Flint, Mich. — An outsider walking through neighborhoods on this city’s north side might not see much to feel optimistic about.
On block after block, houses stand abandoned and burned out. Weed-choked empty parcels dot the streetscape. Schools and churches are boarded up.
But neighborhood leaders like Leon El-Alamin and Timothy Abdul-Matin don’t see hopelessness in the places where they grew up. They see an opportunity. They are teaching job skills to ex-prisoners and enlisting them in cleaning up blighted properties.
“We want to empower ourselves — we don’t want a handout,” said El-Alamin, who with Abdul-Matin founded the M.A.D.E. Institute in 2015 to help former inmates start over in a city that needs its own turnaround.
Their efforts come at a time when the nation’s political spotlight will shine on Michigan because of the Democratic presidential debate 60 miles south in Detroit on Tuesday and Wednesday. Some candidates have already campaigned in the area, but so far there hasn’t been a renewed focus on Flint’s struggles.
The once-thriving city became the unwilling national symbol for urban decline and government neglect after it was devastated by the disappearance of the auto industry and an eroding tax base. Then, a state-driven attempt to save money by changing the city’s water supply led to the drinking water being contaminated with dangerous levels of lead — and at least a dozen deaths.
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