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Homemade Foundation leaders bridge and trust Flint

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The Associated Press

The Associated Press

Eden Stiffman Of The Chronicle of Philanthropy

Flint, Michigan (AP) — Isaiah Oliver drives into the crumbling parking lot of the Greater Holy Temple in North Flint. park carefully. church. The church lot was for parishioners to come to worship, not for her 18-wheeler carrying pallets of bottled water.

But as the city grapples with the water crisis, the church has become one of the major distribution hubs for donated water, food, clothing, and other essentials. In this disaster, emergency managers were exposed to dangerously high levels of lead in 2014 when they switched the city's water supply to save money. Authorities failed to treat the water, a procedure to prevent pipe corrosion.

"The water crisis has allowed us to focus on the needs of the city," said R.L. Jones, her community outreach center at the church. says Sandra Jones.

With no easy access to grocery stores or social services, the center has served the evolving needs of its residents, including providing her COVID-19 vaccine throughout the pandemic.

During a visit this spring, "Mother Jones," as many know her, hugged Oliver before touring the Center.

As CEO of the Greater Flint Community Foundation, Oliver is well known around town. He grew up here, where he worked for nearly three years before taking over the helm of the foundation in 2017.

"Without the Community Foundation, we wouldn't exist," says Jones. Over the years, the foundation has supported outreach centers with more than $430,000 in grants. Other foundations provide support as well.

Jones says Oliver and his colleagues understand the plight of the community. "They were boots on the ground. They listen to the ground," she says. “If my water is not good, theirs is not good. If there are houses around me that need repair, they need to be repaired as well.”

Now that they have recovered from the pandemic, the Foundation and Oliver are building a store of trust and proximity to their communities. As the foundation's first Flint native and first black leader since its founding in 1988, Oliver is committed to building bridges between the marginalized and wealthy donors.

"It's clear that Isaiah feels genuinely accountable to her community," said Susan, president of her ABFE: a Philanthropic Partnership for Black Communities, on which Oliver is on the board. Taylor of her Batten says.

Beyond the erosion of the city's water pipes, "loss of trust was the biggest problem that emerged from the water crisis," Oliver said in an interview at the office. Rebuilding trust in institutions is an ongoing process. Despite the reassurance that the city's water is safe, many residents still don't trust taps and drink bottled water instead.

The crisis has also helped others learn the value of community foundations and provided an opportunity for his leadership to shine, says Oliver.

"What we experienced gave me a platform to talk about what we can do to help people in marginalized communities," he says.

Oliver gave reporters a tour of the city to showcase some of the Foundation-supported activities. While driving, he told stories about Flint.

This tour goes through Civic Park, the first area planned by General Motors. Here houses were built for workers and their families. As jobs and workers left and the tax base eroded, the neighborhood became a shell of itself. Residents are working to revitalize it.

On the south side, near the city's cultural district with museums and concert halls, is a mansion built for Flint's elite during the time when the city flourished as a manufacturing center for his GM. there is. High-income residents and some elected officials now live in the neighborhood.

As the leader of a community foundation, 41-year-old Oliver seeks to be the link between Flint's pockets of wealth and disadvantage.

"I am a bridge between people who have resources and people who need resources to get things done," he says.

The bond Oliver forged was evident as the Flint celebrities gathered to dedicate the rebuilt public library in the cultural district. Funded by foundation grants, wealthy donors, and government funds, his $20 million building symbolizes the central role of philanthropy in supporting civic life in Flint.

Oliver could hardly walk a few feet without stopping for a hug, handshake, or fist bump with someone he knew, even during his short walk to the market. Same thing happened. He greeted people by calling his name while they were working at the stall or eating lunch.

For most of Oliver's youth, he lived with his mother. His mother supported them with part-time jobs and government benefits.

"I lived as hell poor, but I didn't know exactly that," says Oliver. "Her mother protected me from that reality and allowed me to dream."

After graduating from high school, he moved to Central I attended the University of Michigan. He graduated in his 2003. After living in an overwhelmingly white college town, the majority Black he could see in his return to Flint to see some divisions that weren't as clear cut as before.

In 2004, he was hired by Motte as the administrator of his college in his community and focused on building partnerships with local organizations. In 2011, he ran for the Flint community school board and won a seat. He served six years, including president.

At university, he was involved in a program to improve his literacy. Many students entering college were academically unprepared for their courses. Representatives from schools, businesses, churches and charities have come together to discuss how they can serve the region's most vulnerable students. Oliver was asked to lead the discussion. He was one of those meetings, and Kathy Horton, then chairman of the Community Foundation, saw him in action.

"It was obvious he was a good listener," recalls Horton. "He was great at getting everyone's voices out and helping the group come to terms with the fact that consensus wasn't immediately apparent." I advised him to apply for the job. In 2014, he became Vice President. When Horton retired in 2017, Oliver was named his CEO. Community foundations were moving away from top-down style grants as they received millions of dollars from other foundations to help restore water crises.

"We had to involve members of the community who had never been involved in grant decisions before," Horton recalls. Oliver had a reputation as a leader who invested in making Flint a better place to live.

Last year, fundholders advised by the Foundation and its donors earned his $9.6 million in grants, and by the end of 2021 he will have more than $299 million. owned the assets of

Improving literacy is a priority for grants, along with increasing access to healthy food and supporting the welfare of children affected by the water crisis. The Foundation has worked to maintain racial equality as a focus throughout all its activities, including the COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund and addressing the cause of the pandemic's enormous toll on Black residents.

In 2017, shortly after Oliver took over as CEO, residents wanted to know what the Foundation was doing with their water shortage donations. He promised to answer all questions regarding the foundation's grants and finances. The Flintstones, as residents call themselves, “reserves the right to question everything,” says Oliver. He wants to be known as an approachable leader.

"I know you or someone you know when you come to our door," says Oliver. A member of the community who is a leader in.”


This article was contributed to The Associated Press from the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Eden Stiffman is Senior Editor at Chronicle. Email: eden.stiffmanâ†* AP and Chronicle are supported by the Lilly Foundation for their philanthropic and nonprofit coverage. AP and Chronicle are solely responsible for all content. See

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