The College of Arts & Sciences and
Collective Impact Projects

UM-Flint’s College of Arts and Sciences is proud to feature stories of faculty and students who positively impact our community. We especially value research that affects Flint in positive, deep, lasting, and transformative ways. This site’s stories are different from others you may have read, because they are about people going beyond traditional scholarly community engagement. These researchers choose to apply their work as part of a collective impact strategy.

Carnegie Classification
Community Engagement

In 2010, UM-Flint was selected for the prestigious national Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement. It prompted us to reflect on what being a community-engaged campus means to our identity and engagement practices, and to our hometown of Flint itself. In 2013, after a two-year planning process involving over 5,000 residents and stakeholders, the city of Flint adopted the Imagine Flint Master Plan for a Sustainable Flint. The Master Plan is a visionary blueprint for 20+ years of future city planning and development. It comprehensively addresses all aspects of city life and provides a community-vetted framework for UM-Flint’s community engagement.  

The UM-Flint Impact Circle

As a result of these two events, the UM-Flint Impact Circle was formed with several goals in mind:

  • bring together the campus and community partners
  • support a shift from short-term individualized engagement activities to transformative community impacts
  • create collaborative projects that require interdisciplinary solutions

All using the Master Plan as our guide.

The faculty, students and community partners featured here are part of the Impact Circle. They are working together to achieve substantial impacts for the community and UM-Flint’s core business of promoting learning.

Making the Master Plan vision a reality takes all of us and the contributions of all academic disciplines. We hope to continue creating collective impact with the community to make Flint thrive for years to come!


Collective Impact Project:
Building Oral Histories

Erica Britt, Assistant Professor of Linguistics in the CAS English Department, is studying the speech patterns of Flint. To do so, she and her students collect oral histories from residents of all ages, gender, race, and economic status. Students learn to interview their subjects and then to break down their stories into meaningful pieces that will help Britt track specific language variables. Britt is able to do double-duty with her research as the stories become part of the Civic Park Neighborhood's Heritage Museum. 

Vehicle city voices: a history of flint

Britt's overall research project is known as Vehicle City Voices. Within VCV she organizes Flint stories by neighborhood, event, or landmark.

Says Britt, "We’re actually trying to get oral histories of the entire city. The oral histories are contributing to my linguistics research because they will help me map dialect changes across the city. I want to get data from everyone, every rung of society, whether it’s middle class, working class, upper class, black, white, Hispanic—just to get the lay of the land in the city. Oral histories are the best way for me to do that because as people tell their stories, they get relaxed and use their natural speech. We thought Civic Park would be great because it’s a targeted area where the stories will make sense as a collective narrative and it will give us that sense of community."

civic park and the heritage center museum

The Civic Park neighborhood was planned out by Flint corporations to house the flood of workers coming to the city in the early 1900s. Both layout and construction aimed to create an attractive and viable neighborhood in a short amount of time. Now, nearly a hundred years later, it is one of the most blighted neighborhoods on the north side of Flint. Many residents have witnessed violence and lost loved ones. But, thanks to community anchors like Pastor Robert McCathern at Joy Tabernacle, the Urban Renaissance Center, and the Central Park Neighborhood Association, the neighborhood is changing.

One of the Urban Renaissance Center's projects is the Civic Park Heritage Center: a focal-point of pride for the neighborhood and the space that will eventually house and display its oral histories. They will be just one component within the museum. The Urban Renaissance Center's work is already starting to be used as a model for revitalizing neighborhoods, reducing violence, and bringing people back to vacant properties.

When asked about the neighborhood, Britt says, "It’s visibly blighted, but it has a very different feel than you would expect. It has a certain magic to it that I hope we can be a part of." 

research in civic park

Britt's students for the Fall 2015 semester are from LIN 335: Language Variation in Society. When asked about their methodologies for gathering the histories, Britt says, "We start with a walking tour, asking ourselves questions: What does the neighborhood look like? How did the neighborhood come about? What architecture is here? When you understand the make-up of a neighborhood, you have better context for understanding the language they use. In order to understand the language, you’ve got to know the community."

