By Patsy Isenberg
Twenty third grade through fifth grade students from Freeman Elementary School in Flint swarmed City Hall Wednesday to read with college students from Howard University, solve a problem about shoe laces, and consider what makes people feel happy and sad in their neighborhoods.
The event celebrated March as National Reading Month and included 42 Howard University students from Washington D.C. who came to Flint for an Alternative Spring Break (HUASB) program.
Before all the students arrived, healthy snacks were set out in the City Hall dome, and at least 200 new books donated by businesses and residents were lined up on the edge of the stage. They included biographies about famous people like Barack Obama and Stevie Wonder, stories based on movies such as, “Hidden Figures” and “Black Panther,” and funny, inspirational or science and math books, all on the elementary school level.
The kids toured City Hall with Mayor Weaver, ending up at the dome, where other city hall officials were there to greet them.
Weaver told the kids, “I think we’re gonna have a good time, but I also think it’s just important that you’re here because this is your city hall too, and this is where we make decisions about all kinds of things, about young people and older, adults, as well. So we’re really excited that you’re here.”
The students from Howard arrived and assembled across the aisle from the younger students while the kids did a series of activities. A couple of times, during a lull here and there, the Howard students broke out in unison to repeated loud chants of “H-U—You Know!”
Brandee Cooke, Kevin Conner and Vivian Williamson, representatives from 100K Ideas, a non-profit organization in the Ferris Wheel downtown devoted to assisting entrepreneurs, introduced the kids to the word “innovator.” They followed up with an activity to think, write, draw, and talk about: What to do about shoelaces that are too long, keep coming untied, and drag on the ground getting muddy? The kids were given time to think this through and get their ideas down on paper. Afterward some of the kids raised their hands and offered their solutions.
Then the focus shifted to the books on the stage. The Howard students paired up with the elementary kids, picked books from the stage and broke into groups reading together for 45 minutes. Lunch was provided to the Freeman students by Flint Community Schools and to the Howard students by Ebenezer Ministries. Each student got to take home four books.
Another activity challenged kids to learn about “Neighborhood Consulting” and “Blight Enforcement Training.” The adults asked the kids who they thought comes up with a “vision” for neighborhoods. The kids offered lots of ideas, but the answer, the residents, led to the point of the session. The presenters explained that everyone desires to be happy, not sad, about where they live and that blight can make it seem sad.
The presenters the explained the definition of “blight” and suggested it’s up to the residents to achieve their visions.
At the end of the event, everybody got together on the stage for a group photo. The participants, both groups of students and Mayor Weaver, barely fit on the stage.
In brief comments to EVM, Weaver afterwards noted the dome auditorium is underused and is in the process of being updated. The stage and floor have been refurbished, some of the painting done; the seats will not be replaced, but repaired in worn places since most of them are still in good shape. Weaver said she hopes the auditorium will be used more often.
The HU students that EVM spoke to said they were impressed with Flint’s resilience, felt very welcomed, and were glad they were assigned to this location for their Alternative Spring Break.
HU’s website says the aim of the program is to conduct “service learning opportunities in marginalized communities around the nation and the world. HUASB has been committed to serving communities in need and involving students in meaningful service projects in order to develop the next generation of servant leaders.” HU is a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) and considered a top tier Ivy League college as well.
The program has been available to HU students since 1994. Flint was just one of the several cities visited by the HU spring break groups this year.
EVM staff writer Patsy Isenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.