Their Town: Kids of Flint, Michigan

Their Town: Kids of Flint, Michigan

When they're not skating or hanging out on the court or playing Tonk or watching TV, Joshua Harvey and his brother, Jevon, spend a fair amount of time thinking about the future.

Josh, who is 16 and has soft black hair that he strokes compulsively with a wooden brush, hopes to be a barber.

Jevon, a year younger, wants to be an architect or an astronomer. Last February he spent hours tracking the lunar eclipse from his kitchen window. He is smaller and more outgoing than his brother, and when he talks about things that excite him, like the planets, his eyebrows pop up, so that he often seems to be in a state of wonder.

The boys live with their mom and stepdad and sister on a tree-lined street on the north side of Flint, Michigan, in a neighborhood that was once a haven to families like theirs but has fallen on tough times. Across this end of town, tidy yards alternate with boarded-up homes, and clusters of balloons mark the places where people have died violently, often by gunfire. It's a part of America where kids who dream of the future don't always get to have one.

But to Josh and Jevon, it's home, and it saddens the boys that outsiders don't see Flint the way they do. This is where their grandparents and aunts and uncles live. This is where Josh goes skating and plays basketball, and where Jevon watches the night skies. Jevon has had people taunt him because he comes from here. "You ain't nothin' but a gangster! You're going to be in prison!" they've told him. But he says their mockery only encourages him. "I want to see this city excel instead of decel."

Three years ago, Jevon signed up for a program he'd heard about in school called Youth Empowerment Solutions, or YES. It's run by the University of Michigan School of Public Health as part of a research grant funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to help prevent violence by encouraging kids and teens to get involved in changing their community.

Kids in YES paint murals and plant gardens and create public parks on vacant lots and design calendars showing positive developments in Flint. They learn leadership and character-building skills, go on field trips to universities and museums, and spend time with adults in their community who are working with the kids to make Flint a safe and vibrant city—people such as program manager Everett Roberts, who grew up in Flint and can't imagine wanting to live anywhere else.

Jevon liked YES so much he got his brother Josh and their close friend Jerimiah Neyland to join. The boys don't get paid for their work but, like all the YES kids, they get snacks and free transportation to and from home and above all a deep sense of belonging.

"It's just like everybody is like a friend," Josh says softly. "A close friend, a brother and sister to me."

Jevon says YES "is like my family to me," and he believes the program will change his future. A few years from now, after he graduates from Eastern Michigan University, he'll return to Flint, and the kids teasing him today "will be on welfare, asking me for a quarter," he predicts. "When I see them, I'm going to say, ‘You should've been with the good kids.'"

Inside their Flint home, Jevon and Josh share a basement bedroom painted blue—the color of one of Jevon's favorite planets, Uranus. The room has a dresser, a TV, a poster of the Toronto Raptors, and twin beds with sheets patterned with basketballs. A note on the wall from their stepdad reminds the boys to sleep in their PJs, not their clothes.

Sometimes Josh has a nightmare in which a gunman starts killing people in his school. He was eight when a six-year-old boy shot a six-year-old girl at Buell Elementary, a few miles from Josh's home, so the nightmare is hardly surprising. It scares Josh so much it wakes him.

Both he and Jevon know kids their age and younger who've died. Jevon tells of a neighbor who lost her three-year-old cousin to a drive-by shooting, and of a 14-year-old who died in the crossfire of a gunfight not far from their house.

Josh remembers a night when he and Jevon were little, and someone began shooting at the house across the street, where a drug dealer lived. A bullet came through the window and nearly hit Josh's stepdad. Their mom made everyone get on the floor until the firing stopped.

Even if they don't grasp the underlying reasons—the demise of General Motors in the 1970s and the near-simultaneous invasion of crack cocaine—the boys see how joblessness and drugs have punished Flint. Driving through their neighborhood, they point to trouble spots. Over there on the corner, Jevon says, "they're at that house selling drugs."

When he goes to the store, people sometimes "just bust out fighting," and Jevon tries to stay out of it. Josh has seen fights break out on the basketball court where he practices jump shots.

His mom won't let either boy stray far from home because she knows crackheads and prostitutes hang out in the area, and she's afraid one of them will push her sons to sell drugs.