Britt admits that McCathern originally had some trepidation when the word “research” came up. Residents of such neighborhoods sometimes have had negative experiences with researchers using collected data in ways that don’t align with the neighborhood’s identity or priorities.

Other questions exist because of the vacancies in the neighborhood. Do the stories that remain truly represent a history of Civic Park?

There is also the issue of neighborhood lore becoming fact in recorded stories. But, Britt says, “The stories people tell about place are as important as the realities.”

For all of the questions brought up about working with such a challenging neighborhood, Britt has a simple answer: “We’re learning as we go.”

the impact of research

What are the lasting effects of recording oral histories in a blighted neighborhood of a legacy city? 

For the residents, its a sense of pride and ownership. It's a reaffirmation of belonging in their neighborhood and being a part of a longer history and tradition. By housing the histories in a neighborhood museum, they are connecting with future generations and residents.

Britt says, "The oral histories are eventually going to be [part of] a counter-narrative against the national image of Flint as dangerous and violent and crime-ridden. Part of the problem this project is solving is changing the narrative of place.”

For UM-Flint students, the impact goes beyond the obvious methodology and field experience. Says Britt, "The pride that grows, the sense of place, is one lasting effect of such research. Students also learn more about the city by delving deeply into such a specific neighborhood and learning the stories of residents." Britt already has students asking to stay on after the end of fall semester as research assistants.

For scholars, the benefits are in the data. Britt plans to submit her research to a growing body of work at the Linguistics Data Consortium, housed by the University of Pennsylvania. And UM-Flint colleagues have been requesting sound bites to use in lectures.

And, finally, for Britt herself the impact can already be felt: “This creates a different kind of relationship for me as a researcher. It’s not just research, it’s connecting with my city where I live, where I work. I want it to be a part of who I am here in Flint. . .This is my community.”


Collective Impact Projects:
Preservation or Demolition

Two College of Arts & Sciences faculty members are using two very different perspectives to think about what to do with older or vacant properties in Flint. Dr. Thomas Henthorn, Professor of History, is starting to think about the feasibility of preserving and rehabilitating historic properties while Dr. Victoria Morckel of Earth & Resource Science has completed research on data-based ways to approach demolitions and usage for the green spaces left behind.

adding preservation to the tool box

Henthorn is just starting to consider research that will look at preserving and rehabilitating historic properties in legacy cities. One of the  neighborhoods he'll study is the historic Civic Park neighborhood in Flint. Says Henthorn, "We have a nationally registered historic district that's in an underserved community in a legacy city. Across the United States, those categories don't coincide very well. Traditionally, when we want to improve or revitalize neighborhoods, in the poorest and least white neighborhoods our answer has been demolition. There's a historic legacy of that all the way back to post-WWII urban renewal."

When asked about existing methods that do lean towards preservation, Henthorn mentions block grants, whose funds are controlled by local government, that are usually targeted towards downtowns or adjacent areas, and gentrification by private citizens. He's interested in creating a model that exists to improve a neighborhood that is blighted while keeping the current residents intact. Detroit has also been searching for models that will give them new options in how they treat neighborhoods affected by blight.

understanding both sides

Involved parties often see an upside of demolition being that it can happen quickly. Preservation is often seen as standing in the way of progress because so many questions have to be asked before work begins. Henthorn is interested in having the same time and consideration given to demolitions if they have to happen.

He also points out that cities are sometimes in favor of preservation, but they are selective about it. Properties that serve as landmarks or are close to downtown areas are often saved. Neighborhoods are usually another story.

starting the research

Says Henthorn, "[Demolition] decisions are usually data driven, so we have to enter than conversation and speak in data, too." His first steps involve asking questions: Who are the players? What are the issues? What do we do with non-structural blight? They also involve meeting with the community, collecting and managing information, and figuring out the specific problem he's trying to solve. He says, "Meaningful engagement still looks like regular scholaship, because the core is research and there are steps to go through."

