By Harold C. Ford
Editor’s note: The following is an interview with the C.S. Mott Foundation’s Ridgway White, CEO and president, and Kimberly Roberson, Flint area program director. Also present at the interview was Kathryn Thomas, vice president for communications. After release of a 24-page Focus on Flint report, available here, the Mott Foundation announced availability of $1 million in grants for projects to improve Flint neighborhoods. The foundation is accepting ideas through Nov. 30 to improve Flint neighborhoods. Interested persons are invited to submit their ideas to focusonflint.org/ideas or call 810-237-4888.
Harold Ford, East Village Magazine (EVM) staff writer, conducted the interview Nov. 14 in the Mott Foundation offices. The responses have been slightly edited for ease of reading.
EVM: What drives you to want to continue to support the Flint community?
White: “First and foremost is the mission, the history, and the roots of the foundation. The Mott Foundation was formed by C.S. Mott [White’s great-grandfather] over 90 years ago and Flint was his adopted hometown. I’m now fourth generation Flint; I live just outside of Flint. Growing up, we identified with Flint, we worshipped in Flint, we work in Flint. We have many friends who live in Flint and we all call Flint home.” [White’s father, longtime top Mott Foundation executive William S. White, died Oct. 9.]
Roberson: Roberson grew up in Grand Blanc and now lives there. “My father worked downtown (and) we worshipped here (in Flint), I went to Flint U of M, so I’ve always thought of myself as a Flint girl.
“The commitment that the Mott Foundation has had to Flint over time is so steadfast and certain. I’m really proud to be part of a long-term commitment of that nature. I like the direct nature of the Flint work. I like the fact that it’s about real people right now and how this community can change and be a bigger part of its future. I’ve had opportunities to work on some of our other portfolios…but my heart always comes back to the Flint work.”
EVM: Do you grow weary of the “Flint ruin porn” stories, the stories that highlight the negative underbelly of Flint?
White: “Without a doubt, we’ve listened to people from outside of Flint tell Flint’s story for decades. That’s been exasperating in the last five years since the inception of the water crisis.
What we felt was important was to create a publication that told the facts in Flint, but also surveyed residents to tell what they’re feeling, what they’re thinking…to create statistics at an approachable level…what people are doing to improve their lives…We also thought that it could be a community springboard for thought and action…
“The Mott Foundation has been rooted in, what my father would say, is ‘shoe leather philanthropy.’ We like to get out in the community…Sometimes it’s important to check how we’re doing that. We connect with grantees, connect with the people they’re serving. This was an effort to get to every single resident, to have no barriers to the input people can provide to the staff of the Mott Foundation and myself personally…We did almost 30 community convening sessions and the majority of those were 15 or less people.”
Roberson: “Ridgway was very adamant about Focus on Flint being honest. However it came out was what we were publishing. There wasn’t an attempt to massage anything. It was a direct portrayal of the data and the community residents’ response(s).”
White: “In the wake of the water crisis, we took our entire team and stepped back for a second and asked ‘How (do) we judge our own success?’” And we said ‘We can no longer judge our success based on an individual grant and the outcomes of that grant.’
“We have to think about the collective whole of our grant-making and the community that we’re serving. And that success for us would not be achieved until a person that’s born in Flint has an equal opportunity as a person that’s born in another [more prosperous] community.
“And so, that’s been a tough thing. It’s a lot of weight to have the weight of an entire community. And it’s probably not fair.
‘The macroeconomic headwinds that have (faced Flint) for decades are huge. We did change the way we looked at our grant-making. We changed the way we looked at grant-making in our environment program.
“We realized we had blinders on…We took the blinders off and said ‘We have to think about a one-water solution. We need to think about water from the source all the way down to the last mile, and last ten feet, and how water quality affects everything that we do. And it’s important for the basic living standards of humanity.’ Three or four years ago in the water crisis, we changed how we graded ourselves…”
EVM: Flint has a new mayor who says he intends to return Flint to the Karegnondi water system. Do you support that move?[
White: “There are many important grants the Mott Foundation has made. Probably the most important in recent history was the grant to the city to help reconnect to the Detroit water supply.
“Back in September of 2015, I’d been president of the foundation for nine months; I was appointed president Jan. 1, 2015…Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha had just come out with the results of her study (about) the elevated blood levels of children in Flint and that the water was the source. I was sitting in my office listening to that and said, “We’ve gotta’ do something.”…I said, ‘I’ve gotta’ call the governor, and I didn’t really know the governor…’”
[White said he went to his computer and Googled then-Governor Rick Snyder’s help line number. He called the number, talked to about ten people in an attempt to offer help.]
