“I can’t see someone in need and do nothing.”
Detroit-based community builder Shy Averett couldn't turn away when she heard about Flint's water crisis.
Shy Averett’s exuberance bubbles over inside an otherwise quiet café in Seattle. She smiles and laughs as she discusses everything from her childhood quirks as a Detroit youth to her relationship with her mother, who instilled a resounding desire in Shy to be a community builder.
For as long as Shy can remember, she’s followed a sense of civic duty and discipline—traits that led her to become one of the youngest people at the time to sit on the Board of Directors at the NAACP, at age 15.
Some years later, towering at over 6 feet tall, Shy’s is a noticeable presence with a room-filling personality to match. Her maturity is apparent, but her laugh highlights her youthfulness, until a topic abruptly shifts her mood from giddy to sober: Flint.
In 2014, the city of Flint switched its primary water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River. After a flood of complaints from citizens and social media posts of rash-covered children and murky water running from kitchen faucets, a federal state of emergency was declared, and it was discovered that water supply pipes were corroded by lead-filled water. A widely broadcasted public health crisis ensued.
“I watched the story break on the news,” she sighs deeply, leaning forward with both hands on her knees. The water in Flint, Michigan, just an hour away from her home near Detroit, was poisonous. “The people couldn’t drink the water, they couldn’t cook with the water, and they couldn’t bathe with the water.”
“I knew deep in my heart that the socioeconomic status and the class of the citizens of Flint directly played a part in why people decided that [residents consuming contaminated water] was acceptable.”
In a majority-Black city, where 40 percent of people were living in poverty, the city and state officials preemptively reassured its inhabitants that the water was safe, and then they denied that there was a problem for months.
Shy, who at the time was a community development and event specialist for the Microsoft Store in Troy, a suburb of Detroit, couldn’t sit still and do nothing while the scene unfolded. With no real plan of attack, she began recruiting coworkers, friends, and other people in the community to donate water.
Within days, she’d collected more than 18,000 bottles of water and set out for Flint with her close friend and coworker, Alante Johnson. Shy was going into the situation with no idea of what to expect when she reached Flint, but she decided that it was important for her to see the river with her own eyes.
What she saw was worse than what she feared.
“The water was close to the color of that dirt,” she says, back in the cafe, pointing out the window to a patch of pale brown dirt on the sidewalk. “You wouldn’t even put your hand in it.”
The visible state of the water rendered Shy and Alante speechless—something she notes is unusual for them both. Together, they stood by the river in tears. She couldn’t believe anyone would make the decision to expose the already underprivileged area to water that looked like this.
“I’m not an expert at how water gets purified,” she says, “but I can tell you just from looking at it, that water should never have been drunk.”
When Shy returned home to Troy after her visit to Flint, she felt conflicted. While she was happy to have donated the thousands of water bottles to churches and elderly centers, she’d also learned that the water she’d just donated was only enough for one in four people to brush their teeth on any given day. She returned home, somber but undeterred, with a deeper understanding of the work that needed to be done.
A few weeks later, she made her way back to Flint with more water: this time more than 80,000 bottles. And, as the problem in Flint has not been fully resolved, her work there hasn’t begun to near its end.
The situation in Flint brought the realities of injustice and oppression back to the forefront of Shy’s psyche, kicking her inherent sense of urgency and responsibility into overdrive. But she accepted the challenge to do her part as thoroughly as she could, with no disillusions about being able to save everyone.
“You see the whole puzzle and think that puzzle is too huge,” she says, “but you have to understand that you’re just one piece. You can play your part.”
Though Shy now resides in Seattle, she visits Troy sometimes monthly to stay connected to her home church. And during those trips, she drives the hour north to Flint as often as possible to donate water and check in on her community there.
Shy’s commitment to community building and to giving to anyone who needed help was cultivated at a young age, in the Detroit household made up of just her and her mother, Jackie.
“My mom is the dopest ever,” Shy beams, unequivocally. Her jubilant personality radiates even brighter when she speaks about her mother. But she also can’t speak of her without tearing up.
During Shy’s youth, Jackie was accomplished, unwavering in her standards of excellence and dedicated to improving the quality of life of everyone around her.
