‘Flint lives matter’

GVL / Courtesy Stephanie Smedley

GVL / Courtesy Stephanie Smedley

Ashlyn Korienek

The students of Linden Charter Academy might be too young to vote in the 2016 presidential election, but their voices echo throughout Flint, Mich. and are visualized on the walls of Grand Valley State University’s Blue Wall Gallery.

After the ongoing water contamination crisis occurred in Flint in April of 2014, residents were left without drinkable water and started to voice their concerns. However, among the call for action, young voices were often left out of the larger conversation.

GVSU graduate student Stephanie Smedley created the Young Flint Speaks ArtPrize exhibit to shed light on the personal experiences of 50 middle school students at the Flint Linden Charter Academy.

During the winter semester of 2016, Smedley asked students how the detection of lead in the public water system impacted their lives. Many students responded with the phrase “flint lives matter” and visualized the danger that the crisis has caused.

“There is no part of me and my opinion in the art exhibit, because I wanted it to be 100 percent about what the students are going through,” Smedley said. “Each child impacts their little corner of the world just like I impact my little corner of the world. Their opinions are no less important because they don’t fit into the reality that we as adults have created.”

The Young Flint Speaks project began when Smedley was giving her 3-year-old daughter a bath. She analyzed her privilege being able to access basic human needs like water, and decided an art project would conceptualize the struggle by those impacted the most.

The project was formed in conjunction with the National Heritage Academy (NHA), where Smedley had completed an internship for the master’s of social work program. NHA operates 83 charter schools in nine different states, and Smedley found two of the schools were located in the Flint area.

Linden Charter Academy accepted Smedley’s project idea in collaboration with Jennifer Hamilton, an art teacher at the academy, who integrated the project into the course material.

“I really liked the idea of the project. I like that it gets the student’s own personal ideas involved in a major event that is happening around them,” Hamilton said. “The students are upset about the water, while it does not affect everyone, all students know at least one or more people who have been affected.

“When you talk about basic needs to live water is one, so this is a pretty easy concept to understand and have feelings about.”

At first, Hamilton said students were hesitant to convey their ideas. After classroom discussion, she said the children were eager to put their ideas on paper.

The most rewarding aspect, Hamilton said, was learning the students’ artwork would be on display for the public to view in Grand Rapids.

“I think the piece will speak volumes,” she said. “The students’ voices are loud and clear in their artwork. I like that it’s middle school students, as well. Young students with powerful messages and questions on a humanitarian crisis happening in America — it’s really moving.”

Smedley hopes the exhibit will inspire others, especially a younger demographic, to participate in society and learn more about the social or economic issues around them. In addition, she said the piece aims to uplift conversation around the Flint water crisis as the city revives from the damage caused.

“(Children) are naturally curious and want to learn,” Smedley said. “Not all kids love going to school and sitting still in a classroom, but that doesn’t mean they do not want to learn. You’re going to see a lot more people within that age group putting their voice out there.

“They are going to want to do something about the way their cities are run and policies that affect them directly. It’s exciting.”

The Young Flint Speaks exhibit is on display at the GVSU DeVos Blue Wall Gallery from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. until the end of October. The gallery is free and open to the public.