Storytelling for Social Justice in Flint and Beyond

Melissa Denizard

When Melissa Denizard ’20 arrived in Flint, Michigan, she felt nervous.

Denizard, an activist, blogger, and budding documentary filmmaker, came to Flint during Thanksgiving break to talk with residents and community leaders in the city. While most college students went home for the holiday, Denizard was busy putting together a documentary on Flint’s ongoing water crisis.

The national media have come and gone from Flint, and so Denizard wanted to tell the full, true story of what people in the city are still going through. That’s what made her nervous.

But more than that, she feels a sense of obligation when stepping behind the camera. In Flint, Denizard hoped to hear, and shine a light on, people’s overlooked stories. “I was cognizant of the responsibility I had,” she says. “To take this on, I was thinking, I can’t mess this up.”

The resulting film, How to Celebrate Thanksgiving Without Clean Water, will be screened on Babson’s campus on February 20. Looking back on her time in Flint, Denizard is amazed at the resiliency of the people she met. The water crisis remains an infuriating concern, but the city’s residents do their best to rise above it. “The people in Flint, they refuse to let that define them,” Denizard says. “It is a testament to their resiliency and belief that the city can be transformed.”

Citizen of the World

Denizard, both a Natalie Taylor Scholar and a Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Scholar at Babson, fell in love with filmmaking in high school. As a 14-year-old, she made her first film using a small handheld camera she received as an eighth-grade graduation present. Walking around her neighborhood, she interviewed people, asking them for their definition of love. “It was the first time I understood the power of film as a medium,” she says. “I love hearing people speak their stories.”

Denizard posts her videos, as well as her written blog posts, on her personal website and YouTube page. To peruse her work is to see someone who is not afraid to speak her mind, particularly when calling out racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of social inequality.

One of Denizard’s clips documents a trip she took to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In another, a diverse group of women explore what feminism means to them. One of Denizard’s blog posts details the harassment she and her fellow co-workers experienced working at a fast-food restaurant, and it eventually became the basis of a TEDx talk that she delivered.

“I would describe Melissa as a passionate and engaged citizen of the world,” says Alana Anderson, senior assistant director, multicultural programs, in the Glavin Office of Multicultural & International Education. “Melissa doesn’t just observe what’s happening in the world. She works to capture the stories and experiences of those often silenced and forgotten in an effort to give them a voice.”

Learning to Question

The roots of Denizard’s activism can be traced back to her childhood. The daughter of a single mother, Denizard was born in Haiti and moved to the New York City area when she was 5.

Growing up in a low-income community in Spring Valley, New York, she watched people working hard to support themselves. Her mother was employed as a housekeeper in a nursing home. Others worked as nurse’s aides, hair braiders, cashiers and cooks in fast-food restaurants, and sidewalk vendors. She was, she notes, surrounded by entrepreneurship.

Denizard couldn’t help noticing, however, how people in other neighborhoods and towns lived differently. On the debate team in high school, for instance, she would travel to other high schools and see how much nicer they were than her own. This was her first exposure to seeing what inequality looked like. Soon, she took an interest in social causes, and she immersed herself in Twitter, where she was exposed to many different viewpoints. “It was a whole new world,” she says. “From Twitter, I learned to question things and form my own social justice theory.”

As an activist, Denizard doesn’t delude herself about the work ahead of her. She knows the fight for social justice and equality is a long, difficult one. “This work is bigger than me,” she says.

One problem that remains daunting is the Flint water crisis, which began in 2014 when the source of the city’s water supply was switched, causing dangerous levels of lead. Years later the government is still working to replace the city’s lead pipes, and while the water has been declared safe to drink, the lasting effects of the crisis are still being felt in a city that has long struggled with poverty, blight, and crime. As one resident told Denizard, “It will be a long time before I trust the water again.”

Denizard decided to go to Flint after thinking about a sad, troubling question: How do people celebrate Thanksgiving without clean drinking water? She had noticed that Flint, no longer national news, had survived the volatile news cycle; “Every couple of months,” she said someone will pop up on my newsfeed to remind us that Flint still doesn’t have clean water.” She thought if she could frame the story differently and inspire bystanders to empathize, people may feel compelled to move beyond sympathy and take action. Through Babson’s Glavin Global Fellows program, she spent five days in Flint, talking to residents about the social inequalities that contributed to the crisis, as well as how entrepreneurship could offer a way forward for the city.

Denizard was struck by the strength of the people she met. Unable to rely on the government for help, groups of people, many of them poor and marginalized, came together. “When government fails, people naturally form networks within themselves,” Denizard says. “They provide each other with support and money and the love they need in that moment.”

In a world too often filled with division and injustice, Denizard found their unity heartening. “A prerequisite of being an activist is the fundamental belief that people are capable of serving one another and forming community. My experiences in Flint reaffirmed my trust and belief in movement building and the potential of people,” she says.

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