“When Shy was four years old, she was sorting her own laundry, laying out her own clothes, ironing them if she needed. As a single Black mother, it was just me and her, and I wanted to make sure that she was self-sufficient and independent,” Jackie said in a phone interview, reflecting on Shy’s earlier years.
“I wanted to ensure that she could go into any situation and have a good chance of survival without me.”
After retiring from a long career in corporate finance, Jackie is now taking on what she described as the hardest but most fulfilling work she’s ever done—teaching sixth graders at Woodmont Middle School in Piedmont, South Carolina, where two-thirds of the students receive free or reduced lunch.
“I have such a passion for education,” Jackie said. “Often, the kids don’t want to be there, and I have to figure out how to make it interesting for them.” Shy can relate to this struggle as part of her job working as a community manager.
Michigan is home to some of the country’s coldest winters. One year before Thanksgiving, Jackie drove her then preteen daughter through Midtown Detroit’s Cass Corridor on their way home.
Cass Corridor used to be a poverty-stricken neighborhood known for crime, drugs, and homelessness. Shy was heartbroken at the sight of so many people living in the cold.
“I didn’t understand. And to know that they didn’t have food—that bothered me to the point where I said, ‘I want to cook them food, Mom.’”
Cautiously skeptical but understanding her daughter’s urge to lend a hand to people in need, Jackie took Shy to a wholesale grocery store, bought a feast’s worth of affordable food and hundreds of carry-out containers and allowed Shy to invite friends over to help them prepare meals.
“At three o’clock in the morning, we were still up making spaghetti and bacon rolls,” Shy recalls.
Warm, individually packaged meals in tow, Jackie loaded the kids in the car and headed back out to Cass Corridor.
“We were driving around with my friends downtown, handing out food to people who couldn’t get to the shelter,” Shy says. “Then it became a tradition. My friends and I, even in our thirties, ask each other, ‘What are we cooking this year?’ It’s become a thing.”
As she grew older, Shy’s passion expanded beyond random acts of kindness to include activism. Teenage Shy experienced the urge to push boundaries as all teenagers do, but her version of youthful rebellion was organizing boycotts and other acts of civil disobedience.
Years later, in May 2017, an eight-year-old boy approached Shy and asked her why the Black Girls Code program was only available to girls. Days later, she created Mancode, a mentorship program for more than 7,000 Black boys nationwide.
Additionally, she’s organized events, fundraisers, and outreaches for kids who can’t afford back-to-school supplies, International Women’s Day, Dyslexia Awareness Month, and Black History Month, to name a few.
“I couldn’t leave things alone as a kid,” Shy laughs. “I still can’t see someone in need and do nothing about it.”
She never grew out of it.
Outside of their home, no place formed Shy more than their home church, New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, a prodigious church occupying almost an entire block in Southfield with humble beginnings as a tiny, one-room building 27 years ago. There, Jackie served in the youth department, and Shy, starting at age 15, began to direct the choir and teach sign language.
Shy’s pastor, Rev. Dr. David Roberson, became a father figure for her. He said that Shy had always been a leader. But she’s only ever been comfortable in the background.
“She would tell the kids what to do,” he says, his whole face smiling at her as they reminisce in his office on one of Shy’s many return trips home, “and then when they did it, she would sit back and act like she didn’t tell them anything. She never wanted credit.”
Though confident, Shy is still deeply and visibly uncomfortable with any sort of attention—she hates having her picture taken and avoids eye contact when asked to explain her seemingly untiring service.
“That’s my mom again,” Shy responds, when asked where her humility comes from, pulling forward a few of her shoulder-length braids to cover her mouth. “She would say, ‘It’s not about money. It’s not about fame. It’s not about recognition. It’s all about how you treat people.’ That was it. I didn’t know how to operate any other way.”
The apple hasn’t fallen far from the giving tree.
Shy’s life-purpose—found through the tenants of love, faith, and humility—now inform all of Shy’s outreach work, both professionally and in her volunteer activities. And in her relationship with her mom.
They are each other’s favorite people—”next to Jesus” they’ve both added.
Wary of taking credit for her clear influence on Shy, Jackie believed the source of Shy’s devotion to doing good is simple.
“It’s the capacity for love that both of us have; that’s the foundation,” Jackie said. “From there, you don’t have that far to go.”
Photography by Rodrigo De Medeiros; Videography by Rodrigo De Medeiros and Steven Heller.