Casting ballots from Flint, Michigan:
'Sick and tired of seeing people oppressed'
Those who live outside of the cities of Flint and Detroit, both seated in southern Michigan, often perpetuate the same reputation. The school systems are bad. The infrastructure is bad. The economy is bad. Now the water in Flint is also bad. However, despite what they’ve been told, there is a group of millennials who remain – or even flock – to these cities. I should know. I am one of them.
As a young photojournalism student in Kentucky, I’ve lived in several states through internships, but, of all of those, none could compare to the sense of belonging I felt in these two cities. Flint was a second home. I learned how to be a community journalist there as an intern at The Flint Journal, also contributing to The GroundTruth Project, and I found solace in talking to the residents. We had something in common – we had come from difficult backgrounds but did not let it define us.
An unparalleled sense of pride exists in these communities – a sense of beauty long held by those residents who saw the area peak in the General Motors era. But the pride has poured over into a younger generation. A sense of, “Yes, we have issues here, but we will only be able to fix those issues by joining together.”
Millennials are among the most educated, but also among the lowest paid. So, they see economic and personal potential in cities once left for dead. A generation that was either entering high school or graduating college in the Great Recession is anxious about finances. They are budding business owners, students, activists and even politicians.
For small business owners like Danny Moilanen, Flint is a higher risk but the return on investment is building the quality of life.
At 30 years old, he is the owner of a popular taco truck, Vehicle City Tacos.
“Anything I do, its ultimately about quality of life and what can we do to promote quality of life here in Flint,” Moilanen said, “where people want to live here and people want to be part of our community, and make it better and help be connected and engaged.”
“The water crisis obviously has been something that’s affected every business and everyone because there is a negative perception of Flint now, and Flint has kind of always had a negative perception,” he continued. “We are just a textbook case of white flight, where people left for the suburbs and drained this community of resources and I think my whole business is a sense of dedication and a love for the city. I want to be here. This is my home. I want to make it better. I want to be active here and to give people a better life here if I can in some capacity.”
This concept of “everybody” and the push to make life greater for the lower classes and minorities has been something echoed in my generation through movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the push for local and Fair Trade foods.
For Josephine Zolynsky, the quest for social equality is likely to transform into a career.
A student at Wayne State University studying social work, Zolynsky said that voting Democrat is in the best interest of her own future job security.
Democrats traditionally support the social welfare programs that she’d be working on. With Detroit’s diverse racial makeup, Zolynsky is also concerned about xenophobia. For her, Hillary Clinton is the best option.
“[Trump] wants to close all these borders, and he’s so aggressive about getting people out and it’s like you hear these stories about people, 30 people fit into one little minivan to sneak across the border. If they’re doing that, can you imagine what they’re running from?” Zolynsky asked. “Have some compassion. Have some empathy.”
Though millennials tend to be more progressive on social issues like LGBT rights and marijuana legalization, the generation includes a large percentage of political independents and conservatives. The son of an Iraqi immigrant and cousin to an Iraqi refugee, Nick Kalu shares political beliefs with his father and works with him at an auto repair shop.
It took over three years for his father and other family members to be granted citizenship into the U.S., and Kalu is a proponent of strong border control – he feels that the plans proposed by Clinton are simply not sustainable for the coming decades. Kalu said he and his father will vote for Donald Trump in November.
“All these things that the liberals preach that can happen and what’s possible – it’s not sustainable. It’s just not possible over the long term,” Kalu said. “Everyone in the US has that individualistic mindset rather than the group mindset. Even though I agree it would be better that we had that mindset, there are too many people in America. We would never adopt that – it’s just not possible.”
As a journalist and as a millennial, I felt a deeper connection to working on this story and working in these cities. Through sitting down face-to-face and learning about their hopes and dreams, values and concerns, I found out that whether we’re voting blue or red, even green, we all have something in common with the generations before us. We just want to leave behind something better.
Rachel, Sumner, 25, and Tyler Sumner, 23, sit at their home in Davison, Michigan, a suburb of Flint, Michigan.
The couple grew up in the areas surrounding Flint and feel deeply connected to the community amidst the city’s water crisis. Rachel said she will wait to vote until election day and will look to her husband for guidance.
“I can’t have confidence until it comes down to the time when I literally don’t have a choice but to make a vote, because you can’t not vote.” Rachel said. “He’s the knowledge base, he’s informative, he’s watched all the debates, he’s watched all the interviews after the debates … So, I’m going to trust his judgement, not just on a knowledge [basis], but because he’s my husband. He’s a well-informed American citizen that I love.”