Last June, on the day he was inducted into the honor roll at Northwestern Academy, where he's a sophomore, Jevon ran into a group of crack addicts on his way home from school. "They asked me how I'm so good," he remembers. He told them, "I keep my head focused." One way he does that is by helping his community.

YES has enrolled more than 200 kids since its start in 2004. During the school year kids in the program participate in after-class activities, and in the summer they undertake community-improvement projects. The hope is that their actions will inspire others in Flint to care for their neighborhoods, and that in the process, the YES kids themselves will develop what psychologists call resilience—the positive capacity of individuals to cope with adversity and trauma.

Jevon admits he didn't care much about school and regularly got into trouble before he joined YES. "If I couldn't get my way, I'd be snotty all day. I was ready to fight." Even now, he sometimes comes to YES angry. But the program has taught him to solve conflicts peacefully and to keep his head up, he says. "Because you look down, there's nothing to see."

He dresses better, too. Clean pants and a collared sports shirt or a spotless T. For parties, he'll even iron his clothes.

Before Josh joined YES, he was so terrified of talking to people he stared at the floor and trembled. He still hunches his shoulders and rubs his hand back and forth over his face when he's nervous, but Mr. Roberts told him all he had to do was look at people's foreheads and shake their hands. Now Josh says he's "a people person. I'm kind of like now the funny guy." When he's happy, he flashes a smile so wide it gives him dimples.

Because of YES, Josh sees his city "real differently. People say it's some good we're doing in Flint."

When he and Jevon are in the car with their mom, and she drives by the mural YES painted last summer on a strip mall north of town, the boys point to it and remind her they painted it.

To their amazement, while they were working on the mural, people sometimes drove up to compliment them. The owner of a nearby store gave the kids free pop. Josh loved the project so much he didn't mind it when his mom and stepdad woke him early to catch the bus for YES. "I didn't want to let Mr. Roberts down."

One of the murals the boys painted shows a boat sailing above a brilliant blue sea filled with the evils that have historically plagued African-American communities. Guns, liquor bottles, slave shackles. A poem washes through the mural like a wave. It was written by a YES participant who lost three of her brothers to violence. "Like a phoenix," the poem reads, "I will rise from my ancestors' blood and tears to continue to strengthen my people for many years."

Jevon helped paint one of the guns that lies near the bottom of the sea. "We're throwing this stuff away, and we're not going to go get it back," he says one afternoon during a visit to the mural. He presses his face against the gun that he painted and shuts his eyes.

Nearly everyone in Flint knows someone who used to work for GM. The boys' dad put in his time at the plant. So did their granddad. Back in the 1970s, the company employed as many as 80,000. Kids graduated from high school knowing they could walk straight into a factory job. Today just 8,000 at most work for GM, the only industry in town. Kids leave high school with little hope of a job, and that makes it hard to dream.

Brian Willingham, a community police officer in Flint, has lost count of the number of times he's seen "sweet" kids go bad. Usually it happens around age ten or eleven, he says, when "the anger comes in. They start having problems in school."

Josh and Jevon have cousins in jail, one with a life sentence for murder. Their dad has been imprisoned. The second time his dad went to jail, Josh was in the third grade, and he missed so much school he had to repeat the grade. He didn't see his dad for eight years. Then one day he was visiting his grandma, and a strange man walked out of her house. His grandma told Josh it was his dad.

"Wassup?" Josh asked. It was the only thing he could think of to say.

Nowadays their dad tells Josh and Jevon to stay in school and keep doing programs like YES and to not hang with the wrong crowd. He encourages them to go to college, because if they lose focus, he insists, "they're going to be swallowed up by the vices on the street." He's proud of the fact that Jevon wants to be a scientist and that Josh made the high school basketball team last year, that "he wouldn't quit 'til he was on the team." He prays that neither boy gets caught in the same plight that trapped him—the despair that comes when you don't have a job, and hope evaporates.

Mr. Roberts is another person who encourages the Harvey brothers and their peers in YES to think positively about themselves and their futures, because he knows the obstacles they face. Not just the difficulty of growing up in a town where jobs are scarce and the lures of the street are great, but the challenges that come when you lack access to opportunities. "We have so much black-on-black crime because of not loving ourselves, and not respecting ourselves, and not having a lot of opportunities or being welcomed into mainstream society," he believes. "After a while you start turning on others who look like you."

