This Flint community leader heads a public charity determined to bridge the gap between philanthropists and community.
Much of the struggle happening within the community-based world is around how to get the lemons to the organizations that can turn them into lemonade. The Community Foundation of Greater Flint is here to help with the picking. “We’re a bridge between individuals who have means or access to resources and folks who are on the ground doing the work to support the community,” says Isaiah Oliver, president and CEO.
Oliver says the foundation is in the business of engaging people in the philanthropic sector. Philanthropy, he says, is “giving your time, your talent and your treasure – the trifecta – to make the community you love a better place, whether that be a better place to live in or contribute to or love in.” In its 32-year history, with the help of charitable donors, the organization has awarded over $140 million in grants to area nonprofits and scholarships to students.
Along the way, Oliver says, they’ve also acquired a wealth of “social capital” – which they’ve started to spend. Lately, beyond the money, the foundation has been “bringing people to the table to have conversations that are, in some cases, uncomfortable or even pushing at systemic problems. Quite frankly, right now, we’re pushing at a lot of systemic racism and being thoughtful about how we center race in conversation. But that comes from having built that social capital over the years.”
In 2017, Flint was one of 14 communities chosen by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and awarded an $825-million multiyear grant to be used to actively promote racial healing in Flint, one of the country’s most segregated cities. The resulting Truth, Racial Health & Transformation framework aims to plan for and bring about transformational and sustainable change, and to address the historic and contemporary effects of racism.
“It starts with an understanding of both our individual truths as human beings and then our collective truth – about the truth of our country, the racial history of our communities – and then moving from truth to healing,” Oliver says. First comes acknowledgement, then comes healing and then comes transformation.
The Community Foundation of Flint has been hosting healing circles with no more than 30 community members, meant to take the group through a “debiasing process,” where participants gain a better appreciation and empathy for the experiences of those across the aisle.
Most recently, in July, they hosted the Flint Police Department, “having them really understand their lived experience within the force, and then that highlights how they show up in communities,” Oliver says. “Since the George Floyd incident and the centering of racial equity in many of the conversations across the country, there’s been a request for more of these healing circles to start more of these conversations – uncomfortable conversations.”
Before race relations took center stage at the end of May, it was COVID-19. In response to the pandemic, still heavy on our hearts and minds, the Greater Flint Urgent Relief Fund was formed by a coalition of philanthropic, government and business partners to quickly deploy resources to nonprofits.
They raised over $2 million for COVID-19 testing, and to address food insecurity, homelessness and more. The foundation also formed the Greater Flint Coronavirus Taskforce on Racial Inequities to study why this virus disproportionately affects Black communities and to explore “what we do to be intentional about supporting Black people and Black bodies,” Oliver says.
He says he “tripped and fell into this work.” A pillar in the Flint community, Oliver came on board with the foundation as vice president of community impact – not knowing much about philanthropy, he admits, but knowing everything about the community. Oliver learned the rules of philanthropy along the way and became president in 2017, and he says that community-first model has served him and the organization well.
To Detroiters, especially, Oliver wants to remind us that we’re more alike than not. From the struggle to make sure the neighborhoods don’t get lost amid the downtown revival to taking care to uplift the oft-forgotten, he says Detroit and Flint are bros from different area codes. “The people that are the fabric of our communities are typically marginalized or their voices are not amplified in ways that are appropriate, and we’re trying to solve those problems as partners.”
Pamela Alexander, director of community development for Ford Motor Company, says …
We salute Isaiah M. Oliver and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint for their leadership in engaging the Flint community and Genesee County in philanthropic efforts by coordinating time, talent and treasures. For over 30 years, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint has given hope to many within the community by awarding over $140 million in grants to the nonprofit community and scholarships to students.
Ford Motor Company Fund, the philanthropic arm of Ford Motor Company, shares the same goal. Our mission is to strengthen communities and help make people’s lives better. Working with our Ford dealers and nonprofit partners, we provide access to opportunities and resources that help people reach their full potential. Ford proudly recognizes Isaiah M. Oliver and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint for being a champion service provider ensuring sustainable, enduring and profound change in Genesee County.