Stop Treating My City Like the Fat Kid In Gym Class


I was always the last kid picked for teams in gym class.

It never failed. Basketball? Last one chosen. Relays? It was always met with, “do we have to take her?” The only event I seemed to excel at was dodgeball, and that’s because I made one helluva target.  I was also banned from the merry-go-round on the playground because according to the other kids, my size made it go too slow.

Having kids choose other kids for teams in school sports is an early exercise in socio-political gamesmanship. The popular kids were always in control, deeming which kids were worthy to play. Prowess in gym class lead to backroom deals for access to getting on sports teams, invitations to parties, and most importantly, immunity from being bullied.

What bothered me the most from those gym class days is how nobody–not popular kids or the gym teacher–bothered to really know anything about me and my  fellow “losers.” It didn’t matter that I got relatively good grades, and that I was a good kid. They didn’t know there was more to me than those embarrassing moments in gym class where I threw like a girl and ran like an elephant. I was making worthy contributions to my academic life and trying my hardest to be the kind of kid that parents and teachers would be proud of, in spite of some of my obvious shortcomings. Don’t we all have shortcomings?

It feels as if I never left gym class.

My town, Flint, Michigan, is perpetually bullied by the media. It is always picked last for the “best” lists. Flint is that dodgeball target, where if there is a need to fill a slot on a worst list, we’re the pick. The physical manifestation of a poster child for the decline of America’s manufacturing core.

But, that’s not the full story.

Yes, Flint has lost population and jobs with the loss of the automotive industry in this community. Economic fallout was inevitable. Accepting that reality is not. The great American can-do spirit is alive and well, as Flint re-imagines itself as a 21st century urban community. This city focuses on the types of things that regularly heralded communities celebrate: a thriving cultural center and independent art scene, new restaurants and creative gathering spaces; one of the nation’s top farmers’ markets; one of the nation’s most thriving urban gardening communities; youth-driven new initiatives like TEDxFlint, the Flint Film Festival, and “Rise It Up Flint,” where entrepreneurs, artists, and community leaders come together to create a community where all can succeed.

The latest list Flint appeared on was by Newsweek, entitled “America’s Dying Cities.” This was all based on population decline during the last 10 years. People moving away equates to dying?  Seriously?  Couldn’t you have at least titled the list, “Resizing Cities?” Oh that’s right–you media types keep thinking we don’t read or hear anything unless the word “death” is employed. Got it. My mistake. We information consumers are soooo not interested in positive news. I guess that’s why we hang out on Facebook and read about our friends and families, and the wonderful personal accomplishments that all make us feel good instead of reading your newspapers or watching your newscasts. Ironically, leaders and regular citizens in other cities on that same list, Grand Rapids and Pittsburgh, are partnering with those in Flint to try to find solutions to many of the same challenges we face. Where is the story on the top cities willing to collaborate? Maybe if it could be spun as “Old Paradigms That Need to Die” the media might pay attention.

I have to tell you, these lists are getting old. In an era when media companies have been gutted, and the notion of true investigative journalism without agenda is becoming mythical, these lists are cheap content fillers. You have someone pull statistics, stock photos, and bam!–instant content that can be re-tweeted and regurgitated for a media empire that is a shallow shadow of its former self. We need a visit from Edward R. Murrow, the Ghost of Journalism Past.

Another analogy between these lists and gym class, is no one thinks of the aftermath of the choosing. Sure, everyone who gets picked as first or best glows in the adulation of success. But what of those at the bottom? It is slap, an indignity to suffer, all the while you are trying to improve yourself in other ways. There is more to that kid in gym class than the fact that they can’t climb the rope to the ceiling.

Flint is the so-called fat kid in gym class. Undervalued, underappreciated, and relegated to the lowest narrative form, no matter how many positive things happen, Flint gets nothing but negativity. If anyone outside of Genesee County would visit this community, they would see more than our so-called gritty streets, desperate souls, and every other narrow description that has been attributed to this town. What they would see is a community where education is highly valued with more than 33,000 people pursuing college degrees this very minute. It is a community that accepts that the automotive history that built the city is that–history, and that we are in the process of re-inventing ourselves for the 21st century. Abandoned buildings that were long-ago given up as lost causes are now fully developed and thriving. Small businesses open in this city every day. We’re not the greatest city of all time, but we’re giving it all we’ve got.

There isn’t a place I go in this town where I am not met with kindness and civility. I walk these city streets every day, without fearing for my life. This is a community of caring people who work really hard. Our citizenry possesses that famous American work ethic people like to reminisce about when remembering the good old days. When playgrounds at schools are needed, people collect donations, volunteer time and get the project done. When a member of the community endures hardship, offers of help pour in. Neighborhood groups take charge of beautifying and maintaining the streets where the live. We’re all in this together.

Flint has so many special things. Special things that never make a national list, but matter a great deal to those of us who call this place home. From what I’ve described, this doesn’t sound at all like the city that is ranked on lists of worst, dying, crime-ridden, unhealthiest, etc. Doesn’t it sound like a place you might like to live, learn and work in?

My open message to the media is simply this: Get all the facts, and consider the power of the words you write or speak. Words matter and they have ramifications. If we listened and believed every negative thing that came out about Flint, the city would have been dark long ago. But the opposite has happened. The community is bright with possibility, offering shining examples of a new kind of innovation that make sense for the new economy of the 21st century.

On behalf of all fat kids, former and current, just stop. Let’s face it, no one likes or respects a bully. I’m fairly certain that’s not the narrative the media wants. It’s time to do real journalism and to put facts in context. Our democracy needs it.

Jen Hogan