A year ago this week, a doctor in Flint, Michigan urged residents to stop using the Flint River for drinking water because children were showing high levels of lead in their blood. State officials insisted the water was safe.

At that point, Isaiah Oliver faced a dilemma. He is a lifelong resident of Flint and the father of two young girls. “As a parent, I made a decision to trust the government,” he tells us. “And I’m going to have to deal with that for a long time.”

Oliver says his two young daughters, like thousands of Flint residents, were exposed to lead-contaminated water, whether at daycare, school or home. That personal experience now informs his work at the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, which has raised more than $9 million to help families recover from the water crisis.

As the foundation decides how to spend the money, Oliver will be well-positioned to understand the needs of his community. “I grew up on the north side of Flint. The north side of Flint is code for a lot of things. It’s code for being black, it’s code for being poor,” he explains. “But I had a great childhood, because the people in my community and my parents allowed me to dream. And so I don’t think that makes me different, but I do know that it makes me different in philanthropy.”

Over the years, Oliver has seen many do-gooders try to help Flint. “Individuals come in with different motives. Most to help, but some benefit. And whenever a community watches individuals or organizations benefit from their misfortune, there is some tension.”

Oliver explains that frequently philanthropic dollars don’t go to residents directly, so they have to trust institutions like his to be transparent. “That requires time, and it requires us dancing very different than we have danced before,” he says. “You can be leading at times, and in other cases, you can be following. But it’s really about being in sync with the people that you’re working with.”

Additional Resources

Isaiah Oliver’s “Philanthropy’s Role in Times of Crisis” speech at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, June 2016

Community Foundation of Greater Flint’s Child Health & Development Fund

Detroit Free Press Timeline: How Flint’s Water Crisis Unfolded

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s report on Pediatric Lead Exposure in Flint, MI.

Isaiah Oliver on Twitter

Community Foundation of Greater Flint on Twitter