“Eventually the governor called me back on his cell phone from California…we talked and I said, ‘Look, we know two things right now: Number one, the science says if you reconnect to a consistent flow of water, with proper anti-corrosives, in six to twelve months the water will revert to its pre-crisis levels. I said it’s going to take 12 months to come up with an engineering plan for the right solution, so we should do that now.
“Second, people were pretty fearful and rightly so. I believe that anger can be channeled but fear was really dangerous. We were pretty close to massive civil unrest. Those two things motivated us to keep the community together and to relieve fear…”
Subsequently the foundation contributed $4 million and the city contributed $2 million to leverage $6 million from the state legislature.
“The idea was that it was only going to cost $12 million until we were able to switch to Karegnondi.”
White declined to say whether or not the Karegnondi pipeline or GLWA (Great Lakes Water Authority) should be the source of Flint’s water.
“Number one, we should have safe water, we should have trusted water. Safety equals trust. Number two, the water should be affordable. The thing that got us in the water crisis in the first place was that we had the most expensive water in the country, and we still do. And that’s not right, to have one of the poorest communities in the country have the most expensive (water) as well.
“We have spent the last couple of years doing an analysis of a tiered water rate system that would make water rates more affordable for residents in Flint. We’ve completed one study that says it looks positive, that it could actually save residents money, and save the city money. We’re completing a second study…”
White said he hopes to share study findings with residents within the next six months.
EVM: How did Flint get to this spot, from a town of 200,000 to a town less than 100,000, from an affluent community to one with significant poverty?
White: “The macroeconomic headwinds facing Flint for decades have been extreme. The water crisis is something that happens when entire communities have been discounted for decades.
“It is an example of environmental racism. It’s really troubling. When you’re a one-company town…and the one company pays such high wages, there’s not a lot of incentive to go out on your own and create new work…If you think about invention for Michigan, the quickest pay— whether you’ve created an automated windshield wiper technology or an iris-scanning thing—is to sell it to General Motors, to sell it to the automobiles…but we haven’t expanded.
“I think you’re going to see a shift of that. We’ve gotta figure out how to invest in industry in the right ways, how to make Michigan competitive. And that’s focusing on K through 12, focusing on our higher ed, focusing on a more diversified economy. Flint…when you’re the number one town in the country, you take it for granted.
Look at New York City; they turned down Amazon…That’s crazy…I don’t know if that’s what was occurring in the Fifties (in Flint), but certainly there were some systems that were created that were unsustainable.
How we got to where we are here, a one-company town, one employer, strikes…Race certainly had a lot to do with it I would think…”
Roberson: “It seems like it was a perfect storm that impacts communities like this. We have had an accumulation of all the hits like all the cities that are prone toward systemic racism issues. It seems like we have struggled with pretty much all of them along the way here.”
Editor’s note: The final part of the interview included questions based on specific components of the Focus on Flint report that can be accessed online here.
EVM: Is there any piece of data that surprised you in the section “If Flint Were a Village of 100”?
Roberson: I wasn’t actually surprised by the “Median Home Value” (Flint, $27,400; U.S., $217,600) but that’s one of the things that looked the starkest…I think some of Ridgway’s original intention was to see some of this data together and you think about it a little differently with those comparisons and a bigger picture.
“We have talked a fair amount about the smartphone and broadband connection question as well just in terms of educational issues, and the library…It’s clear that more of our folks have a car than have internet access.”
White: “Another big challenge is that, when you look at the entire report, there are so many programs here to help people. So how do you properly reach people so that programs aligned to help people and kids are being utilized?”
EVM: Were you surprised that “Arts & Culture” was rated the highest at 3.6 (on a scale of 1, lowest, to 5, highest) in eight “Aspects of life in Flint” categories?
White: “I was surprised it wasn’t a little higher. I think it speaks to utilization.”
EVM: Fewer than 5,000 of Flint’s 15,000 school-age children attend Flint Community Schools (FCS). Are you worried about the viability of public education in Flint?
White: “Yes. I’m worried that the 15,000 kids in Flint aren’t receiving quality education regardless of the choice they make. The bulk of the charters are at or less (in test scores) than the local public (schools), that the kids who are choosing schools of choice are not making it to any school that’s at or above the statewide average…We’ve gotta figure out how to provide quality education. One of the key things the governor could do…is to say charters have to meet or exceed the state average…We have the belief here that not all kids have the ability to choose.”
