Creating Opportunity By Advocating For Policy That Supports Health Equity, Creating Built Environmental Change & Activating Neighborhood Leadership

Through our work, we have realized that not all communities and neighborhoods are built the same or offer the same equitable access to healthy activities. Active Communities Program Director Theresa Roach often explains that, “The environment where someone lives has to be conducive to living a healthy lifestyle. If people don’t feel safe walking or don’t have a place to ride a bike, they lack the right to be as healthy as those in a community with these conditions.” Factors that influence health could be anything from proximity to a grocery store or park, the presence or absence of sidewalks, the safety of a neighborhood, the amount of traffic present, neighborhood leadership, and much more. 

Carma Lewis, President of Flint Neighborhoods United, has been the beneficiary of this work. She says, “I used to think the Crim was just for runners and just about running. But they offer so many resources, especially with training and building capacity, that help neighborhoods create partnerships and solve problems.” 

The primary work of Active Communities continues to be convening Safe & Active Genesee for Everyone (SAGE), a network of advocates that harness the power of the collective to make sustainable changes in Flint and Genesee County. Additionally, the team adds capacity by providing training to solve neighborhood challenges, easy ways to engage local and state elected officials, and access to dollars for changes to policy, systems, and built environment. 

Some of the most impressive work has been done around making sure that residents have safe ways to be active or get to school. The Traffic Taming Task Force has been instrumental in slowing vehicular traffic for walkers and bikers, while the Safe Routes to Schools Program has garnered millions of dollars in investment for schools throughout the county. Sidewalks, bike paths, signage, stop lights, and other signals have improved safety or connected neighborhoods to parks and schools. 

Princess Belk, Dionne Johnson, and all the members of the Ballenger Coalition are working together to keep Ballenger Park a place William Ballenger, the park’s namesake, would be proud of. Belk, whose son often visits the northside park to play basketball, noticed that it was starting to get taken over by people littering and exhibiting negative behavior. After getting some advice from Jeff Hawkins, pastor at nearby Prince of Peace, she started to invite other individuals and organizations out to help her around the park. This small act of leadership led to the development of the Ballenger Coalition. 

Since 2016, the coalition has been leading by example, maintaining the park, as well as hosting events and promoting the space. They started by simply picking up paper on the ground. Belk said, “When I started doing this it helped change behavior. The people who would throw trash down started helping me pick it up when they saw me and my girls doing it.” Now there is a shared ownership of the park and people are taking pride in it. 

The coalition then decided it was time to start bringing more people to the park. The first event was an outdoor yoga class held in partnership with the Crim. Belk stated, “It was both physical and social. It helped to build relationships and got people to talk to their neighbors.” With the Active Communities Teams’ aid, the Ballenger Coalition began surveying park users for additional programming and since held back to school events, statue unveilings, park celebrations and much more. 

Both Belk and Johnson are excited by where the park is now. Johnson said, “The partnership with Crim gave us momentum. We didn’t know they offered these services to the community. We asked for help and they gave it to us.” The Active Communities Team helped the group obtain a $10,000 grant from Habitat for Humanity, which was matched by the Ballenger Family Trust. Johnson noted that this grant will help with brush removal, signage, and opening up park entrances to side streets that have long been closed. “Increased safety and accessibility are the goals and in the future we hope to add additional landscaping and even public art,” Johnson said. 

Belk, Johnson, and the entire team have recruited dozens of partners and are leading the charge to keep the park a peaceful place. Even William Ballenger III, the great grandson of the park’s founder, has been out to see the progress. Belk summed her work up by saying, “The park means so much to so many. There has been too much negativity and many parks are getting shut down. We couldn’t keep running to another park. We had to take a stand and keep this park nice – the way it was supposed to be.”