Abel Delgado, 19, poses in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, on Oct. 22, 2016.
Delgado has been politically active in the city regular attending protests, city council meetings and community discussions throughout the ongoing water crisis. He is the only politically left-leaning person in his immediate family and said his political preference was an evolution. Today, he identifies more with socialism than liberalism and hopes to run for office some day.
“It really came down to me seeing the effects of capitalism and seeing that all of that was driven by greed,” Delgado said. “It came down to, ‘I’m sick and tired of seeing people oppressed.’”
Megan Kreger, 30 and her partner, Anthony Paciorek, 33, dine at Starlite Coney Island in Flint, Michigan.
Kreger works as a local photographer and Paciorek is a volunteer with the Genesee County Green Party. Kreger said that the city’s water crisis has made her focus more on local elections.
“Decision making – the events of Flint have really impacted it because now I pay attention a lot more than I used to,” Kreger said. “It’s not just a topic on the news. It’s something that impacts me in real life and at home. Something as simple as taking a shower is something we take for granted. I’m taking a bath once a week once every other week because of the water quality, and it’s made me a lot more motivated to go out and try to do something differently.”
Danny Moilanen, 30, sits at the table in his home in Flint, Michigan.
Graduating college shortly after the 2008 financial crisis with a degree in political science and philosophy, Moilanen felt a particular interest in the political economy, which he said affirmed his original support for Bernie Sanders. He is the owner of Vehicle City Tacos, a popular taco truck in the city, and said that he feels there is a social component to business.
“I think, in terms of being a business owner still, I’m still a leftist business owner, and I think that kind of confuses people when they think about it because they think traditionally right-wing politics [are] associated with business,” Moilanen said. “I think, if we look at the proper way to allocate resources in this country, we should be investing in public resources – and, ever since the 1980s, there’s been a consistent disinvestment in a lot of those things that actually have tangible public good. That helps business in a lot of ways.”
Jattara Johns, 18, stands outside of her dormitory at the University of Michigan, Flint on Oct 23, 2016.
A native of Pontiac, Michigan, Johns said that she just hasn’t been interested in the 2016 presidential election.
“I feel like this was a bad year for me to turn 18 and vote. I feel like this is the worst election possible,” Johns said. “I know I have a say. I know I can put in my vote. But, like, even if, say I vote for Hillary – even if she does win – like what is she going to do exactly for me?”
Annabelle Ward, 21, walks through downtown Flint, Michigan.
Ward is a student at the University of Michigan Flint studying behavioral therapy with hopes of working with children with Autism. She said education is one of the most important topics she considers when voting. Originally a Bernie Sanders supporter, she has now decided to back Hillary Clinton.
“Clean energy and her infrastructure and taxes – I think those three things right there are so important to me, but also the importance of education for children because, you know, children who live in poorer communities don’t get the best education.”
Nick Nalu, 20, of Rochester Hills, Michigan, stands at Interstate Auto Care, where he works with his father.
Nalu’s father, who is Chaldean – meaning an Iraqi Christian – immigrated to the United States from Iraq and shares his son’s politically-conservative beliefs. In November, they both intend on voting for Donald Trump. He said that he would like greater security and a more organized process for those immigrating to the U.S.
“Something I’m concerned about with Hillary is how she wants to let in 500,000 Muslim refugees and just open up the borders,” Nalu said. “And I’ve talked to other Muslims too who are not exactly, you know, against Trump themselves, and we share the same view point. Everyone wants to be safe and that’s why we like Donald Trump – because his priority is American safety.”
Josephine Zolynsky, 23, sits at her home in Midtown Detroit.
A student at Wayne State University studying to be a social worker, Zolynsky is firmly backing Hillary Clinton.
“I just want to see more support for social programs,” Zolynsky said. “Social welfare is political responsibility. So, complaining about taxes and how your taxes are going to go up, not necessarily. Taxes will be restructured, but if you make less than $250,000 a year, your taxes aren’t going to go up if you vote for Hillary. They won’t. That’s what she’s already said and I mean, it’s a huge melting pot down here.”
Jody Ebejer, 22, a native of Detroit, leans against a pool table at Honest John’s in midtown, where he works.
Ebejer is now voting for Jill Stein.
“People tell me that it’s really unrealistic, like, ‘don’t throw your vote away,’ but I’m like, ‘it’s only throwing my vote away if I vote for someone who I don’t agree with – who I don’t feel represents me and my interest,'” he said.