250 national service members in Flint, a ten-fold increase, by 2019. These members would serve as the boots-on-the ground to meet the community-identified vision outlined in the Master Plan.

To make this happen, Flint utilizes one of its unique resources, the Flint National Service Accelerator, which I have the awesome job to oversee. The Accelerator promotes a place-based approach to increasing the number and effectiveness of national service members and volunteers serving locally. The Accelerator supports local organizations to secure members and provides funding to assist with match requirements. The Accelerator Fund has provided more than $900,000 in matching grants to national service host sites. Additionally, the Accelerator enhances the member experience through professional development, networking, and national days of service. We are bringing on board employers, higher education institutions, and national service alumni to support our culture of service.

So far in 2015, we've increased the number of national service members in Flint from around 25 to almost 100. 30 of these members came from Operation AmeriCorps funding, in which we were one of just 10 communities nationally awarded a program to address an urgent community need. For us, that is the revitalization of the once-famous community education model in our K-12 schools. Alongside national service members, we have more than 500 Senior Corps members providing a variety of services and a robust core of dedicated community volunteers.

The Franklin Project's Ambassador Program is a natural fit for me. For many other Ambassadors, creating service years and raising the profile of national service is an extra-curricular activity. For me, it's my job! I'm surrounded by brilliant people who see the potential for national service and volunteerism to transform our city and our future, and we want to be an example to the rest of the country for how to make this work at a local level. We're working to rewrite the narrative about Flint to be about our assets, not our deficits. We strive to be at the forefront of making a year of full-time national service an opportunity for every willing American. It's not just nice for our community. It's vital. The service provided by engaged citizens is the only way the city can become the place we've all envisioned it being, and the experiences that shape the members and volunteers themselves will create the next generation of civic-minded leaders who will determine our future narrative.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Aspen Institute's Franklin Project in conjunction with Giving Tuesday. The series, which will run for the month of November, features pieces written by Franklin Project Ambassadors, local leaders who are working with community stakeholders in 25 states toward the Franklin Project's vision of making a year of national service -- a service year -- a cultural expectation, common opportunity, and civic rite of passage for every young American. For more on service year opportunities and organizations, visit https://serviceyr.org.