It's a fragile moment in the lives of these kids, and the men and women who love them know it keenly. As she sits at her kitchen table, Josh and Jevon's mom dabs at her eyes and says, "I don't want to cry. . . but to be African-American boys, it's very easy to go the wrong way."

Behind her, on the refrigerator door, a magnet reads: "Children Learn What They Live." Beside it is a second magnet: "Save Their Lives. Report Illegal Guns. 1-800-ATT-GUNS."

It's a bright June afternoon, and today the YES kids are inside the Flint Urban League, working with a musician named Pharlon Randle who's teaching them to compose songs on a sequencer. Jevon has come up with a refrain the whole group can use, and he's jumping around the room, shouting, "I got the chorus! I got the chorus! I got the chorus! I got the chorus!"

Josh is off in a corner, playing cards. "I don't like to rap," he confides. Jevon's friend Jerimiah is at a table, working on another set of lyrics with a group of YES participants. The room is buzzing.

"Listen! Listen! Listen!" Jevon shrieks. "Man, would y'all listen?!" He rattles the piece of paper in his hand and starts reciting.

We tha YES, ya'll can't stop us. We tha YES, cleaning up blocks, man. We the YES, ya'll can't stop us. We in control, we in control!

A few minutes later Pharlon invites Jevon to the microphone, and they start recording. "More swagger," he tells the 15-year-old, and Jevon heaves a sigh.

"Ohhhh, my god," he giggles when he messes up. "Oh, my goodness." But eventually he gets it, and then the other YES kids take their turns at the mike.

Before the summer's out they will have made a CD with everyone's voice on it, even Josh's. By August, Jevon will have found a job and bought a cell phone.

In three years, if all goes as planned, he'll graduate from high school and head to EMU to study astronomy or architecture. He's already built a model room, which his mom keeps on display behind glass in her kitchen, alongside a scarecrow Josh made when he was little.

Right now, though, Jevon is focused on his refrain. Pharlon has given him a pair of headsets, and Jevon is standing at the mike, bouncing back and forth to the beat.

We are YES, and we're changing our 'hood, trying to make everything all good. Violence is something that we prevent, but people 'round here ain't got much sense.

There it is, Pharlon tells him. Good job, that's it. He looks Jevon in the eye and grins. "See what happens when you're patient with yourself?"

By Leslie Stainton

Photos by Peter Smith

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The Research Behind the Kids

Although YES, or Youth Empowerment Solutions, works with kids in a relatively small area of Flint, Michigan, the research project is part of a national effort by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to address the larger issue of youth violence, which the CDC defines as "harmful behaviors that can start early and continue into young adulthood."

Youth violence is a significant public health problem that affects not only its victims but also offenders and witnesses to violence. As the CDC notes on its website, violence is the second-leading cause of death for young people between the ages of ten and 24, and the reason that every year millions of youths seek medical help for injuries, including gunshot wounds and broken bones. Violence can be devastating to communities. It raises health care costs, lowers property values, and disrupts social services. The annual cost of youth violence in the United States exceeds $158 million.

Although YES has clearly had a positive effect on the kids in Flint who've taken part in the program since its inception in 2004, the CDC's primary interest in funding the project has been to gauge its impact on the surrounding community. To track that impact, the YES research team, led by Marc Zimmerman, professor and chair of the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, and associate research scientist Tom Reischl, is analyzing data both from the Flint neighborhood where YES conducts its projects and from a comparison neighborhood in Flint with similar demographics.

Preliminary findings indicate that in those parts of the community closest to the sites of YES projects, such as the Rosa Parks Peace Park in north Flint, residents are making more of an effort to maintain their properties by picking up litter, cutting lawns, and repairing structural damage. "That's our first indication that what the kids have been doing in these projects, in terms of community development and community improvement, seems to be having a small but immediate effect," Reischl reports.

YES is part of the UM SPH Prevention Research Center, which oversees a variety of community-based research projects in Flint and Genesee County as well as statewide.

Although CDC funding for YES ended in October, project manager Everett Roberts is working to find another funding source so that the program can continue. "It's a joy to be able to do something like this," he says of his involvement with the project.

Learn more about YES and the Prevention Research Center.