I see my peers seeking opportunities elsewhere because there’s a mindset that the ‘grass is greener’ elsewhere. Instead of looking at it that way, I think ‘how can we make the grass greener where we are.’”

Throughout her upbringing, education and professional career, the one underlying theme in Essence Wilson ‘05's life is unwavering support and belief in Flint’s revitalization.

“I always had a passion for Flint and see a great deal of potential and opportunity here,” Wilson said. “I see my peers seeking opportunities elsewhere because there’s a mindset that the ‘grass is greener’ elsewhere. Instead of looking at it that way, I think ‘how can we make the grass greener where we are.’”

Wilson compares Flint to Detroit in that it is ready for a comeback and she wants to be a part of the team that makes that comeback a reality. She’s earned the right to be part of the group because no matter the economic climate in the City - Wilson has committed to making a difference.

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Oak Street Apartments in Flint

Long Established Flint Roots

Wilson first learned about Kettering University when she participated in the Kamp GMI girls’ summer camp around sixth grade. She fondly remembers working on projects and exploring STEM concepts with her peers.

In eleventh grade, Wilson enrolled in the Academically Interested Minds (AIM) summer program on campus and after that, she was sure she would attend Kettering after graduating from Flint Northern High School.

“Kettering was the only school that I applied to,” Wilson said.

Wilson graduated from Kettering with a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 2005 and continued to work for her co-op employer, General Motors Powertrain in both Flint and Saginaw. During her time at GM, she was a new product engineer and supervisor. In one of her major assignments she helped to design a foundry in Uzbekistan which required capital equipment purchases.

In 2009, Wilson left GM and returned to Kettering to work as a program coordinator for the Kagle Leadership Initiatives. The program provides one-to-one mentoring, community tutoring, and small group mentoring to Flint-area youth.

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Essence Wilson '05 with a student at the Flint Institute of Arts.

“I was part of the first class of Kagle mentors so I was already familiar with the program,” Wilson said. “When I came back, I saw the community impact but also saw the programming side. I learned how to create a vision and execute programs that are impactful.”

The combination of her community involvement and graduate coursework in business at Kettering and Michigan State University prepared her to take a bold entrepreneurial step that would attempt to give back to the City of Flint at an even greater scale.

Re-Developing Flint

In 2010, Wilson and her husband Glenn co-founded Communities First, Inc., a non-profit community development corporation aiming to promote and provide an improved quality of life for residents of distressed communities through economic development efforts and affordable housing solutions.

“My husband is a leader with a vision who can see potential in dire situations and I am able to translate that vision into action steps to see that vision come to pass,” Wilson said. “We started Communities First, Inc. with that vision and a unique set of skills.  The results of stepping out in faith to pursue a vision are amazing.”

In September 2014, Communities First, Inc. completed the transformation of the historic Oak Elementary School into 24 apartments intended for seniors. The $5 million project was funded by a mix of funding sources and took three years to complete.

“The skills that I learned in my experience at GM and Kagle taught me how to manage a team, conduct a gap analysis and how to see the end from the beginning,” Wilson said. “As an engineer, I am a logical thinker and that helps me every day.”

Their next major project is the restoration of the Swayze Apartments in downtown Flint into a 36-unit supportive housing complex for low-income and special needs tenants. In total, Communities First, Inc. has brought about $14 million in investment to the Flint community along with approximately 100 jobs for local workers through the Oak Street project. Another 100 jobs are expected to be created through the Swayze project.

“Flint is going to be the place to be in a few more years,” Wilson said. “We are committed and invested. We want to continue to grow this non-profit so we can provide services and opportunities in the Flint area for a long time.”

In addition to large redevelopment projects, Communities First, Inc. conducts environmental education and cultural exposure programs to help move the community forward both economically and socially. Their successes have been recognized nationally on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Nonprofit Quarterly magazine and Affordable Housing Finance magazine.

Wilson remains connected to engineering through a program called Curiosity Academy. She is one of the founding directors of the program. Curiosity Academy is a community-based STEM program for 7th and 8th grade girls. Wilson and the Curiosity Academy team have successfully secured funding from a variety of sources and established a partnership between Kettering University, University of Michigan-Flint and Sloan-Longway to provide the programming.

Through her multitude of experiences in for-profit, higher education and now non-profit companies, she has remained committed to the city of Flint. Wilson is working hard to make a difference in the lives of others and believes this work is a part of her purpose.

“I think everybody has their own path in life,” Wilson said. “There are so many people that I encounter in my age group that are searching for their sense of purpose and looking for ways to make an impact.  I’m extremely fortunate that I get to live that every single day.”