It was Thanksgiving Day and the spirit of gratitude filled many Flint homes in 2016, despite a health threat that frightened the city.
News of the water emergency that contributed to lead poisoning, sickness and even some deaths was at the forefront of families’ minds as they prepared their holiday dinner. This year’s feast would take lots of added effort. In some households, as many as 100 bottles of safe water, not poured from kitchen taps, were used to clean dishes and get food on their tables, according to Popular Science – one meal required 24 bottles just to thaw the turkey.
Flint’s average water consumption on a single, significant day is a tiny snapshot of the ongoing accumulation that contributes tremendous amounts of waste material, following the emergency. Empty bottles at homes, in work places, and too often littered on streets require management a local ex-offenders organization and others teamed with a New York museum to provide. In the unlikely form of clothing garments, Flint Fit is reusing plastic to create economic opportunities and fuel local industry.
“To see how we took a negative and recycled all those bottles, it turned a negative into a positive,” says Leon El-Alamin, founder and executive director of the MADE Institute.
An organization that serves citizens returning from prison to the Flint area by giving them job training, education and mentoring, MADE helped lead the charge to collect 90,000 empty water bottles from throughout the community. Lindsey Berfond, assistant curator of public programs at the Queens Museum in New York City visited Flint last fall, approaching MADE and others for support.
“For the population we serve, we encourage involvement with volunteering,” El-Alamin adds. “We encourage our protégés that the volunteer process is part of reintegrating to the community. You have to give back to the community you took from.”
New York-based fashion designer and Detroit native Tracy Reese collaborated with artist Mel Chin, who conceived Flint Fit. Clothing from the pilot concept was featured in “All Over the Place,” an April 8 exhibition at Queens Museum, and will be showcased again in Flint this summer. Organizers of the exhibition and the fashion pilot say MADE’s diligence and that of other community supporters and organizations led to the collection of raw material needed to launch Flint Fit.
“I was really intrigued, so we hit the ground running,” El-Alamin says.
Along with MADE, support from Kettering University, the City of Flint and dozens of other collaborators, a commercial sewing program at St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center played a key role. After the collected bottles were transported to a North Carolina facility and transformed into REPREVE yarn it was woven and recycled plastic fiber was sewn into garments at St. Luke. Leaders of the Flint Fit effort anticipate the project may generate more local manufacturing opportunities.
Combining artistic vision with old-fashioned resourcefulness has led to a product partners believe can inspire similar projects. While not the first concept to use recycling as a source of product development and commercial enterprise, Flint Fit has potential to blaze a trail as a national model.
The effort strikes El-Alamin as a metaphor for Flint’s experience as a struggling city and the journey of its ex-offenders.
“We’re resilient. We’ve been counted out. The water crisis was just like the icing on the cake of our challenges,” he says.
Some of the Flint-made garments remain on display at the Queens Museum hundreds of miles away.
“I think that’s exciting. It blows my mind,” says El-Alamin.
The use of bottles that still remind residents and visitors of Flint’s greatest health crisis could become another symbol of its recovery if the Flint Fit clothing concept catches on. The initiative reminds El-Alamin of something MADE teaches its program participants.
“No one’s going to give you the opportunities and chances,” he says. “You have to get out and create them for yourself.”