Breaking down barriers, lifting up opportunities

Mott’s response to the Flint water crisis

A halfway removed dam is shown from the shoreline.
Work is underway to remove the Hamilton Dam from the Flint River. Photo: Cristina Wright

Welcome to the first installment of Mott Perspectives. In this occasional series, Ridgway White, president of the Mott Foundation, will share his thoughts about issues of interest to the Foundation, as well as our related grantmaking.

Ridgway White. Photo: Rick Smith

Located just a few blocks from the Mott Foundation building, the Flint River is a place where significant and symbolic change is beginning to unfold.

“The Flint” is a good river with a bad reputation. In 2014, the city of Flint switched from using the Great Lakes Water Authority as its source for drinking water to using improperly treated water drawn from the Flint River. It was the failure to treat the water properly that caused lead to leach from pipes and into the community’s water supply.

From my office window, I can see crews working to tear down and remove the Hamilton Dam, a dangerous and obsolete structure that has been an unnatural barrier in the river for nearly a century. Its removal is part of an ambitious project that will transform a two-mile stretch of the maligned waterway into a community gem. I’ll share more about that in a bit.

As I watch the dam coming down, it strikes me as a metaphor for what Mott’s doing in the wake of the water crisis.

We’re trying to break down barriers that stand in the way of educational attainment, good health and economic prosperity for all residents of Flint. And we’re working with partners at the community, state and national levels to replace barriers with opportunities.

Fulfilling a promise

On May 11, 2016, the Mott Foundation announced we would commit up to $100 million over five years to help our hometown recover and rise from this public health disaster. And we promised we’d report on our efforts.

Thus far, we’ve granted more than $71 million to help address immediate and long-term needs related to the crisis. And we continue to provide up-to-date information about where the money is going and how it’s being used.

The Foundation’s response to the water crisis began before we made our 2016 announcement. When we learned in September 2015 about increased levels of lead in the blood of Flint children, we knew we had to act immediately.

We quickly supported the distribution of free water filters to area families, and we provided $4 million to help reconnect Flint to the Great Lakes Water Authority. To this day, I believe that’s the single most important grant we’ve made to address the crisis, because it helped prevent further harm to the people of Flint and further damage to the city’s infrastructure. It started us on the path back to safe drinking water.

Since then, we’ve also supported independent oversight of local water-testing activities and the development of the city’s action plan for replacing water service lines. And we joined with others to support three community HELP centers that provide bottled water, water filtration systems and fresh produce, as well as essential services and referrals, in a single stop.

Volunteers distribute bottled water and fresh food to residents at one of the city's HELP centers.
Volunteers distribute bottled water and fresh food to residents at one of the city’s HELP centers.
Photo: Cristina Wright

Several grants aim to mitigate the health impacts of lead exposure among Flint residents — especially children. For example, we helped to expand the successful Double Up Food Bucks program, which allows families with SNAP benefits to obtain more of the fruits, vegetables and other nutritious foods they need to help prevent lead absorption. We made grants to increase access to community-based mental health services. And we granted $5 million to the Flint Child Health and Development Fund, which was established by the Community Foundation of Greater Flint in 2016 to provide long-term support for interventions designed to help children overcome the effects of lead exposure.

Opening doors to opportunity

While the water crisis was still unfolding, Mott staff reviewed research, met with community leaders and people working on the ground, and consulted health and education experts in Flint and around the country to help us prioritize our efforts. One need stood out beyond the rest.

To help counter the potential impact of lead exposure on learning, Flint children would need better access to year-round, high-quality early childhood education. So we began working with dedicated partners from within and outside of the community to make that happen.

The result? Two new schools — Cummings Great Expectations and Educare Flint — opened in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Together, they currently serve a total of 368 children from birth to age 5. And a recent grant will help Mott Community College increase enrollment at its own Early Childhood Learning Center and expand the age range of the children it serves.

A student at the Cummings early childhood school works with building blocks.
A student at the Cummings early childhood school works with building blocks.
Photo: Danen Williams

In addition to providing top-notch programming, the three schools will extend their impact beyond the classroom walls and help to strengthen the quality of early childhood education throughout the Flint area.

We also made grants to expand a new model of community education to every school in the Flint Community Schools district. As part of a holistic approach to education, the early childhood and community schools play an important role in connecting students and their families with needed supports and services in the community. In this way, schools in Flint are becoming hubs for improving the health and well-being of families and neighborhoods.

