How were you affected by the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd? While some buried their heads in the sand and took to the streets to protest, the partners of Community Roots went to the drawing board. The partners – Sylvester Jones, Jr., Patrick McNeal, Willie Smith, Jr., and Todd Womack – committed to using this time to catalyze change in their hometown of Flint and Genesee County.
The partners of Community Roots were careful to state that the seed for the organization was planted in October 2015 when they gathered for a conversation in downtown Flint and committed to utilizing their collective talent to make a measurable impact in the community that reared them; the community that allowed them to be engaged fathers, involved husbands (or partners), empowered professionals and committed citizens. It was at this time that these young men realized that their collective professional work experience in Flint and Genesee County numbered more than 100 years and while they had enjoyed individual success, they were mature and committed enough to work collaboratively to make Flint and Genesee County a desirable community.
While the seed was planted several years ago, their plan for community change would be sidelined by more pressing obligations. They understood the need to be active in the lives of their children, that making their families a priority was not something either of them was willing to sacrifice. So, the bold vision associated with Community Roots was put on hold. Like other seeds that are planted, it would benefit from watering, nurturing and sun to grow. The seed for Community Roots burst through the ground in March 2020 when the pandemic paralyzed movement in every other area of life.
It seems as though the time when children were required to engage in virtual and/or distance learning and corporations were forced to set up home offices for their staff was the perfect time for Community Roots to initiate the first strand of its work. In March 2020, Community Roots launched a podcast entitled, “The Front Porch.” Designed to reflect on the teaching the partners learned from their elders and offer a contemporary lesson for the next generation, the podcast has been a huge success. Listeners wanted more, so Community Roots decided to build on the podcast by writing a book directed at neighborhood groups who were as committed to community change as they are. Currently finalizing the writing, they expect the book to be published in late 2021.
Perhaps your question is: where did these guys come from? This article was written to answer that question while also providing more information on the group’s direction. It’s important to note that Community Roots envisions healthy, inclusive, thriving communities that utilize generational wisdom and knowledge to unleash community advancement.
As previously stated, the seed for Community Roots was planted in October 2015 when Sylvester Jones, Jr., Patrick McNeal, Willie Smith, Jr. and Todd Womack realized that the community could benefit from their set of skills. Background on these four young men who grew up in Flint’s 48505 zip code is as follows:
Sylvester Jones, Jr.
Jones attended Dewey Elementary School, Lowell Junior High School and graduated from Flint Northern High School in 1986. After attending Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University, he returned to the City of Flint and earned a Master of Science degree in Public Administration from Central Michigan University. His professional resume includes work with the Flint Community Schools (Work Experience Counselor and 21st Century Community Learning Center Coordinator), United Way of Genesee County (Fund Development, Fund Distribution and Bridges to Success Program Director), Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Flint (Caseworker and Chief Executive Officer), Ruth Mott Foundation (Program Officer), City of Flint (City Administrator) and State of Michigan (Foster Care Worker). Jones credits his mother, cousin (Craig Jones), high school wrestling coach (Al Collins) and the Flint Community Schools Community Education Program with providing him the structure needed to navigate the challenges of growing up in Flint. Jones has been married to Julie for 22 years and they have two children – Leah and Sylvester, III.
McNeal attended Pierson Elementary School, Bryant Junior High School and graduated from Flint Northwestern High School in 1984. After graduation, he enlisted in the United States Armed Forces before returning to the City of Flint to enroll and receive his Bachelor’s in Business Administration at Davenport University, a Master’s in Educational Leadership from Eastern Michigan University, and a Master of Divinity from Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA. A certified life coach and mediator, McNeal also serves as Director of the North Flint Neighborhood Action Council (NFNAC). The NFNAC brings together residents, block club and neighborhood association leaders, organizations and community stakeholders in some of Flint’s most economically disenfranchised areas to plan, implement and sustain comprehensive revitalization efforts that improve the lives of residents and provide them with the loudest voices in that change. It is reminding them that concerning decisions about their neighborhood, “nothing about us without us.”
Willie Smith, Jr.
Smith attended Pierson Elementary School, Bryant Junior High School and graduated from Flint Northwestern High School in 1984. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the United States Armed Forces before returning to Flint. He then spent the next seven years as a professional/traveling photographer, which took him to the 48 contiguous United States. Upon returning to Flint fulltime, he enrolled at Mott Community College where he completed prerequisite college courses before transferring to the University of Michigan-Flint to earn two degrees – Bachelor’s in Health Care Administration and graduate work in Health Care Administration. Upon completing his formal education, he jumped into community service by becoming an Americorp member with a focus on STD/HIV education. When his Americorp service was completed, his service to the residents of Flint was not. He continued efforts to reduce the number of Flint residents infected with HIV as the Project Director and Lead Treatment Advocate with the YOUR Center.
