Statement on the history of Mott’s community education program

The following is a statement by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in response to Dr. Andrew Highsmith’s allegations about the history of our community education program that were included in a recent report on the Flint water crisis by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. 

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has a long history of leadership in the field of community education, both in our home community of Flint, Michigan, and around the world. It’s in this context that we respond to allegations made by Andrew Highsmith, Ph.D., — first in his doctoral dissertation and subsequently in his book “Demolition Means Progress.” These allegations were included in a recent report by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC) about the Flint water crisis.

Those of us who today run the Foundation Mr. Mott created in 1926 strongly disagree with Dr. Highsmith’s claim that any of our grantmaking — past or present — has ever been undertaken with the intent to create or maintain segregation in Flint or elsewhere. In particular, Dr. Highsmith asserts that Mr. Mott and his colleague Frank Manley created the Flint model of community education as a way to do just that.

Nothing could be further from the truth. When Mr. Mott and Mr. Manley first launched the program in 1935, their intent was to provide recreational programs to prevent juvenile delinquency and keep kids safe. This was especially important because many children whose parents worked second shift in the factories didn’t have adult supervision or anything constructive to do in the hours after school. That’s how the concept of Flint’s “lighted schoolhouse” was born. It’s important to note that less than 4% of the city’s population was African American when the program was launched.

As the auto industry grew and attracted a diverse and burgeoning population, the concept expanded to include health and social services — from dental care to adult education classes to job placement services — for all families in Flint. In this way, schools contributed much more to community life than traditional K-12 education.

If Mr. Mott wanted to perpetuate segregation, he needn’t have done anything at all. Across the nation, government policies of the day enforced segregation in education, housing, transportation, health care and more. Instead, he generously donated a vast portion of his personal wealth for the well-being of others. He was a compassionate man who deeply believed that all children should have opportunities for education, good health and a productive life.

While it may be hard to view it this way from today’s vantage point, many of Mr. Mott’s ideas were progressive for his day. He cared deeply about Flint and sought pragmatic ways to help all individuals here build their capacity for accomplishment.

Dr. Highsmith seems to want to ascribe very different motives to Mr. Mott’s philanthropy, and he ignores evidence that conflicts with the picture he wishes to paint. For instance, he erroneously asserts that the Mott Foundation pulled out of community education in Flint instead of dealing with desegregation, even though he admits no concrete evidence exists to support his theory. In fact, it was the 1969 Tax Act, and the resulting regulatory changes in how private foundations could operate, that led to the separation of the Mott Foundation and the Flint Board of Education.

In January of 1976, the Flint Board of Education held a series of public hearings on the question of school desegregation. Homer Dowdy, who was then a vice president of the Mott Foundation, made a statement to the Board on behalf of the Foundation that said, in part:

“ … The Foundation is unalterably opposed to school segregation and vigorously supports the desegregation of schools and integration of the people in those schools as a means of enhancing opportunities for all children to develop to the limits of their potential, regardless of race, ethnic origin, or economic status. …

“The concept of Community Education can and must work in concert with integrated schools. There is no justification for segregation in the community school. When the community school becomes improperly exclusive in fact or in spirit, when it is viewed as being reserved for only certain community elements, it does not serve the purpose of democratic education nor does it serve the purposes of Community Education.

“The Foundation has no method to suggest as a means of desegregating Flint’s schools. We only encourage your efforts in voluntarily desegregating the schools. We are confident that any plan a free and responsible community proposes will reflect the integrity of that community and will result in the most appropriate means to do the job.”

We’re glad the MCRC investigated the Flint water crisis, and we agree with its conclusion that policymakers, government officials and decision-makers at all levels failed the residents of Flint. However, we believe the Commission relied too heavily upon Dr. Highsmith’s work in suggesting that the Mott Foundation’s community education model was intended to perpetuate spatial segregation and that it should be viewed as an example of past racism in Flint.

We would point out that this country’s long history of government-imposed segregation created those conditions in many communities. It’s right to recognize that and work to prevent any backsliding to such divisive policies.

We believe the Mott Foundation’s experience in creating, implementing and helping to spread community education programs across the country and the world, combined with the desire of present-day residents of Flint to bring community education back to the district’s schools, has resulted in one of the greatest assets our community has for helping children, families and all residents of the city cope with the impact of the water crisis.

We invite you to read our latest annual message to learn more about how we think this and other areas of our grantmaking over the past 90 years will help our home community to recover and rise.