Along with ongoing support for those programs, we’ve also provided funding for local afterschool, summer and youth employment initiatives, and for efforts to help area young people stay engaged in their education.

Building community strength

Local nonprofit organizations have been heroic in their response to Flint’s water crisis. They’ve exhibited responsiveness, stamina and flexibility in meeting the community’s changing needs, even as their own resources have been stretched thin.

Our funding to local nonprofit organizations over many years helped position them to hit the ground running when the water crisis broke. We’ve continued to provide grant funds — not only to support their efforts, but also to strengthen their organizations.

We’ve also helped local agencies leverage state and national service members through the Corporation for National and Community Service and its affiliates. National service members have long had an important presence in Flint. During the crisis, they’ve been absolutely essential to addressing such key issues as education, public safety, health and the environment. In fact, Flint’s National Service Accelerator is becoming a national model.

Believing that Flint’s strength is rooted in the people who live here, we’ve also supported efforts to engage residents in responding to the crisis. For example, Building Resident Action by Neighborhood Design (BRAND), an initiative of Genesee County Habitat for Humanity, is helping neighborhood groups launch projects that improve quality of life.

AmeriCorps national Director Chester Spellman visits with a National Civilian Community Corps team working on neighborhood safety in Flint.
AmeriCorps national Director Chester Spellman visits with a National Civilian Community Corps team working on neighborhood safety in Flint.
Photo: Kari Pardoe

Fueling Flint’s revitalization

Back to the Hamilton Dam.

After decades of struggle, Flint’s economy had just begun to show signs of recovery when the water crisis dealt a major blow. Our grantmaking has sought to help the community restart and accelerate that revitalization.

Demolishing the Hamilton Dam is one step in an estimated $37 million project — funded, in part, by Mott — that will aid Flint’s turnaround. Led by the Genesee County Parks & Recreation Commission, the project will restore more of the Flint River’s natural flow through the downtown district, while improving storm water management. Fish and other wildlife will gain more natural river habitat, and anglers and paddlers will be able to enjoy new recreational opportunities.

Parks and other improvements along the riverbanks will link the campuses of two major universities: Kettering and the University of Michigan-Flint. It is hoped the new parks will draw students, residents and visitors, and thus contribute to the community’s revitalization.

In addition to supporting the restoration of the riverfront, we’ve made grants to help the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce attract new employers and investment to the community, and to help small business owners weather the economic fallout of the crisis. Building on the city’s entrepreneurial heritage, we’ve supported the efforts of the Ferris Wheel Innovation Center, the Flint Farmers’ Market and Flint SOUP to help residents access resources and supports they need to develop and launch new ventures.

Improved access to fresh fruits and vegetables is just one benefit of the Flint Farmers’ Market. Photo by Rick Smith.
The Flint Farmers’ Market provides residents with easy access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods.
Photo: Rick Smith

Our grantmaking also has included support for job training and career advancement programs, for the stabilization and strengthening of local neighborhoods, and for efforts to help residents share their own stories of the people and projects that are propelling the community forward.

An enduring commitment

The Mott Foundation’s efforts to help Flint recover and rise reflect a deep and lasting commitment to this city that goes back more than nine decades — to a June day in 1926, when Mr. Mott filed the articles of incorporation that created this institution. Our dedication to his adopted hometown has not wavered since.

In June 2017, we surpassed $1 billion in total grantmaking related to the greater Flint area since our launch. Adjusted for inflation, the figure would be nearly $2.4 billion in 2017 dollars.

Yet, despite the best efforts of the Mott Foundation, other funders, non-profit organizations, community leaders and courageous residents, many challenges persist. Parents still face fears about how lead exposure may affect the health and well-being of their children over time. Some residents say they will never drink the tap water again. And a lack of trust in government likely will be the wound that takes longest to heal.

But this is not where Flint’s story ends. Every day, the people of Flint are writing its next chapter.

The city has taken important steps forward. Families have obtained services to mitigate the impacts of lead exposure. An increasing number of children have access to high-quality educational opportunities. And we’re seeing new sparks that could reignite the economic revitalization that was emerging before the crisis hit.

Like the restoration underway on the Flint River, a powerful transformation is taking place in our hometown. While some of the circumstances may be unique to this community, the potential for achieving change is not. In Flint and around the world, each of us has the power to break down barriers, lift up opportunities and work with others to achieve a greater good.

The Mott Foundation is here to help.