By Harold C. Ford
‘”Noli equi dentes inspicere donate.” (“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”)
…Latin text of St. Jerome, The Letter to the Ephesians, circa AD 400
“Shame on you, Mr. Ford.”
…Laura MacIntyre, treasurer, Flint Board of Education (FBOE), Apr. 21, 2021
I am a progressive. My 56-year resume of social justice activism is lengthy and legitimate. But here is where I part ways with some of Flint’s progressives, many of whom I love and respect: I enthusiastically support the possibilities offered up by the C. S. Mott Foundation’s proposed Flint Education Continuum (FEC). The FEC plan aims to boost Flint kids in the next ten years with up to a half-billion dollars for programming and brand-new facilities.
More important to me than the approval of other Flint progressives is my concern for Flint kids.
Privileged progressives need to get out of the way
Here are some assumptions about things that FBOE Treasurer Laura MacIntyre and I have in common: We are both privileged members of the white middle class, benefit from college degrees and rewarding careers in education, are blessed with medical care and other fringes, live in nice homes with plentiful intellectual resources, and don’t worry so much where our next meal is coming from. You get the picture. We’ve got lots of advantages over most folk who live in Flint.
By contrast, the level of deprivation in Flint is prodigious. Some numbers from the Flint-based Ruth Mott Foundation about north-enders: 42.1 percent, the dropout rate in 2019; 21.1 percent, the graduation rate in 2019; $25,716, median household income in 2018; 41.4%, population below poverty in 2018.
Over the decades I’ve grown weary of pompous progressives with finely tuned purity filters who blowtorch nearly everyone and everything in sight. In fifty years, I’ve witnessed plentiful food fights on the left that derailed many a movement. My past is imperfect. I suspect that’s true of us all. Flint progressives who conjure up a plantation mentality behind every philanthropic bush need to step back for a bit before they derail the FEC.
At the end of the April 21 Flint Board of Education meeting, Trustee Laura MacIntyre attacked the proposed Flint Education Continuum and the Flint journalist who was the first to report it, me. “Shame on you Mr. Ford,” said MacIntyre for including the comments of C. S. Mott CEO Ridgway White in the article. She failed to add that comments from long-time Flint educators and social justice activists, Dick Ramsdell and Paul Jordan were also included. Future pieces will contain comments from many others, Ms. MacIntyre’s comments included.
I know about the, at times, inglorious history of the C. S. Mott Foundation. I’ve read Demolition Means Progress by Andrew Highsmith. I know about the foundation’s support for policies of racial apartheid in Flint schools and neighborhoods and the founder’s support for segregationist governor George Wallace’s run for the White House.
I also know that C. S. Mott investments in Flint surpassed $1 billion in 2017. FCS alone has received $150 million since the start of the foundation in 1926.
I challenge FEC critics to explain to Flint’s children why they should not reap the real rewards of this program because of theoretical notions about wealth and power.
Beecher Scholarship Incentive Program
In 1999, the arrival of Maryann Mott, daughter of C. S. Mott, and her late husband Herman Warsh in my Beecher High School classroom changed the lives of kids in Beecher schools where I toiled for 43 years of my life. Maryann and Herman offered me the opportunity to build a scholarship program for Beecher kids with Mott money and I jumped at the chance.
Here is some of what the Beecher Scholarship Incentive Program (BSIP) accomplished over a 10-year period with grant support from the Ruth Mott Foundation and other in-kind contributions totaling about $6 million:
- A 100 percent high school graduate rate of those students enrolled in the program;
- 59 students off to college supported by $1.5-$2 million in scholarships;
- 86% of BSIP high school grads with college degrees, professional certificates, or still enrolled in higher education in the program’s tenth year;
- 200 Beecher students enrolled in Flint-area pre-college programs;
- 141 students to 21 foreign/overseas destinations for study-travel;
- 282 students to Michigan Tech University’s one-week residential study program during the summer;
- 10 students to foreign countries for homestay visits lasting four weeks to six months;
- 273 students to 39 campus visits in 11 states and Washington D.C.;
- hundreds of students enrolled in various summer enrichment programs.
Maryann and Herman embodied a progressive step forward from generations that preceded them. Maryann was and is her own woman with her own values and personal history and ought to be judged as such. So should other members of the Mott family.
