From the President & CEO

Partners in the Dance

By Isaiah M. Oliver

President and CEO

Community Foundation of Greater Flint

Every good love story begins with an apology. So here goes. I apologize for the years I looked at you with frustration, disdain, and ingratitude. I am sorry for spending my early years planning my escape. After working for the last 10 years with you and for you, I am so proud to be from Flint. While I now know that you will always be with me, I also know I will miss this treasured time together. 

Over the years, I learned a lot about you. We built a great relationship. We have become partners in the dance.

When I left for college on a short journey to Mount Pleasant, I saw things differently. An amazing community with deep history, it encouraged this young, Black boy to find his voice and develop his skills. I learned more about who I am because of Flint and beyond Flint. I learned some more dances and I came back with the fire to serve and a heart to learn. I leaned into the loves of my life with all that I have. And I’ve grown in this love journey. My wife and our four beautiful children are writing their own love story for Flint.

Almost two decades into my return home, I see you for who you are. I look at Flint, Michigan, with so much love. I love your personality, your pickup games in city parks and local gyms, your mentors rich with wisdom, and your deep respect for the arts. I love the stories I cherish from Berston, the Cultural Center, “the projects” playing spades and dancing in the center of the rink at CLC. I love Banana Boat, Big John Steak and Onion, Little Caesars stromboli and Koegel’s hotdogs. I love Cafe Rhema, because they know how to add just enough of the brew to make caramel flavoring taste like coffee.

Flint is not a perfect place. There isn’t a social media joy snatcher that would allow me to say that anyway. But I am embarrassed now to think back on that boy who didn’t appreciate you after you poured so much into him. I owe you thanks for those meaningful relationships I formed with so many amazing souls. My leadership journey has been rich. Those lessons, that love, and those relationships will be with me forever.

You have given me the bonds and attachments people develop or experience at home. A sense of place in this world. A sense of what my journey has been and where it’s leading me. I have made some important life decisions with you in mind. And because of the people I’ve known here, I understand my specific God-given abilities and I am better prepared to live my life through those gifts. Because of my partners in the dance, I know what integrity looks like, and I know when it’s absent. I am Flint and I know real philanthropy because of you.

As I reflect on this leadership journey, I am reminded of Harvard University Kennedy School of Government professor Marty Linsky, who believes “leadership is about influencing change by building the capacity of individuals and organizations to thrive.” I have had an opportunity to lead where the challenges are real. In Flint, we venture to take chances to model profound impact. The community has boldly pursued Flint’s greatest opportunities and helped to address its most critical challenges, laying the foundation for a more equitable society for our future generation.

For 35 years, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint has worked to support organizations and address social issues throughout Genesee County. As a result, the foundation is uniquely positioned to enhance the quality of life in the Flint area and create permanent positive change in people's lives. Despite the goodwill and generosity of the foundation, arguably life's most pressing problems cannot and will not be solved by philanthropy alone.

For years, philanthropy has operated exceptional grants programs where people apply, we review grants, and we make those awards. However, we can and must reach more deeply into communities to direct our impact toward the greatest need. We must get more resources for the most vulnerable and disproportionately impacted communities. As such, foundation leaders are more effectively reaching in, connecting, and beginning to build deeper, long-lasting, authentic relationships with organizations that are serving marginalized populations, some of which had not been on our radar screens because they were small or locally focused.

But even that is not enough. The systemic issues we face are simply too big for us to take on ourselves. Now more than ever, foundations need to lead change that builds strong communities where all sectors participate, and all people prosper.

This community leadership framework has helped me deepen the impact of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint to achieve positive outcomes across multiple issues and inequities. Because I walked in and with our chronically under-resourced community, I have brought a unique perspective to leadership groups. Representing this community at state and national tables, I have led the Community Foundation of Greater Flint to punch above its weight class “to create one community as a model for the nation.” To change the world by doing what’s best for Flint.

At the epicenter of our community's response to the Flint Water Crisis, we led with moral courage, passion, urgency, and thoughtful pragmatism. Terrified by the potential lead exposure of 10,000 young children, from early infant stages through six years of age, we formed a collaboration to create greater access to high quality, year-round early childhood education and care. The data makes it apparent that one of the most effective strategies to mitigate the damaging effects of toxic stress is participation in such educational opportunities. Programs for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and their parents have now expanded at our initiative.

In April 2020, I directed the establishment of a multi-sector Covid-19 taskforce focused on addressing racial inequities. I continue to serve as founding chair of this committee. We have raised millions of dollars for immediate relief, collaborated with philanthropic partners to marshal resources for post-Covid recovery, and developed programs and services focused on addressing longstanding systemic health inequities.

We knew we could not program our way out of these problems. We had to look upstream and identify which systems and structures were giving rise to these disparities and direct our actions there. We are incorporating the lessons learned during this period into our strategic framework that includes defining and operationalizing a commitment to racial equity.

As I reflect on nearly a decade at CFGF, I remain grateful for my time as a champion for Flint and progress toward such a bold and ambitious vision for my hometown. I stand in awe of you and your ability to partner in the dance. I am also proud of the performance we’ve delivered together. It has been an honor to partner with you to achieve equitable results, in love.

As for the future, I look forward to occupying a new vantage point to serve and sacrifice, leveraging philanthropy to secure generational change for families. Unlike that boy who didn’t know better, as I transition to a new beginning, I am so thankful and humbled by you. I know that no matter where life's blessings take me, I am buoyed by the lessons and strength you provided me.

Love is never lost, so our paths will continue to cross. Thank you, Flint. Because of you, I am who I am today.