Roberson: “We’re worried about the under-4,000 that are at FCS…but they’re not the only ones we’re worried about. It’s not about a district; it’s about our kids. They’re being served more broadly.”
White: “We’ve invested millions of dollars in Flint schools…We’ve done a lot of work. It hasn’t worked. We’re cognizant of that.
“Right now, the state has a partnership agreement in place and the Mott Foundation was originally a signatory to the partnership. We weren’t excited about it because we didn’t feel it had enough of the support items needed to properly serve the kids in Flint built into it.
“And so they’ve asked us to re-sign it…and we’ve elected not to re-sign it at this time.
“And the reason for that is not because we don’t support the Flint Community Schools, but we feel the state needs to do some fundamental changes on how to help Flint Community Schools.”
Subsequent to the interview, Kathryn Thomas, Mott’s vice-president of communications, provided EVM with the following statement:
“The Mott Foundation has granted nearly $64 million to and in support of Flint Community Schools since 2013.”
EVM: Is Flint a college town with its 22,000+ college students akin to Ann Arbor and East Lansing?
White: “I don’t know if we’re ‘akin to Ann Arbor’ but with 22,000 students, we’re certainly a college town. Can we do better on creation of a full student life experience? Probably. Everybody can always do better. Kettering, and Mott Community College, and UM-Flint are terrific. I think they’ve got good leadership at all of them right now. And I’m excited to see the future…They have the ability to provide the highest quality education to local people, but beyond that serve the state, the nation.”
Roberson: “I think it is an increasing part of who we are—that college town feel. I don’t know about ‘akin to Ann Arbor’; that maybe makes the bar too high. I think it definitely is what fills some space when we’re not a GM town anymore.”
EVM: On housing, would it be appropriate to conclude that creative entrepreneurial efforts to remove blighted buildings is a fairly high priority in your Focus on Flint project?
White: “That’s been one of the repeated areas of interest and focus from people in the community. What we’ve heard is that people are concerned about: number one, neighborhoods and blight; two, safety; three, economic development, jobs, and core education.
“One thing we heard more than blight removal is, ‘How do you continue to have a sense of community even if you remove all the blighted houses?’ We have a focus on community schools, but when you go from 43 (schools) down to nine, can the community schools be the center(s) that serve 15 to 20 neighborhoods?”
Roberson: “We heard people say, ‘We just wish we had a coffee shop. It (the neighborhood) just doesn’t feel like a place anymore.’ The blight is a part of it; it’s not the whole equation in terms of what we [Mott Foundation] have just listened to. People want a neighborhood, and a place they belong, and that they have community connections within.”
White: “And that’s what you lose when you have kids going to multiple different schools— schools of choice, charter, or Flint Community Schools…that sense of community where you know the kid next door, the people next door.”
EVM: Nearly nine of ten of Flint’s children are living in high-poverty neighborhoods. Is poverty the key to resolving most of what ails Flint neighborhoods?
White: “If I could have a magic wand, I’d wave it at a lot of things. I’d say poverty without a doubt. But people want to be engaged in a broader community. Poverty is important, but you want a sense of purpose. A lot of people want a job and purpose or volunteerism, something in addition to just relieving the economic burden.
“Maybe that’s something only I would say, but people want purpose in life. I’m not saying people in poverty don’t have purpose…A community group on the north end of Flint said, ‘The social determinants of health…are the social determinants of a prosperous and safe neighborhood…’”
EVM: In 2020, where would you like this project to be?
White: “We’re going to continue to do the neighborhood surveys. We’re still out on whether we’re going to publish a Focus on Flint booklet on an annual basis. We’re going to continue to track the data, internally, for sure.
“I hope that people felt like they’ve been listened to in the engagement sessions. I’m excited to see what ideas the community comes up with in improving the neighborhoods. We’ve got a lot of neat ideas already…a couple hundred…” White indicated the foundation will utilize considerable flexibility in executing the project.
Roberson: “We’re asking people to be as specific as they can be, about organizations, what areas they are serving, so that we can hear them well and find a way to respond to the specifics of what they’re looking for…”
In response to queries from residents about what projects the foundation might be looking for, Roberson said she told residents, “You tell us.” She noted workshop participants had very specific ideas about improving neighborhoods. They were not so specific about how to improve education, she said.
EVM Staff Writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.