Looking back and moving forward

Looking back and moving forward word cloud.
Illustration: Craig Kelley

“The eyes don’t see what the mind doesn’t know.”

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha shared this bit of wisdom in her book about the Flint water crisis.

As I look back on my first five years as president of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, it’s a concept that has stayed with me. It reminds me that we must continue to learn about and understand — to seek and see — challenges we otherwise might not recognize.

It was just nine months into my tenure as president, and prior to the city’s declaration of emergency, when Dr. Mona shared her startling research showing that blood-lead levels among Flint’s children had more than doubled since the city switched its source of drinking water. I immediately called local and state officials, suggested that the city switch back to the Detroit water system and offered the resources to complete the transfer.

I still believe the $4 million the Mott Foundation provided to begin the process of bringing safe water back to the community is the single most important grant we’ve made to help our hometown recover and rise from the crisis. It would be the first of many such steps.

Realizing that there’s no single solution to population-wide lead exposure, the Foundation announced in May 2016 that we would commit up to $100 million over five years to address such immediate and long-term concerns as safe drinking water, health needs, education and community revitalization. Less than four years later, we’ve made more than $98 million in grants towards that commitment.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say thank you for the outpouring of support from many people across the country and world. I’m especially grateful for the advice and support for the community from many peer foundations.

Brownell-Homes Preschool Graduation
Photo: Adam Stoltman

Even before the Flint water crisis hit, the Mott Foundation already was working on ways to strengthen the education continuum in Flint. We’ve since ramped up those efforts, which include: a community education initiative that’s present in every Flint Community School; the launch of two early childhood education centers; and the creation of the Flint Cultural Center Academy, a public, nonprofit charter school that builds on the strengths of our city’s Cultural Center institutions.

And that’s just the start.

I know there’s much more to be done, particularly to revitalize a strong public K-12 system. I’m determined that we will not rest until all children in Flint have the opportunity to reach their full potential. It’s an ambitious goal — and one we can’t achieve without working with many partners in all sectors. But I can promise that it will remain a focus for the Mott Foundation.

Three construction workers work on digging out old lead pipes in a neighborhood in Flint, Michigan in order to replace it.
Aging pipes and other water infrastructure play a key role in the quality and cost of drinking water.
Photo: Cristina Wright

The Flint water crisis also opened our eyes to additional aspects of the freshwater challenge facing the U.S. We learned that we need to think about issues of water quality and affordability in a more comprehensive way. That’s why the Mott Foundation is supporting a “one water” approach, which starts with the protection of the Great Lakes and other water sources and extends all the way through the water flowing from the taps in our nation’s homes, schools and businesses.

Our efforts to expand access to high quality afterschool programs nationwide also are evolving. We have invested decades — and more than $300 million — in the afterschool field, including the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program and afterschool networks in all 50 states that reach 100,000 programs and 10 million children across the country.

We’re now seeking to build on that strong base to create exciting new learning opportunities for all young people, especially those from low-income families and underserved communities. Our partnerships with organizations like Jazz at Lincoln Center and the National Geographic Society will help take learning outside the classroom to the next level. We’ll double down on that work in 2020 with the launch of Mizzen by Mott, an app that will provide afterschool educators around the country with free access to high-quality content provided by J@LC, Nat Geo and other premier partners.

On the international front, when I learned in 2018 about the separation of immigrant children and their families along our country’s southern border, I joined other funders in visiting the area to get a firsthand look. What I saw with my own eyes was a stain on the soul of our country that compelled the Mott Foundation to act. Today, we’re helping to strengthen networks of nonprofits that are working to meet the needs of refugees and migrants in Central America, Mexico and the U.S. And we’re still seeking, seeing, learning and understanding more so our grantmaking in this area can be as effective as possible.

Colleen Julies of Social Change Assistance Trust speaks with paralegals at the Beaufort West Legal Advice and Development Office in South Africa.
Colleen Julies (third from left) of Social Change Assistance Trust speaks with paralegals at the Beaufort West Legal Advice and Development Office in South Africa.
Photo: Zeke Du Plessis, Courtesy Social Change Assistance Trust

The past few years also have seen a new focus in our efforts around the world to help improve access to justice for those who are prevented from knowing and pursuing their rights under the law. And Mott Foundation grantees are making important progress in providing people in developing countries with access to clean, reliable and renewable energy.

From passionate educators and empowered communities, to restored and protected environments, and happy kids just being kids — the Mott Foundation’s impact in even the most challenging environments is what inspires me daily.

As president, and now also CEO and board chair, I’ve been fortunate to work with and learn from the Foundation’s trustees and staff, as well as our grantees and other partners. Perhaps the greatest wisdom — and far too many lessons to list — was imparted to me by my father, William S. White, who led the Mott Foundation for nearly half a century before his passing in October 2019.

Bill and Ridgway White
William S. White and Ridgway H. White in 2016.
Photo: Cristina Wright

He was especially passionate about the power of foundations established in perpetuity. As testament to that, the Mott Foundation was here to respond to the Flint water crisis 90 years after our founding. A $5 million grant to the Flint Kids Fund in 2016 put us at the $3 billion mark for total grantmaking. That means we have given away more than we have in total assets. And we plan to be here to continue giving.

What does the future hold for our work? Again, I’m reminded that we may need to address challenges we don’t yet know exist.

What I can promise is that the Mott Foundation will continue to learn and understand, to seek and see. We will remain vigilant, flexible and responsive. We will continue to support fresh thinking and innovative approaches in an ever-changing world. And — most important — we will remain committed to our founder’s vision of helping people to partner with their communities to make good things happen.