There had been one too many drive-by shootings, one too many acts of violence, one too many people close to Kenyetta Dotson for her to just stay inert.
Both her closest friend and her aunt were victims of gun violence in the recent past.
Their deaths were the tipping point and all the motivation Dotson needed to found WOW Outreach in 2007. The organization was a call to action to get to the root of a problem that was just about infesting the Flint community.
“I had to find out why this continues to happen? What’s going on here? Why do people do this? Why aren’t people valuing life?” she says, emphatically.
WOW stands for “Without Walls,” a name thought up by Dotson’s brother, Martez Warren, pastor of Church Without Walls.
“People can’t get comfortable being inside the walls of their church or their home,” she says. “We have to do something wherever we are. It’s called outreach for a reason.”
Dotson knew, however, what she was doing had to be a community effort. One of the first initiatives she put in place was the Community Action Network, a group of business, partners, volunteers, faith-based groups, and concerned citizens. They meet the second Saturday of every month, a regularity that enables the entire community to come to the table for two hours and figure out how to collaborate and leverage their resources.
“We need action and we need to strategize,” says Dotson.
At each meeting, members work on plans to eradicate the senseless acts of violence occurring in and around many city neighborhoods. The name Community Action Network was picked to remind people they have a role in their community, and must actively address it.
“I knew I couldn’t do this work by myself,” says Dotson. “We have to work together if we’re going to address this huge issue. This is a cycle of violence, and it penetrates deep into the soul.”
It was reminders like the death of 13-year-old DonNesha Williams, who was gunned down after walking back from a simple trip to a convenience store in 2009, that spurred Dotson on.
“She was just going to get a bag of Cheetos and wasn’t expecting to be shot,” says Dotson. “Someone decided to carry out a drive-by shooting and she lost her life that day.”
The group’s January meeting was Jan. 13 at Church Without Walls at 6202 Dupont Street at 12 p.m. The agenda will focus on the usual spate of issues, but largely also on the death of 10-year-old Jacques Allen, killed on New Year’s Day.
Allen was involved in WOW’s Dare2Dream program, which reaches out to young people to involve them in the community, in after-school programs, or in volunteer and other activities. One of those was an annual fishing trip Allen was a part of for many years.
“It’s a really nice experience. Some kids have never been on a fishing trip before,” Dotson says wistfully.
WOWOutreach has also engaged 50 partners in mowing, cleaning and beautifying properties on the north-side of Flint. The idea is to get rid of the tall grass, weeds and broken windows and piles of trash and create a safer and more attractive area. More than 89 properties in the 48505 neighborhood were mowed and maintained regularly including 60 through the Clean and Green program and more than 15 abandoned homes that were boarded as part of Land Bank’s boarding project.
The lifelong Flint resident holds a master’s degree in social work from Michigan State University and works as a social worker for a county government agency. She serves on the Flint School Board and is president of the board of the YWCA.
Another recent initiative outside of WOW and Dotson’s other community involvement is co-chairing the Flint Lead Exposure Registry (FLEXAR), an online database that those within the city of Flint can register for and use. The registry contains multiple resources for families pertaining to lead and health, something very important to Dotson, a mother of three girls aged 26, 16, and 11.
Part of Dotson’s frustration was looking at the community to find out the reasons people felt compelled to hurt and kill others. “They are just hurting themselves!” she proclaims.
She’s found there are a multitude of issues that make a person resort to violence.
“Someone often thinks, ‘If I’m in pain, I’m going to give pain,’ or ‘If I’ve never been given love, how do I know what love is?’” she says. “Some people have no one to turn to. Some houses are just a home.”
Dotson thinks the efforts of the organization have started to move things significantly and have brought the crime rate down. She understands it does take a village.
“All of us have to work on that one kid,” she says. “People have to pay attention. That’s what is going to stop the violence.”
Dotson says, little by little, WOW programming is taking hold, “especially when a young person is able to get a job. That’s a reward for me,” she says. “That helps me to know that the DonNesha, and my aunt, and my best friend continue to live on this world.
“When these kids are employed, they’re no longer on the track to being a perpetrator of a crime,” she says. “They now have the opportunity to have a full life and be who they want to be. They can have hope.”
The February meeting of WOW Outreach will be held on February 10 at the Oak Business Center on North Saginaw Street in Flint.
For more information about WOW Outreach, visit http://wowoutreach.org/index.php/community-action-network/.