By Isaiah M. Oliver, President and CEO
I have been reflecting a lot lately on turning 40. All too many have fallen short of their 40th birthday. I have a good life. I am blessed to be alive and living the life I am living. This letter is dedicated to those who have lifted me up over the past 40 years.
Aunt Ann created structure and order in my early years growing up on the north side of Flint. She helped to raise my mom and was like a nana to me. Her husband, Uncle David, was a pastor, she served as first lady, and eventually became a pastor herself. They were blessed, they had money, they drove a Cadillac. I spent a lot of time in church with my mom and my aunts. I could see the pathway to becoming a faith leader, a leader, a person with options. Most important was the order that was created in and outside of the church walls. The checks and balances in my life. The structure and discipline that would be necessary to make it out of the hood.
Mom let me be a kid. Amidst all the craziness in the neighborhood, she did a lot to block out distractions. Much of it was mental blocking so that I could focus during those formative years — from ages 8–16. Focus on school, on making myself better, on building relationships, thinking about my future, dreaming, and living into those dreams. I know my mom’s journey and all the things she had to do, or respond to, for me to be here.
There were so many kids in the neighborhood with amazing potential. Smart kids. Athletic kids. Charismatic kids. Some are doing well today and for others, “life happened.” They “got caught up in something.” Code for getting into trouble with any number of distractions including drugs and violence.
There was Reggie … my competition for the Holmes Middle School All A Honor Roll. Reggie was smart and cool. I got my first B around 11th grade, after I started smelling myself. Reggie always made the grade … but like so many got caught up in something. He died in an apartment shooting. I think about him … a kid who pushed me to be better … what do I owe all the folks who did not make it to 40?
What do I owe the drug dealer who would slip you $100 so that you could have the right suit — white shirt, white slacks, and red jacket — for Homecoming. The dude that wouldn’t let me walk through the “shortcut path” in my neighborhood, protecting me from whatever went on there. The dude that wouldn’t pass the joint, even though I wanted to try it.
In 11th grade, I had the opportunity to join a special program with the Skill Center and General Motors. The Manufacturing Technology Partnership program was a chance to earn good money and engage with journeymen, engineers, and carpenters. GM Metal Fab opened my eyes to new career pathways. But I did not want the $36K job offer after high school. When I decided to attend Central Michigan University instead, my stepdad said, “You are so smart but so stupid.” He never stopped loving me, but boy was he disappointed. I remember vividly how that made me feel. I never wanted to disappoint the people that made sacrifices for me to dream.
For years I had been nurtured by teachers, administrators, counselors, and school principals. I was practically an all-A student, so it only made sense that I continue that journey. Two of my principals dropped me off at CMU. Thus, my four children will not be first-generation college students. Attending college will be a natural path for them.
My hope is that for Isaiah II, my ceiling will be his floor. I water him like a flower, modeling behaviors every day. Teaching him to embrace his emotional side, not be on guard about the soft parts of our inner self, preparing him for a world he can grow and thrive in. My job with the girls — Zaiah, Carrington and Chelyn, is to mold them in a different way. To be assertive. Take control. Be nonconforming and logic-driven in their approach. Embrace some of dad’s leadership traits. I hope society offers my children equitable access to opportunities to live into their true selves.
For 40 years I have been offered and accepted opportunities. I know for sure I am not the smartest person in the room. But I also know when I am in the room, I am one of the hardest workers, demonstrated by working hard. The first job of getting into good trouble is showing up. You must be at the table.
At the same time, I am still figuring out my limitations. I need affirmation. The best way to get that is being out, working with others. So, I keep saying yes. At the same time, I worry about the cards falling the first time I say no.
And therein lies the tradeoff … time with the kids and Shay, my wife, who truly gets it. She gets that I can often only show up at the Daddy Daughter Dance, having missed seven of 10 practice sessions. She gets that I accept national leadership opportunities to further affirm my work. She knows affirmation is my love language.
In this 40 moment I am genuinely loving life. I enjoy making my mom proud. I enjoy the busy pace. My peers and the people and institutions I am connected to. My family, friends, and mentors. The strong team of co-workers at the Community Foundation of Greater Flint who all lean in with support. This letter is for all of you, for holding my hand along the journey, pulling me away from the pitfalls and shortcuts where possible, and allowing me to dream along the way.