Following a successful career with YOUR Center, he was called to a larger stage at the local, regional, state and national levels as a health advocate and board member for organizations at the state and regional levels. Smith returned to Flint when he accepted a position with the Flint Community Schools as a 21st Century Community Learning Center Coordinator, and later as a liaison for the Flint Community Schools and Job Corps. Smith’s other professional work experience includes service with the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor as a research technician and a recruiter for the University of Michigan Young Father’s Study in Flint. He credits his family and community connectedness as his greatest influences while growing up on Flint’s north side.
Womack attended Wilkins Elementary School, Bryant Junior High School and graduated from Flint Northwestern High School in 1983. After graduation, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, then attended Suomi College in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula before transferring to and graduating from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work. He furthered his academic pursuits earning a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Clark Atlanta University in Georgia. Upon graduation, he moved to Cincinnati, OH to work for the Hamilton County Community Action Agency before returning to Flint. Womack is a social worker by profession and currently serves as a lecturer and academic advisor at UM-Flint in the Social Work Department. He also serves as the Pastor of Community Connections at Flint Central Church of the Nazarene. His passion for racial equity and equality is evident in his continued dedication and work toward strengthening Flint neighborhoods and supporting realistic and solution-focused experiences. He and his wife, Roshanda, are the proud parents of three sons: Ngozi (blessing), Osei (noble) and Ande (unwavering).
As you can see, the partners of Community Roots have been around the block a few times. “We have a wealth of work experience behind us and a ton of time ahead of us,” they stated. “We are perfectly positioned to mobilize change in Flint and Genesee County!”
The partners stated that the murder of George Floyd forced them into the public square to facilitate “Courageous Conversations on Race, Racism and Radical Change.” They added that racism has been an issue in Flint and Genesee County for many years and while there have been attempts to improve race relations, the efforts were not led by professionals with the deep roots and professional work experience that the Community Roots partners have. They recognize that their non-threatening, non-confrontational approach to race relations is long overdue and are poised to create a plan that will serve as a model to other communities.
Their comprehensive plan designed to eliminate disparities in Flint and Genesee County began in August 2020 with “The Vent” (a process designed to allow residents to air their frustration about racism) and it will conclude with a “Community-Wide Strategic Plan” that will engage stakeholders at all levels in the process.
In December 2020, the community engagement expertise of Community Roots was recognized by the COVID-19 Faith Sub-Committee when they were contracted to facilitate community engagement sessions in response to Genesee County Legislation that declared racism a Public Health Crisis. That legislation was passed by the Genesee County Board Commissioner in June 2020. The work of Community Roots will prove to be paramount in this effort.
To implement their plan, Community Roots is honored to work collaboratively with: the Community Foundation of Greater Flint; Truth Racial Healing and Transformation Initiative; Flint Neighborhood Action Council; Genesee County COVID-19 Task Force Faith Sub-Committee; United Way of Genesee County; Genesee County Commissioner Bryant Nolden, and Mayor of Flint, Sheldon Neeley. During the interview, the partners were careful to say that racism is deeply rooted in this community. “We didn’t get here overnight so we will not solve this problem overnight,” they stated, “but we are committed to developing a process that will move the needle and eliminate disparities.”
The partners added that they enjoy working with each other and with anyone else committed to authentic community engagement. “We consider community engagement to be our niche and we are willing to apply our skill set to engage the community in other conversations, as well.”
In addition to their work on “Courageous Conversations on Race, Racism and Radical Change,” they are working closely with the Flint Police Department and Chief Terry Green to engage the community in discussions on justice. “Engaging Joshua” emerged from a community engagement session at Whaley Park, when a conversation was had about the difference between equality and equity. A young man was present who had a conversation with his mother as they were driving home from the session. The young man asked her, “Mom, why doesn’t the conversation ever continue to justice?” She shared his concern with one of the Community Roots partners and it was discussed at their next business meeting. As a result, a conversation was had with that young man and the Flint Police Chief and both thought a community engagement process associated with justice would allow the Flint Police Department to improve its relationship with Flint residents. At this writing, two Community Engagement Sessions for the “Engaging Joshua” project were scheduled in February.
While the seed of commitment and conviction planted in October 2015 in Downtown Flint is starting to germinate, it is only just beginning to bear fruit. The wind of experience and opportunity is challenging Community Roots to plant deep roots through its community engagement work, which is bound to create change. After all, this group of young men is committed to just that!
For more information on Community Roots contact Willie Smith, Jr. at 810.221.3722.
Submitted by Community Roots