Early steps in the project will begin with Henthorn's winter 2016 class, HIS 363: Historic Preservation. Says Henthorn, "The assignment for class is still tentative. I am leaning towards a survey, but I am also weighing other options that are right for the class. At the very least, we will be conducting some 'hands-on' preservation workshops that will assist in rehabilitating the [Civic Park] Heritage Center."

the civic park neighborhood

Henthorn knows the challenges "with Civic Park are much deeper than just having aluminum siding rather than cedar shingles." But he's interested in using their Heritage Center as model for what other residents can do with their houses--both in Civic Park and in other legacy and historic neighborhoods. Once decisions have been made to preserve rather than demolish, residents will need to find ways to update their houses in historically accurate ways. Another facet of Henthorn's research will be considering substitutes for the normally expensive and specialized materials and labor.

the science of demolition

Victoria Morckel's recent research on A Method for Prioritizing Demolitions in a Legacy City is currently under review for publication.

Per a recent presentation of her research: "Abandoned properties are a significant problem facing legacy cities like Flint. Given historic and ongoing population losses, many legacy cities turn to demolitions as one solution to their surplus property problems. However, these cities lack the resources necessary to demolish all of the properties that should arguably come down. Tough decisions need to be made regarding which properties to prioritize. The method assigns every vacant property in the city a demolition score based on four factors: property characteristics, neighborhood vacancy, neighborhood potential, and crime. Properties with higher scores are deemed to be stronger candidates for timely demolition. In addition to creating a prioritized list of properties, the proposed method can facilitate the creation of hot spot maps of demolitions and a per se strategic demolition plan." Morckel used the experiences of other cities, such as Youngstown, Ohio, to help inform and shape her research.


When asked about her upcoming projects, Morckel said, "Todd Womack (from Social Work) and I will have students in our [winter 2016] classes work with the Civic Park Neighborhood Association to re-imagine vacant spaces in the neighborhood. Students will work in interdisciplinary groups to design new uses (community gardens, businesses, parks) and programming for the spaces."


College of Arts & Sciences faculty and students have been integral members of the UM-Flint Impact Circle, which seeks to:

  • support UM-Flint in shifting from piecemeal community engagement activities to transformational community impacts;
  • galvanize university connections related to the City of Flint’s comprehensive Imagine Flint Master Plan;
  • and foster interdisciplinary collaboration to address complex community issues requiring interdisciplinary solutions.

In addition to the City of Flint, the Impact Circle is pleased to have the Civic Park neighborhood’s Urban Renaissance Center and Metro Community Development’s Building Neighborhood Capacity Program as leading community partners.

The Flint Impact Circle has worked with its community partners to develop several project goals for the current academic year. Each helps support implementation of the Imagine Flint Master Plan:

building neighborhood capacity program (bncp)
  • Explore opportunities to improve Hasselbring Park, located between two BNCP neighborhoods, and reduce crime around it
  • Explore project opportunities and connect residents with existing resources (e.g. Innovation Incubator) to help new startups, existing businesses, and growing firms to build their businesses with minimal cost and infrastructure and support business sustainability
  • Support Blight Elimination through the SPARK Project for boarding vacant properties in the neighborhood around Our Savior Lutheran Church and through neighborhood clean-ups
civic park and the urban renaissance center
  • Support development of the large mural and potentially other elements (e.g. urban farmers' market stall) as a gateway into Civic Park
  • Support the establishment of a Heritage Center in a vacant Civic Park building to feature artifacts, oral histories (see Erica Britt), and other ways of representing the history of the neighborhood
  • Partner with URC and other stakeholders in developing a five-year neighborhood development plan in alignment with the city of Flint Master Plan