A message to the C. S. Mott Foundation and the Ruth Mott Foundation from a Beecher “slappy”
If it doesn’t work out in Flint, how about you extend your philanthropic arms a very short distance north to embrace the children in Beecher? (Flint folk like to call us “Flint Beecher” when we win state championships.) After all, most of the families that remain there are Flint families that were uprooted by construction of I-475 and I-69 in the 1960s and relocated in disproportionate numbers in Beecher.
Residents of Flint’s Industrial and Floral Park neighborhoods were forced out of their homes to make way for car paths that enabled a lot of white folk to move to suburbia and drive to their factory jobs in Flint. Some 20 to 25 percent of relocated families went to tiny Beecher with about five percent of the Genesee County’s population at the time.
Most of Beecher’s middle-class residents moved out in the years that followed. Any measure on any social misery index—poverty, home ownership, abandoned homes, unemployment, single parent-headed households, infrastructure needs—is worse in Beecher than it is in Flint. And Beecher doesn’t have a world-level foundation knocking at its door offering support.
Beecher is undeniably an inseparable, unfortunate chapter in Flint’s racist history.
Four-legged stool of support
The state of public education in our nation is dire. For decades, we’ve been falling behind other nations on the planet. Throughout America, public education is besieged, under attack.
- As of 2003, the high school graduation rate in the U.S was about 70 percent, behind many countries such as Denmark (96 percent), Japan (93 percent), and Poland (92 percent).
- In 2004, the U.S. ranked tenth among industrial nations in the rate of college completion by 25- to 44-year-olds.
- As of 2008, only about a third of U.S. high school students graduated ready for college.
Those kinds of numbers have likely gotten worse, not better.
Education needs a man-to-the-moon-mission kind of commitment. We haven’t had that on a national scale since the Soviet Sputnik scared the bejesus out of us. We reordered our national priorities to pump up education and get Americans into space and onto the moon. Today, you rarely hear presidential candidates talk about education.
In lieu of a massive national commitment, public education needs support from four sources: government (federal, state, local); nonprofits; higher education; business and industry. All four are represented in the 17 signatories-to-be in support of the Flint Education Continuum, though I would like to have seen spaces where General Motors and United Auto Workers representatives would affix their signatures.
The Flint Education Continuum has the potential to be an educational model of success for the nation Where’s your plan?
A question for FEC critics: Where’s your plan? Are you going to grow another General Motors in the Vehicle City? Get real. Will you rely on COVID relief dollars from a distant, labyrinthian federal government to rescue a local system that’s in trouble?
The same federal government that in our lifetime has waged endless wars against third-world peoples enabled by y/our tax dollars? A federal government that is morally compromised in more ways than we can count? You’ll take that money, but not Mott’s?
Here’s my advice to the naysayers on the Flint Board of Education and progressives in the Flint community: Stop bickering, stop standing in the way! Flint kids deserve a fair shot at what this generous offer by Flint’s largest foundation can provide them that you and I cannot.
This isn’t Auto World. This isn’t the Flint water crisis. There’s a new generation of leadership at the helm of the C. S. Mott Foundation. For now, I’ll listen to the advice of clear-thinking Flint progressives on the matter:
Dick Ramsdell: “I got to know Ridgway during the (Flint Farmers’) market move, and I know that he cares deeply about his hometown and wants to work with, not just for, the members of our community… They (Ridgway and his wife Shannon) could have moved anywhere in the world, but have chosen to remain here, with Flint and Fenton as their home base.”
Paul Jordan: “The plan would provide the children of Flint with facilities that are the equal of any in the county, and a support system that is tailored to the needs of students growing up in a challenging city like Flint. This would be a tremendous opportunity. It could be transformative for both the district and the city.”
Both Dick and Paul served Flint Community Schools and have a long history of progressive activism in our hometown. Neither is a shrinking violet afraid to speak his mind. Any of the three of us will unhesitatingly speak truth to power if the FEC plan goes awry.
Take the money and run
Take the money and run with it! Run to construct brand new, state-of-the-art facilities that would be the envy of any suburban school district in Genesee County. Run to create educational, cultural, and enrichment programming that will resonate for a lifetime with the children in your charge.
You’ve got promising new leadership in the FCS administration. Give Anita Steward and her team a chance to work with Ridgway White and his team to create an educational model that could be the envy of the nation.
The signatures of the FCS board president and superintendent should be the first ones affixed to the dotted lines of the document detailing the Flint Education Continuum.
Flint kids deserve a fair shot at what this generous offer by Flint’s largest foundation can provide them.
EVM Reporter and veteran educator Harold Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.