Partnering for progress

Two young students smile for the camera.
Students at Cummings Great Expectations: An Early Childhood Center. Photo: Danen Williams

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

Ridgway White headshot.
Ridgway White. Photo: Rick Smith

“It seems to me that every person, always, is in a kind of informal partnership with his community.”

Those words, written by Charles Stewart Mott more than a half century ago, get right to the heart of the Mott Foundation’s grantmaking in our hometown of Flint, Michigan, and around the world. From our earliest days, we’ve helped people and organizations to step forward, engage with their communities and create meaningful change.

This approach has never been more crucial — or its impact more evident — than in the wake of Flint’s water crisis, when public, private, nonprofit and philanthropic partners collaborated to rapidly expand access to early childhood education in the city.

Those efforts have earned a 2018 Secretary’s Award for Public and Philanthropic Partnerships from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Council on Foundations (COF). Flint’s partnership is one of 10 across the country recognized for transforming relationships between the public and philanthropic sectors and for increasing quality of life for low- and middle-income families.

How it began

As the Flint water crisis was unfolding, Mott program staff reviewed research, met with community leaders and people working on the ground, and consulted with health and education experts in Flint and around the country to help us prioritize our efforts.

We learned that, to help counter the potential impact of lead exposure on learning, Flint’s children needed better access to year-round, high-quality early childhood education. So we began convening partners at the local, state and national levels, and from across sectors, to make that happen.

Cummings students play at a water table.
Cummings students play at a water table.
Photo: Danen Williams

The result? A previously shuttered elementary school came back to life as Cummings Great Expectations: An Early Childhood Center, which opened its doors to students in October 2016. Shortly thereafter, Educare Flint, a new state-of-the-art early childhood school, went from concept to completion in 11 months and opened its doors in November 2017.

Together, these full-day, full-year schools provide high-quality early learning and wrap-around services for up to 400 children from birth to age 5, as well as supportive services for their families. What’s more, both will serve as hubs of early childhood education, making resources available to other childcare providers in the area and contributing to research on early learning.

The aim is to “lift all boats” by improving care for more of Flint’s youngest residents, offering promising models to other communities and helping to inform public policies on early childhood education.

This has been an enormous undertaking — one that requires the strong spirit of collaboration that exists in Flint. In addition to Mott, local partners include the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, Flint Community Schools, Genesee Intermediate School District and University of Michigan-Flint.

Essential to the launch and operation of both Cummings and Educare Flint are funding streams — piloted and supported by the State of Michigan and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services — that make free enrollment possible for income-qualified families.

Other key partners include: the Educare Learning Network; J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation; Local Initiatives Support Corporation; PNC Bank; Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation; and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

A student at Educare Flint enjoys a snack and a smile.
A student at Educare Flint enjoys a snack and a smile.
Photo: Rick Smith

While I had the honor of accepting the Secretary’s Award on behalf of these extraordinary partners, it is the community of Flint that will win because so many organizations and agencies willingly jumped in, worked faster and stretched farther than anyone thought possible — all motivated by a single goal: helping Flint children to achieve their full potential.

Lessons Learned

The collaboration around early childhood education in Flint has magnified a few key lessons about partnership that I think are worth sharing.

First, know going in that it’s going to be challenging. Every organization brings different perspectives, standards and procedures to the table. People who are inclined to walk away in frustration will miss out on the power and impact that partnership brings.

Next, remember that partnerships are iterative. Each time you successfully collaborate with partners, you’re more likely to engage them in the future.

Collaboration requires more than looking for good partners. It also requires being a good partner. Based on our recent experience, there are a few pieces of advice I’d offer about how to be a good partner:

  • Be clear about what you want to achieve.
  • Be bold about putting it out there.
  • And — this is probably the most important and hardest part — be a good listener! Find out what your partners need, and think about how you can help them get it.

Focus on what you do best. People often talk about “swimming in your own lane.” That metaphor works — as long as you think of it as a relay race instead of an individual competition. Each partner is swimming toward the same goal, giving every ounce of effort to help the team win. It takes many partners and allies, each playing to their individual strengths while collaborating with the others, to respond to complex challenges.

Always look to the future, even if you think you’ve already achieved something. For example, we hope the partnership to increase access to early childhood education in Flint also will help children far beyond the borders of our community. That’s why research will be an integral part of our efforts and why we’re glad to have strong academic institutions as partners in the work. If we can demonstrate that free access to high-quality early childhood programs, provided all day and all throughout the year, can help children who may have been exposed to lead to achieve and thrive, then perhaps we can make a compelling case that all children in our country should enjoy such access.

Finally, be grateful! I want to thank all those involved in the effort to provide Flint’s youngest residents with quality early learning opportunities for showing what we can accomplish when we come together and apply our unique strengths to the challenges we all hope to solve.

I also applaud HUD and COF for their efforts to foster collaboration between philanthropies and the public sector. I hope it will prompt more foundations and government agencies to work together to make good things happen in our nation and our world.